Australian Voters Are Snubbing Turnbull After His Spat With Trump

  • Newspoll shows support hits lowest since Turnbull took power
  • Turnbull seeks traction with lawmakers as parliament resumes

While Malcolm Turnbull’s spat with U.S. President Donald Trump has thrust him into the international spotlight, a new poll shows the Australian prime minister’s biggest challenge may be turning around his own government’s performance.

Primary support for Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition has slumped 4 percentage points to 35 percent, the lowest since he seized the leadership in September 2015, according to a Newspoll conducted Feb. 2-5 and published on Monday in the Australian newspaper. The government trails the main opposition Labor party 54 percent to 46 percent on a two-party preferred basis.

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister, pauses during a speech at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, on Feb. 1, 2017. Just seven months after leading his Liberal-National coalition government to a razor-thin election victory, Turnbull’s bid to gain political momentum is being hampered by mounting signs of fiscal weakness. Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Malcolm Turnbull.

Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Turnbull has started the year under pressure at home and abroad. Trump last week railed against a “dumb deal” that Australia signed with the Obama administration to send more than 1,000 refugees to the U.S. for resettlement. His performance on domestic matters is also under scrutiny amid mounting signs of fiscal weakness.

“The government’s problems are becoming entrenched,” said Paul Williams, a political analyst at Griffith University in Brisbane. “If anything, the dispute with Trump would have engendered sympathy for Turnbull, but Australians are obviously more concerned about what’s going on at home now. It’s going to be very hard for him to turn this around.”

Parliamentary Priorities

The government, which was damaged last month when Health Minister Sussan Ley resigned amid an investigation into her travel expenses, enters the new parliamentary year starting Tuesday with a legislative agenda that will be tough to get through the upper house.

It’s aiming to bolster childcare payments to middle income earners in a A$3.5 billion ($2.69 billion) package that would cut handouts to some lower-income families. The government also wants to reduce company taxes and reform media ownership laws to pave the way for a string of takeovers in the industry.

The government lacks a majority in the upper house Senate, however, and needs the support of minor parties, including the populist, anti-immigration One Nation group.

The prime minister’s ability to maintain discipline within his center-right coalition may be tested this week, with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reporting conservative Senator Cory Bernardi will leave to form his own party.

“The rise of One Nation and the talk that Bernardi may form his own party show the conservative vote may be splintering, which is the last thing Turnbull needs,” Williams said.

Read more: Trump’s Australia Spat Leaves Refugees in Limbo: QuickTake Q&A

The Washington Post reported last week that Trump berated Turnbull over the resettlement deal in a Jan. 28 phone call. Under the agreement struck with Obama in November, the U.S. was to take more than 1,000 refugees from nations such as Iran and Iraq, who are currently being held in Pacific island camps.

Turnbull says he expects Trump to honor the deal and on Sunday noted an outpouring of support for Australia from U.S. lawmakers.

“I don’t think there has ever been more public support for Australia than there has been this week,” Turnbull told the Australian version of 60 Minutes. “We have seen dozens and dozens of congressmen and senators talking about the importance of the Australian alliance and talking about what a great friend we have always been to the U.S.”

Turnbull still outpaces Labor leader Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister, 42 percent to 30 percent, according to Newspoll. The survey of 1,734 voters had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.

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