Poll says Australian government faces voter backlash in by-election in conservative state



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CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's beleaguered prime minister faces a political test next month with an opinion poll on Tuesday showing his center-right party faces a large swing against it in a by-election in the nation's most conservative state.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's ruling coalition is battling poor polling and internal divisions over whether Australia should lift a ban on same-sex marriage.

A poll by Sydney-based market researcher Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday shows that Abbott's Liberal Party could lose a by-election on Sept. 19 in Western Australia state despite winning the 2013 election in the district of Canning by an 11.8 percentage point margin.

The poll showed the Liberal Party was more popular than the center-left opposition Labor Party by 51 to 49 percent. But that result was within the poll's 4.3 percentage point margin of error. The poll was based on a weekend survey of 508 voters in Canning.

The by-election was forced by the death in July of Liberal lawmaker Don Randall, who had held the district for 14 years. It is the first by-election since Abbott's coalition was swept to power in 2013 elections.

Iron ore-rich Western Australia is the nation's most conservative state, with Labor holding only three of 15 electoral districts.

The government has trailed the opposition in a range of opinion polls since April last year, and Abbott survived a leadership challenge from within his party in February prompted by poor opinion polling and what some say were questionable judgments he made. Abbott at the time implored his colleagues to give him six more months to improve the government's popularity.

That deadline has passed without the government regaining a lead over the opposition, and with general elections due around September next year.

Government lawmakers are again sounding each other out about another potential challenge to Abbott's leadership, The Australian Financial Review newspaper reported Tuesday.

It said two senior ministers are potential contenders — Malcolm Turnbull, who supports gay marriage, and Scott Morrison, who opposes it.

Abbott, a former Roman Catholic seminarian who vocally opposes marriage equality, has promised that if his government is re-elected, he will allow the public to decide the gay marriage issue with a popular vote. But his opponents say he could break that promise.

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