Wentworth byelection backlash reignites tensions inside the Morrison government over climate policy
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Wentworth byelection backlash reignites tensions inside the Morrison government over climate policy

A ferocious voter backlash has inflamed the Morrison government's internal row on climate change as Liberal MPs call for stronger policies to assure voters that Australia can meet the Paris agreement to cut carbon emissions.

The government is reeling from a savage swing in the Wentworth byelection, sparking renewed argument over decisions including a sudden shift in foreign policy on Israel, and deepening fears of a wipeout at the federal election due by May.

As Parliament resumes on Monday, the Liberal Party was on track to lose Wentworth to independent candidate Kerryn Phelps, with an update on Sunday night giving her almost 51 per cent of the vote.

Dr Phelps had a lead of 1626 votes in the update posted by the Australian Electoral Commission at 6.45pm on Sunday. Even the best postal vote scenario for the Liberal Party over coming days would still see the independent win Wentworth.

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The result represents an extraordinary 18 per cent swing against the federal government, one of the biggest in Australian history, but the Australian Electoral Commission is yet to count thousands of postal votes that could favour Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.

Government ministers and backbenchers told Fairfax Media they believed one lesson from the Wentworth result was to develop a stronger message on cutting emissions in order to win back voters concerned about climate change.

"I think we will, by the time of the next election, have to have a more credible answer on how we meet our targets," one minister said.

"I don't think it's viable to remain silent on this between now and the next election."

Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman said the Liberal Party's own research showed climate change and the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister were the two biggest concerns for Wentworth voters.

"The challenge the government faces is that following the demise of the National Energy Guarantee, there is a strong feeling that we don't have a climate change plan. We need to address that alongside our justifiable concern about bringing prices down," Mr Zimmerman told Fairfax Media.

"We are going to have to go to the next election with a clear plan to meet our Paris targets."

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Mr Zimmerman said emissions were coming down in the energy sector but there was more to be done in other parts of the economy. He said there was a case to be made for putting more funding into the government's Emissions Reduction Fund, which started with about $2.5 billion but has just $250 million left.

Liberal MP Craig Laundy also highlighted the Emissions Reduction Fund in calling for a stronger message on climate and energy.

"It's definitely a policy issue that impacts one way or another in every electorate," he said.

"The challenge that we have … is how to find something that is palatable across the breadth of the difference of views inside the party room."

Mr Laundy believed there was more policy to come from Mr Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Environment Minister Melissa Price left the door open last week to put more money into the Emissions Reduction Fund.

"Of course, as you would expect, our responsible government is looking at its full suite of policies, which will include the ERF. That's not a matter for me to talk about today. It's a matter for cabinet," she told Parliament.

The scale of the investment is certain to be contested within government as some ministers and backbenchers insist the Paris targets will be easily met on current settings, a claim disputed by scientists and environmental groups.

The government believes the latest advice from the Energy Security Board is that generation from wind and solar will grow by 256 per cent over the next three years.

Liberal Party candidate Dave Sharma faced questions during the campaign about the government's commitment to climate change policies.

Liberal Party candidate Dave Sharma faced questions during the campaign about the government's commitment to climate change policies. Credit:Christopher Pearce.

Mr Taylor is seeking to increase reliability and reduce prices in the belief that these will be greater challenges than reducing emissions.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan cautioned against drawing national lessons from a byelection that reflected a small part of the country.

"There is no doubt the government has had a tough few months but I'm confident that our focus on creating jobs, lowering taxes and protecting our security can put us in a position to win next year," Senator Canavan said.

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NSW Liberal MP Craig Kelly said it would be wrong to over-analyse the result or change the approach to energy and climate change.

"To suggest that more people would have voted for Dave Sharma if we had passed some version of the NEG is a fantasy," Mr Kelly told Fairfax Media.

"And to appease the green left by greater virtue signalling on ‘climate change' costs us votes – it doesn't win them."

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg brushed aside suggestions the Morrison government needed to overhaul its climate policies, saying they were "settled" and were enough to "meet and beat" Australia emissions reduction pledges.

"It's clearly an important issue for the people of Wentworth, but our policies have been settled for some time," he told the Sky News.

An exit poll of 985 Wentworth voters commissioned by the left-leaning Australia Institute on Saturday found that climate action and replacing coal with renewable energy was the top issue that decided how they voted.

Among people who had abandoned the Liberal Party since the last election in 2016, the top reason why was the toppling of Mr Turnbull at 40 per cent of voters, but climate change came second at 31 per cent.

David Crowe is the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House