Australian voters like new PM, poll shows, but not enough to save government

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s center-right government remains on track for a heavy defeat at elections due by May 2019, an opinion poll showed on Monday, even though new Prime Minister Scott Morrison posted a strong personal showing after his first three weeks in charge.

FILE PHOTO: The new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attends a news conference in Canberra, Australia August 24, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

The Fairfax-Ipsos poll published on Monday showed Morrison, who replaced Malcolm Turnbull in a party-room coup last month, well ahead of his center-left Labor opponent Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister.

Morrison took over as leader of the Liberal Party, the senior partner in a center-right Liberal-National coalition, to become Australia’s sixth leader in less than 10 years.

The Fairfax-Ipsos poll of 1,200 voters showed Morrison leading Shorten by 47 percent to 37 percent as preferred prime minister but that was not likely to be enough to save the government as public anger grows over leadership changes.

The latest poll showed that Labor still leads the coalition by 53 percent to 47 percent on a two-party preferred basis under Australia’s complicated preferential voting system, under which votes from minor parties are distributed as they are eliminated according to preference deals.

That six-point gap had at least narrowed from 10 points a month ago, the poll showed, but was still where the main parties stood in June and would not be enough to save the government from a heavy defeat if an election was held immediately.

Morrison outpointed Shorten on seven measures of leadership attributes, from economic influence to vision and trustworthiness, much as Turnbull had done.

However, with the government holding just a one-seat majority, that will count for little if it cannot be translated into party votes.

With that in mind, Morrison has moved to woo older voters with measures that include scrapping plans to raise the pension age to 70 and announcing on Sunday a powerful inquiry into aged-care facilities.

His first real test comes in a month, when a by-election will be held in Turnbull’s Sydney constituency that is expected to draw a fierce backlash from voters.

A safe seat for the government until Turnbull quit politics last month after losing the leadership, it is now expected to be a tight race.

A loss there would force Morrison to strike an agreement with independent lawmakers to continue in minority government.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Paul Tait