By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison will on Tuesday front parliament for the first time in three months as he seeks to repair his standing with voters angry by his response to the country’s bushfire crisis and a scandal over sports funding.
Morrison secured re-election in May 2019, defying polls that had indicated voters would punish his conservative government for ousting its former leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2018.
Less than nine months after what he described as his “miracle” re-election, Morrison is now unpopular with voters and under pressure from opposition Labor lawmakers.
“The Labor party will be like a mosquito on a nudist beach, they are so many fleshy issues for them to bite into,” said John Hewson, former leader of the Liberal Party, now headed by Morrison.
“They will go after him on issues of climate and he’s defense of the sports funding. He will be under huge pressure.”
A Newspoll for The Australian newspaper on Monday showed Morrison’s approval rating was at its lowest level since he assumed office, while his government is trailing the Labor party by a margin of 52% to 48%.
While Morrison can not be ousted as party leader after changes to Liberal party rules following Turnbull’s fall, he will not want poor polling to impact his legislative agenda before the next election that must be held before 2022.
Morrison came under fire from voters in December when it was revealed he was on a family holiday in Hawaii as the country’s bushfire crisis escalated.
When two fire fighters were killed, forcing him to return, his initial inaction and later refusal to link the fires with climate change drew criticism that he lacked leadership at a time of national crisis.
The prolonged bushfire season has killed 33 people and an estimated 1 billion native animals since September. About 2,500 homes have been destroyed and more than 11.7 million hectares of tinder-dry bushland have been razed.
Public anger at Morrison and his government has also been fueled by an independent audit of public spending which found the government used a A$100 million ($68.4 million) sport development fund to target votes in marginal electorates ahead of the last election.
The Australian National Audit Office said 400 projects received funding, with more than 70% done without any endorsement by the governing body for sport in Australia.
When the report was first released Morrison refused to discipline the former sports minister who approved the funding, drawing more voter criticism.
Bridget McKenzie, the deputy leader of the Nationals – the junior member of Morrison’s conservative coalition – on Sunday resigned after she was ruled to have breached ministerial rules when as sports minister she approved a A$36,000 grant for a shooting club where she was a member.
($1 = 1.4622 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry)