By Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Sydney psychologist Nicola Gates is weeks away from doing something she has never done before – casting a vote for a candidate other than former conservative Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott.
Armed with a cafe latte in one hand and election flyers in the other, the 46-year-old has taken the additional step of actively campaigning against the Liberal Party stalwart in the beach-side electorate Abbott has comfortably held since he entered federal politics a quarter of a century ago.
"I've always voted for the Liberals but the party, encouraged by the likes of Abbott, has changed," said Gates, wearing a pink t-shirt with the words "Time's up Tony" at Balmoral Beach in Sydney's northern beaches.
"We urgently need to address climate change and instead Abbott is pressing for Australia to dig more coal."
Ahead of the May 18 election, a movement is building against the government's hard right edge, where coal is championed, climate change questioned, and strict refugee detention policies are lauded.
There is also smouldering discontent over the faction's role in removing centrist prime minister Malcolm Turnbull last year in a Liberal leadership coup.
Polls show the conservative Scott Morrison-led government is headed for a resounding defeat against the Labor Party unless it can alter the current trajectory.
Not too long ago, Australia was on the verge of catching the populist political wave that swept through the United States and parts of Europe, with the nationalist One Nation Party threatening a revival and briefly holding a powerbroking role in Australia's Senate.
But the moderates have fought back, often led by strong female candidates with centrist values.
Outside a northern Sydney shopping centre, Abbott's rival for the seat of Warringah, Zali Steggall, is greeting locals, many of whom last saw her on their television screens in the late 1990s.
Steggall, an independent, won a bronze medal for alpine skiing at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Now a barrister, the centrist Steggall would typically be considered a great fit for the governing Liberal-National Party Coalition.
But years of infighting in the government between its centrist and hard-right wings means Steggall, who is socially liberal and wants to significantly increase renewable energy use, is now an opponent.
"I am for the sensible centre," Steggall told Reuters.
"I believe in competition, support for small businesses and lower taxes but also believe in being socially responsible and progressive."
Steggall, a supporter of same-sex marriage who carries a rainbow umbrella when campaigning in the wet, leaves the mall with pledges of support from a dozen or so voters, some of whom say they voted for Abbott as far back as 1994.
"We need a fresh voice," said Helen Cooper, a local retiree. "He has had his time."
Abbott, who was himself replaced by the centrist Turnbull in 2015 in an internal party brawl, has long-standing ties to the community and is an avid surfer and volunteer at the local rural fire-fighting division.
The former amateur boxer also enjoys a double-digit electoral margin heading into the election, making his potential removal no small feat.
Abbott did not respond to questions from Reuters.
David Leyonhjelm, a former libertarian senator, said Warringah was still a fundamentally conservative electorate.
"That hasn't changed but they are looking for a disruptor because of voter dissatisfaction with the Liberal Party," Leyonhjelm told Reuters.
There are already signs the hard right of the party is softening to accommodate the challenge from moderates.
Abbott, who was prime minister when Australia signed onto the Paris Accord that commits countries to reduce greenhouse emissions, has previously called for Canberra to abandon its climate pledges.
In March during a debate with Steggall, he reversed that position.
MODERATES FIGHT BACK
High-profile rivals like Steggall are forcing the Liberals to deploy significant resources to win previously safe conservative seats.
"If Morrison's Liberal Party can't hold blue-ribbon seats such as Warringah, he has no hope of retaining power," said Haydon Manning, a political science professor at Flinders University in South Australia state.
In Queensland state, campaigners are trying to unseat Peter Dutton, a senior lawmaker who has championed Australia's controversial policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore centres.
Dutton was also the leading figure in a party-room coup last year that ousted Turnbull, although his bid to become prime minister was unsuccessful.
Kye Macdonald, a long-time Liberal supporter, said Dutton needed to be removed for the sake of the party.
"Dutton represents that reactionary right, or hard right part of the party. If he is gone, in three years' time potentially we'll have someone closer to where I want to sit," said the 38-year-old business owner, who lives in Dutton's seat of Dickson.
Dutton holds the seat with a paper-thin 1.6 percent margin over the main opposition Labor Party, which is fielding disability advocate and former journalist Ali France.
France has been campaigning on a health and education platform, according to social media posts that usually carry the hashtag #DumpDutton.
Dutton did not respond to questions.
His conservative colleague, Kevin Andrews, is being challenged by Labor's Stella Yee in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, another conservative seat moderates hope to claim.
Andrews declined to comment.
Dutton, Andrews and Abbott all campaigned against same-sex marriage ahead of a country-wide postal plebiscite in 2017, where Australians voted in favour of allowing such unions.
Three-quarters of Abbott's Warringah seat voted to support same-sex marriage, but when it came to the parliamentary vote to rubber stamp the public poll, Abbott riled many electors by abstaining.
Mark Kelly, a surfboard shaper in Manly, where Abbott maintains his local electoral office and is a regular in the waves, said that was a defining moment for him.
Kelly started printing "Time's up Tony" t-shirts, which have proved popular, he said.
"We have orders from all over, even internationally."
(Reporting by Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)