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Australia government braces for defeat in crucial by-election

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Australia's embattled conservative coalition was bracing for defeat as polls opened in a crucial by-election Saturday, with a loss set to snuff out its slim parliamentary majority.

[SYDNEY] Australia's embattled conservative coalition was bracing for defeat as polls opened in a crucial by-election Saturday, with a loss set to snuff out its slim parliamentary majority.

The by-election in the wealthy Sydney seat of Wentworth was triggered after former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted in a party-room coup in August -- the sixth change of leader in the last decade.

Mr Turnbull's successor, Scott Morrison, is facing public anger about the leadership merry-go-round and constant infighting in Canberra, and could be made to pay at Wentworth, traditionally a Liberal Party seat.

The Liberal-National coalition has a one-seat parliamentary majority, and a loss in Wentworth would transform it into a minority government and effectively turn Mr Morrison into a lame duck prime minister.

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The sprawling Sydney constituency takes in the famous Bondi Beach and the haunts of stars like Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman.

While the seat was easily held by Mr Turnbull, polls before the by-election were pointing to defeat for the Liberal Party's Dave Sharma at the expense of high-profile independent candidate Kerryn Phelps.

A defeat would prove hugely embarrassing to Mr Morrison, who even floated the idea of moving the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - upending decades of Australian foreign policy - in a bid to woo Wentworth's Jewish voters.

On Friday the prime minister appeared resigned to a defeat.

"The events of a couple of months ago would have caused a great deal of anger and outrage here in Wentworth," Mr Morrison told reporters of Mr Turnbull's removal.

"I know, I was in the parliament."

Counting will start after polls close on Saturday evening.

AFP