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Politics

Australia sinks deeper into turmoil as Turnbull quits politics

Morrison's coalition loses majority, now faces elections and policy stalemate

Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull speaks alongside his family during a news conference in Canberra last week.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quit politics on Friday, a move that will sink Australia deeper into political chaos by leaving new leader Scott Morrison's government without a parliamentary majority.

Turnbull's exit leaves the ruling Liberal-National coalition with 75 seats -- exactly half of the lower house of parliament. A by-election contest for his district is likely to be fiercely fought with the opposition Labor Party sensing an opportunity to push for an early general election.

Norman Abjorensen, a fellow at the Australian National University, said governing would be "almost impossible" should the coalition lose in the well-heeled Sydney seat of Wentworth.

"The government would almost be in survival mode, with everything negotiated on a case-by-case basis," Abjorensen said. "We would be faced with all the perils of a government working day-to-day."

Morrison's coalition is falling behind Labor in media polls after vicious party infighting last week led to Turnbull's departure. The chaos is likely to put decisions on key issues such as energy policy on the back-burner, and delay the signing of trade deals.

The battle for Turnbull's seat -- local media reports it will be held in early October -- will be followed by a series of state elections ahead of a general election due by May. But even if the government holds on to Wentworth, two other party lawmakers -- including the popular former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop -- may step down before the national poll after being scarred in last week's election.

Morrison, Turnbull's former treasurer, narrowly saw off the-wing former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in the vote, and the party remains split by the bitter ideological divide.

Saul Eslake, an advisory panel member for Australia's Parliamentary Budget Office, said the political needle will shift further to the right as the coalition campaigns to open up more policy differences with Labor.

Pressure is growing to clamp down on immigration -- something the economist said was a "byproduct of success" for the country.

"Stagnant wages, congestion, inadequate public services... some of those things explain that, given Australia's economy has done so well, how come there is this dissatisfaction expressed in populist policies?" Eslake said.

Turbull was popular in his Wentworth district, helping him to hold comfortably onto the seat for 14 years. Some resentful supporters may therefore turn to another party or a high-profile independent.

Some analysts say that Labor may be tempted to recruit cross-bench members to pass a vote of no confidence in the government when parliament returns on Sept. 10. This could enable the dissolution of parliament and prompt an early election.

Eslake said that the evidence points to a Labor landslide in a general election.

New Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison shakes hands with the new Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.   © Reuters

"The Liberal Party has done itself terminal damage over the last week," he said. "But over the next nine months, a lot can change during an election campaign. Morrison could retrieve the government's position."

Morrison is currently in Indonesia, with whom Australia hopes to sign a stalled bilateral trade deal by the end of the year. But the political turmoil could catch other agreements in the crossfire.

Abjorensen said it would be "very hard to find unanimity" on the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a $10 trillion Asia-Pacific trade pact. The TPP's China-backed counterpart, the Regional Economic Comprehensive Economic Partnership, would also likely be caught up in Australia's policy gridlock.

Energy policy, over which a rift split the ruling party and prompted Turnbull's downfall, would also continue to be a casualty at the expense of a private sector "crying out for certainty," said Abjorensen.

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