A relieved Malcolm Turnbull will end the year on a high with his government’s majority – and his leadership – safe for now following the Liberal party’s win in the crucial Bennelong by-election.
But Labor says its showing in the Sydney electorate shows the Australian public is ready to ditch the coalition government and they are gearing up to take the fight for the next federal election straight out of the blocks next year.
Mr Turnbull declared former tennis champion John Alexander “the hero of the hour” after he won back the Sydney seat of Bennelong, defeating Labor’s star candidate, former NSW premier Kristina Keneally.
A loss in the previously safe Liberal seat would have left the government with 75 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, forcing it to rely on the cross bench to get its legislation through.
It would also have put Mr Turnbull’s leadership under pressure.
Despite a bitterly fought and often dirty campaign, with high-profile party figures campaigning for both candidates, Mr Alexander won relatively easily despite a swing against him.
With nearly 80,000 votes from 37 of 39 booths counted, Mr Alexander had won 59.72 per cent of the two-candidate preferred vote compared to Ms Keneally’s 45.86 per cent.
Nearly 6000 people lodged informal votes.
On the primary vote, Mr Alexander had a swing against him of 5.58 per cent, while Ms Keneally had a swing of 7.59 per cent for Labor, which has buoyed Labor leader Bill Shorten.
“(Mr Turnbull) said this was a poll on him and his government. Malcolm Turnbull, you are correct. It was,” he told the Labor function.
He said the swing to Labor in Bennelong would give it an election-winning swing at the next federal poll.
“Friends, Labor finishes 2017 with a most remarkable wind in its sails,” Mr Shorten told the Labor party function alongside a beaming Ms Keneally.
“And I promise in 2018, it will be a year of courage … using tonight’s example, we will be courageous and we will stand up and put people first.”
Mr Turnbull thanked Mr Alexander for his campaign and his victory.
“Yes, John Alexander, you are Bennelong’s champion just as you have been Australia’s champion,” he said, repeating the line he’d used throughout the campaign.
Mr Alexander thanked Mr Turnbull for his support throughout what he said had been tumultuous campaign and “a real battle”.
And he alluded to the importance of the win for Mr Turnbull, who has been dogged by internal pressures on his leadership.
“Malcolm, this is a renaissance of your leadership,” he said to loud cheers.
Manager of government business Christopher Pyne said earlier in the night it was a win for Mr Alexander and win for Mr Turnbull.
“Malcolm Turnbull has ended the year on an incredible high,” he told Sky News.
“Bill Shorten starts next year facing a potential four by-elections because he didn’t get his house in order,” he said referring to the dual citizenship issue now possibly affecting Labor MPs.
The by-election in the northwestern suburban electorate in Sydney was called after Mr Alexander resigned from parliament after he suspected he was a dual citizen.
It was the second by-election the government had to contest over the dual citizenship fiasco.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce recorded a thumping win in his seat of New England earlier this month.
Up to four Labor MPs may find themselves facing by-elections with issues over their citizenship.
It became a tight contest after Labor took up the fight for the seat by selecting Ms Keneally, and throwing big names and resources into its campaign.
Meanwhile, in a potential issue for the coalition which is already losing votes to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, former Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s new party, Australian Conservatives, performed reasonably.
It attracted about 4.5 per cent of the primary vote – seemingly mostly at the expense of Mr Alexander.
Parliament resumes sitting in February.