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Stage set for fresh Australia election in May
[SYDNEY] Australia is set for a May election showdown after the prime minister on Tuesday announced a budget date in the new year and his weakened liberal party staggers on following another defection.
Scott Morrison announced a new national spending plan for April 2, promised a fiscal surplus and hailed his party's custodianship of a booming economy in remarks effectively firing the starter's gun for the 2019 election campaign.
Parliamentary budget rules and constitutional provisions about the length of campaigns mean the election will now almost certainly take place in early to mid-May.
On Tuesday, Liberal MP Julia Banks - who had earlier complained of party bullying and is an ally of ousted former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull - delivered Mr Morrison a hammer blow, quitting the party to become an independent.
The defection put the ruling conservative Liberal Party two members short of a parliamentary majority.
With his government in the minority and his party riven by divisions between moderates and the hard right, the prime minister faces an uphill struggle to keep his job.
A weekend parliamentary election in Victoria - the state that encompasses Melbourne - saw the Liberal Party vote shrink to historically low levels.
This, just weeks after the party lost a Federal parliamentary by-election in a Sydney suburb that has been solidly Liberal since the constituency was created at the founding of the country.
Mr Morrison has struggled to keep his party together since Liberal ideological firebrands ousted centrist leader Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister last August.
Since then, persistent backbiting and stinging electoral defeats have created the sense of a government in disarray, even as Mr Morrison has tried to take the fight to the opposition Labor Party.
Ms Banks cited Mr Turnbull's removal as the catalyst for her decision to become an independent.
"Led by members of the reactionary right wing, the coup was aided by many MPs trading their vote for a leadership change in exchange for their individual promotion, preselection endorsements or silence," she told parliament.
She accused both the Liberal and Labor parties of being focused on "political point scoring" rather than "timely, practical, sensible decisions on matters which Australians care about".
With each defection, the odds of Mr Morrison being ousted in a vote of no confidence increase.
Meanwhile recriminations within the Liberal Party continued behind closed doors.
Australian media on Tuesday reported that cabinet minister Kelly O'Dwyer warned in a closed meeting that the Liberal party was widely viewed by voters as "homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers".