Australian PM Morrison tries to reboot family man image as his popularity slumps

Mr Morrison's popularity has plunged, partly due to his handling of the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out and the Omicron outbreak. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY - In an unmistakable sign that Australia's election is nearing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife Jenny gave a sit-down interview to a prime-time television programme, in which Mr Morrison proceeded to play a song on the ukulele at the family dinner table.

Critics described the Prime Minister's ukulele performance on Sunday (Feb 13) on the 60 Minutes programme as "cringeworthy", and the episode did terribly in the ratings. 

But the decision to appear was widely seen as an attempt by Mr Morrison to reverse a sharp decline in his popularity ahead of the looming election.

The latest Newspoll survey on Monday showed that the opposition Labor party leads Mr Morrison's Liberal-National Coalition by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

Worryingly for Mr Morrison, just 43 per cent of voters rate him as their preferred prime minister, down from a peak of 61 per cent in February last year, when the country seemed to be emerging relatively unscathed from the pandemic.

The Labor leader, Mr Anthony Albanese, is currently preferred by 38 per cent of voters, with 19 per cent uncommitted.

Adding to the pressure on the Prime Minister, the New South Wales branch of the Liberal-National Coalition fared badly in four state by-elections on Feb 12. The Coalition candidates suffered swings against them, including a drastic swing of 19 per cent against Mr Morrison's Liberal party in the Sydney seat of Willoughby.

At the last election in May 2019, Mr Morrison, who had replaced Mr Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister less than a year earlier, won a spectacular victory that he was widely expected to lose.

He was credited with virtually single-handedly securing victory through his tenacious campaigning, in which he famously presented himself as a no-nonsense, unassuming, suburban dad.

Though his recent appearance on 60 Minutes was intended to reboot his image, it is not clear whether - after four years in power - he will again be able to persuade voters to see him as a non-politician.

Mr Morrison's popularity has plunged, partly due to his handling of the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out and the outbreak of the highly transmissible but less severe Omicron variant of the coronavirus, as well as recent bouts of party infighting.

He was initially slow to start mass vaccinations, famously claiming that the roll-out was "not a race". He again appeared unready when the Omicron surge began late last year, just as most states - at Mr Morrison's urging - were starting to lift restrictions.

The outbreak exposed a lack of testing supplies, a failure to ensure the safety of aged care facilities, and - again - a failure to speedily roll out vaccinations and boosters.

These shortcomings added to concerns about Mr Morrison's judgment that first emerged in late 2019, when he flew to Hawaii for a family holiday in the midst of a bushfire disaster.

Recently, Mr Morrison has faced growing disunity within the ruling coalition, especially as opinion polls turned sour.

Earlier this month, a leaked text message from the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Barnaby Joyce, described Mr Morrison as "a hypocrite and a liar". Mr Joyce, who sent the message when he was a backbencher, offered to resign, but Mr Morrison refused to accept it.

This disunity was also on display last week when five Liberal MPs crossed the floor to join Labor to defeat a coalition Bill on religious discrimination. The MPs were concerned that the Bill, backed by Mr Morrison, would allow discrimination against gay and transgender students.

Mr Morrison has also faced serious criticism over his handling of a series of incidents involving sexual harassment and mistreatment of women, including members of his Liberal party.

He appeared to respond to the incidents as political problems rather than seriously attempting to tackle the issue. Separately, his lack of support for more ambitious climate policies has proven increasingly at odds with public sentiment.

But, with an election due by May, Australians may be reluctant to change the government at a time when the economy is strong, unemployment is low, and house prices are soaring.

Mr Morrison has also shown once before that he can pull off an upset win on voting day.

Asked on 60 Minutes about critics who say that he has no chance of winning the next election, Mr Morrison laughed and told the interviewer: "Yeah, they did last time too."

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