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The vote that could bring down the PM

Mr Alexander and Ms Keneally hand out flyers outside the pre-polling office in Epping. Picture: Toby Zerna
Mr Alexander and Ms Keneally hand out flyers outside the pre-polling office in Epping. Picture: Toby Zerna

IT'S a big day for the seat of Bennelong in New South Wales and a potentially huge day for Australia - one that could bring down the Federal Government.

With Malcolm Turnbull floundering in the polls in the run-up to Christmas, today's vote could be a gift for the Opposition: the nail in the coffin for the Coalition's parliamentary majority.

The stakes are sky-high, a fact that's become clear as things turned increasingly nasty this week, with Liberal incumbent John Alexander forced to reject claims he breached parliamentary rules by not declaring rental income from a luxury NSW property.

His rival, former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, was meanwhile accused of giving 'how-to-vote' cards to dementia patients, before being asked to justify why a man dressed as a chicken and holding Labor material confronted her Liberal opponent.

That came shortly before protesters on education cuts with Labor placards crashed the Prime Minister's press conference in support of Mr Alexander, forcing him to cut it short.

Earlier in the week, the PM admitted the Liberal Party had bought the domain kristinakeneally.com to post criticisms about her record.

NECK-AND-NECK IN RACE TO FINISH LINE

The contest in north-west Sydney is nail-bitingly close and has the potential to throw Australia into freefall.

Ms Keneally has closed the gap on Mr Alexander in recent weeks, after he was forced to go to the polls after it emerged he held dual British citizenship.

The pair are neck-and-neck with a Newspoll published in The Australian showing the pair at 50-50 on the two-party preferred vote and 39-39 on the primary vote.

That's down to a shocking 9 per cent collapse in the Liberal Party's primary vote, which appears to be the result of defector Cory Bernardi dividing the right with his new party, Australian Conservatives.

The polls indicate the LNP has failed to convince voters that Ms Keneally was the patsy of grubby masters, with the US-born Labor candidate entering the final week truly her own woman.

The Liberal campaign was predicated on painting her as an incompetent premier and loyal follower of disgraced Eddie Obeid and other Labor state MPs linked to corruption.

But the efforts of party bigwigs including Mr Turnbull, Julie Bishop and former PM John Howard seem to have been in vain - with a third (33 per cent) of Bennelong voters rating her an above average state leader. A quarter assessed her as average, while another third (34 per cent) placed her as below average or "one of the worst" (15 per cent and 19 per cent respectively).

It's not the decisive rejection of her credentials that the Liberal Party were hoping for, and there will be some very nervous MPs going into the weekend.

This is a crucial vote for Malcolm Turnbull, pictured visiting Eastwood and Top Ryde with Liberal candidate John Alexander. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
This is a crucial vote for Malcolm Turnbull, pictured visiting Eastwood and Top Ryde with Liberal candidate John Alexander. Picture: Sam Ruttyn

WHAT VOTE COULD DO TO GOVERNMENT

The PM desperately needs to regain Bennelong to avoid slipping into a minority government. And even a victory accompanied by a hefty swing could damage Mr Turnbull's leadership.

If Ms Keneally pulls off an upset and defeats Mr Alexander, the Turnbull government will lose its one-seat majority.

"Obviously we'd be down to 75 votes-all in the House of Representative," the PM told News Corp journalist Miranda Devine on her online show on Monday. "It would be very precarious."

Such a scenario would hand Labor the opportunity to cause chaos in the House, pushing through or blocking policy as the Government scrambles to make up the numbers with the help of independents and minority parties.

The Prime Minister admitted he "regrets" using Tony Abbott's 30 consecutive Newspoll losses as justification for toppling him as PM. Mr Turnbull has now come in behind Labor for 24 Newspolls in a row.

His appearance on Q&A on Monday was described as a trainwreck, with many criticising the PM for bullying questioners and giving condescending answers.

SENIOR POLLIES WEIGH IN

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten knows the significance of this moment, and has made regular campaign appearances throwing his support behind the ex-premier.

"Kristina certainly is the underdog in terms of not being the favourite here ... but I think she is a dynamic candidate," he told reporters on Friday.

"We're going to take every opportunity over the next eight days to make sure that people realise they have an opportunity to send a message to Malcolm Turnbull."

The Australian also reported that Mr Turnbull had approached Ms Keneally about taking the job of ambassador to the Holy See - Australia's diplomat in the Vatican. The discussions went no further but are being used to argue that even he thought she would make a worthy representative.

The PM has joined personal attacks on the Labor candidate, including criticism of an article she wrote calling for refugees on Manus Island to be brought to Australia. "(The people smugglers) will see and are seeing Bill Shorten's choice of Kristina Keneally as Labor wanting to throw out the welcome mat for asylum seekers," he told reporters.

Ms Bishop was one of the first ministers to campaign with Mr Alexander and told reporters: "As premier she cancelled school funding to the tune of $315 million for state schools. As premier, electricity prices went up, bus and train fares went through the roof."

Ms Keneally said she would stand by her record, and opened her own campaigning with attacks on the current state of the Coalition government.

All eyes will be on this north-west Sydney electorate on Saturday. Picture: Toby Zerna
All eyes will be on this north-west Sydney electorate on Saturday. Picture: Toby Zerna

THE FINAL SHOWDOWN

Ms Keneally was expecting a torrid final week in the campaign. "I think Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal mates are going to get even nastier in the coming days ahead," she said.

"Malcolm Turnbull has managed to accuse me of everything short of saying it wasn't the dingo, it was Keneally."

Ms Keneally, who quit her job as a Sky News presenter to run against Mr Alexander, has cleverly likened her face-off with the former tennis star to the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" that inspired a popular movie remake starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King.

Billie Jean was the more sympathetic character, winning the match in what was seen as a landmark victory over sexist attitudes.

The Liberals' efforts to discredit Ms Keneally have been somewhat overshadowed by the scandal around Labor senator Sam Dastyari, who sensationally quit today amid questions over his links to China.

Ms Keneally on Monday said people from China and Korea have told her they were "really alarmed by the Prime Minister's rhetoric" about Chinese interference in domestic affairs, which they saw as "scaremongering".

Her comments may be welcomed in the electorate, which has a large Asian population.

But Labor was forced to hose down speculation Senator Dastyari could be replaced by Ms Keneally should she lose the weekend's Bennelong by-election, as this could put people off voting for her.

"The Liberal Party wants to put around that Kristina Keneally will go into the Senate because they want to discourage people from voting in Bennelong," Mr Shorten told reporters in Sydney.

"That's because they're frightened of her ... we're focused on winning on Saturday."

Topics:  bennelong editors picks federal goverment vote


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