Scott Morrison will still be prime minister even if the dire predictions prove true and the Liberals lose the Wentworth byelection, Bill Shorten has said as he sought to derail the government’s latest plea for stability before next Saturday’s crucial vote in Sydney.
The research organisation Voter Choice Project released polling on Saturday which showed that Dave Sharma, the Liberal candidate, was trailing the independent Kerryn Phelps and Labor’s Tim Murray in the seat, which Malcolm Turnbull held with a 17.7% margin.
Morrison, who has delayed releasing the religious freedoms review until after the byelection, warned on Saturday that a loss in Wentworth would result in “unnecessary instability” for the nation by risking a hung parliament.
“Liberals who are thinking about voting for the independent should think about that very carefully, because she’s clearly running strongly second,” he said.
“If she continues in that place, she can still be a long way behind in primaries [but still] come over the top and win that byelection. Waking up to a hung parliament is not something I think the people of Wentworth would want to see.”
But Shorten said Morrison was being “deliberately mischievous”.
“Next Saturday night, whoever wins Wentworth, Scott Morrison will still be prime minister on Sunday,” Shorten said. “I’m not saying I’m happy about that, but that is the fact, he’ll be prime minister.
“A couple of the crossbenchers have guaranteed the government confidence so, the argument that people in Wentworth will bring down the whole government, as much as I wish it might be true, it’s simply not true.
“Voters in Wentworth have an opportunity to send a message to the current Liberal government, to express a view that they are happy or not with the direction of the country, happy or not with the lack of action on climate change, happy with the way that their former member Mr Turnbull was treated by the Liberal party and the numbers men in the Liberal party.
“They can send an unmistakable message which will be heard in Canberra by the government.”
It’s the same message Turnbull’s son, Alex Turnbull, is advocating.
Last week the younger Turnbull intervened in the campaign with a video he distributed on social media, asking Wentworth constituents to vote against the Liberal party, which he said had been taken over by “extremists” who were motivated by a “crazy agenda”.
“Some small-L liberals like myself are very upset and frankly conflicted due to the fact there seems to be no one we can reasonably vote for,” he said in the video.
“But here’s the thing about the Wentworth byelection. We’re going to have an election in 12 months anyway – if you want to send a signal as to which way the Liberal party is going and your displeasure with where it is going, then this is your opportunity.”
Labor has directed preferences towards Phelps and is running a largely low-key campaign, having determined that Phelps offered the best chance at dislodging the Liberals from the seat.
Internally, the Liberal party is worried but not yet at panic stations about holding the electorate, which is one of the most socially progressive in the country.
Turnbull had turned a margin which was cut to 2.5% in 2007, after an electorate boundary redistribution, to one of the safest seats in the country, before quitting parliament in the wake of the leadership spill.
The ABC election analyst, Antony Green, has predicted a five-point swing against the Liberals in the coming vote, in retaliation for Turnbull’s dumping, but given the nearly 18% buffer, it remains uncertain whether voter anger will be strong enough to cause a Liberal loss.