Home > US News, USA > Trump-Style Australian Populists Gain in Polls as Turnbull Flounders

Trump-Style Australian Populists Gain in Polls as Turnbull Flounders

Michael Heath

Anti-immigrant populists and the opposition Labor party advanced in opinion polls as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government descended into infighting.

One-in-10 people surveyed by Newspoll backed Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, more than double its support base late last year, amid her attacks on Muslim immigration, free trade and foreign investment in Australia.

Labor climbed 1 percentage point to 37 percent, while the incumbent Liberal-National coalition fell 1 point to 34 percent, according to the survey published by the Australian newspaper Monday. The poll showed that, on a two-party preferred basis, Labor would trounce the government 55 percent to 45 percent in an election.

Turnbull is being undermined by his hard-line conservative predecessor Tony Abbott, seven months after scraping an election victory with a razor-thin majority. Abbott last week conducted a media blitz calling on Turnbull to slash immigration, scrap a renewable energy target to lower electricity prices, abolish the Human Rights Commission, reform the upper house of parliament and cut government spending to undercut One Nation’s supporter base.

Turnbull said the “outburst” was “sad” and wouldn’t distract him from governing; Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, once a loyal Abbott supporter, described the comments as “deliberately destructive” to his colleagues.

‘Enough is Enough’

“I thought it was important to send a very clear message to essentially signal that enough is enough,” Cormann said on Sky Sunday. Abbott was ousted by his party and replaced by Turnbull in September 2015 amid slumping poll ratings after only two years as prime minister.

Turnbull is battling to gain momentum for his government. The former banker is struggling to get spending cuts, designed to balance the budget and safeguard the nation’s AAA credit rating, through a hostile Senate where protectionist minor parties collectively hold the balance of power.

Among them is One Nation, which has siphoned support from the coalition with a mix of conservative social policies, anti-immigrant rhetoric targeting Muslims and economic protectionism.

Hanson, who was first elected to parliament in 1996, has shown before the damage she can wreak on conservative parties. She split the vote in the 1998 Queensland state election, which saw Labor win office. Hanson lost her seat later that year and returned to parliament in 2016, this time in the upper house, along with three One Nation colleagues.

Turnbull’s Performance

The Newspoll, conducted Feb. 23-26, showed dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s performance jumped 5 points to 59 percent. The news was no better for Labor though with dissatisfaction with its leader, Bill Shorten, rising 2 points to 56 percent. Turnbull leads Shorten 40 percent to 33 percent on the question of who would make the better prime minister, according to the survey of 1,682 voters that has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

Abbott’s motivation for attacking Turnbull isn’t clear. He may be trying to lay the ground for a return to the Liberal leadership by presenting himself as the only person who can reach populist voters and bring them back to the fold. Some political commentators speculated last week he may be attempting to weaken Turnbull, and pave the way for another conservative within the Liberal party, such as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, to take the helm.

Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, told Sky he wasn’t seeking to reclaim the top job, but had a duty to speak out as votes leaked to One Nation.

“The party in Canberra is not listening, understanding or connecting with the party around the country,” Credlin said. “The party is bleeding, the supporters are going and I honestly fear the party will not get them back. It’s on life support.”

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