By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s own party defied his wishes on Friday by nominating a former diplomat instead of a female candidate to run in a crucial by-election for a seat that belonged to the man he deposed in a leadership coup.
Morrison’s Liberal party, the senior partner in a Liberal-National coalition, nominated Dave Sharma to run in the blue ribbon Sydney seat of Wentworth in the Oct. 20 by-election, another sign of the deep fractures within the party.
The by-election was called when former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull resigned from parliament after losing the leadership in a party-room ballot last month, handing Australia its sixth prime minister in 10 years.
Turnbull’s resignation also meant Morrison’s centre-right government at least temporarily surrendered its one-seat majority in parliament. Opinion polls suggest that could become more permanent, with Australian voters angry about frequent leadership changes.
Five independent lawmakers have guaranteed their support for the government to defeat no-confidence votes until the by-election.
Should the government lose the affluent electorate of Wentworth, a traditionally safe Liberal seat that stretches from Bondi Beach to Sydney Harbour, Morrison would then have to strike a new agreement with the independents to continue in a minority government.
Sharma is a former Australian ambassador to Israel and received the endorsement of both Turnbull and the Liberal party’s elder statesman, former prime minister John Howard, although Morrison had hoped a female candidate would be chosen.
“Of course, I want to see more Liberal women in parliament,” Morrison said on Twitter on Friday. “But I always want to see the best candidate selected.”
Morrison’s preference was seen as an attempt to contain allegations by several female backbench lawmakers that they were unduly pressured to support a leadership rival to Turnbull, claims that have sharpened the focus on a lack of gender diversity within the government.
Former deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, also the former foreign minister, criticised her party colleagues this week over the fact that less than 25 percent of its members of parliament were women.
Sharma was expected to win the biggest share of the vote in Wentworth but the ousting of Turnbull, a social liberal who was widely popular with voters could still affect the outcome. Votes could still flow to opposition and minor party candidates under Australia’s complicated preferential voting system.
The latest leadership change and subsequent recriminations have already turned voters against the Liberal party, which suffered a swing of 29 percent swing against it at a New South Wales state by-election a week ago when it lost what had been a safe seat to an independent candidate.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)