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Voters cut support for Scott Morrison following debate about national security, leadership

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Voters have cut their support for Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a fierce political argument over leadership and national security, with 56 percent saying he is doing a poor job compared to 50 percent one month ago.

Only 38 percent of voters believe Mr. Morrison is doing a good job, down from 41 percent last month, in a setback for the government as it struggles to win back Australians before the election due by May.

But Mr. Morrison holds a narrow advantage when Australians are asked their preferred prime minister, putting him ahead of Labor leader Anthony Albanese by 39 to 30 percent.

The findings are part of a new survey that shows the Coalition's primary vote has slipped from 34 to 33 percent over the past month while Labor's core support held at 35 percent.

The Resolve Political Monitor, conducted for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age by research company Resolve Strategic, finds the Greens have held their primary vote at 10 percent while smaller parties and independents have the remaining 22 percent.

The Coalition gained 41 percent of the primary vote at the last election but is now at its lowest level since the Resolve surveys began last April, leading Resolve director Jim Reed to say the Coalition was close to "rock bottom" with its base support.

"History tells us that the Coalition does not drop below one-third of the primary vote. That's their base level of support regardless of circumstances, and they're bouncing along at that level now," he said.

"In 2019, the Coalition plotted out a successful pathway to victory, a strategic opportunity they likened to a goat track. That track is equally narrow this time, but it's longer and more precarious, and the terrain is getting tougher by the minute."

The survey of 1604 eligible voters was conducted from February 15 to 20 and had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points, which meant the swing against Mr. Morrison on personal performance was outside that margin.

The Prime Minister's net performance rating, which subtracts those who rated him "poor" from those who rated him "good", was minus 17 percentage points, down from minus 10 last month and a big reversal on the positive ratings he enjoyed as recently as October.

The changes came during a period of intense debate on leadership when Mr. Morrison was accusing Mr. Albanese of being "weak" on China and having an "each way bet" on national security issues such as the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal with the United States and the United Kingdom.

The ferocious attacks in Parliament did not appear to erode support for Mr. Albanese, with the new survey showing an increase from 34 to 36 percent in those who thought he was doing a good job over the past month. The number who said he was doing a poor job increased from 41 to 42 percent.

While only 6 percent of voters were undecided about Mr. Morrison, 22 percent were unsure about Mr. Albanese.

The survey also followed the government's attempt to pass new laws on religious freedom which saw five Liberals cross the floor on an amendment to protect transgender students.

When voters were asked who had a united team behind its leader, 22 percent named Mr. Morrison and the Coalition while 30 percent named Mr. Albanese and Labor, which means the government is now losing on a question that was a key strength last year.

Because the Resolve Political Monitor asks voters to nominate their primary votes in the same way they would write ‘1' on the ballot papers for the lower house at an election, with choices offered in random order, there is no undecided category in the results, a key difference with some other surveys.

While the Coalition held a clear lead over Labor in the first part of last year, especially after it unveiled big spending programs in the May budget, it lost ground after the Delta variant of the coronavirus and further ground after the Omicron wave during summer.

More Australians appear to have made up their minds about the parties they intend to support, with the number of people who describe themselves as "uncommitted" shrinking from 27 percent last month to 22 percent this month.

"We find that voters are starting to engage and make up their minds," Mr. Reed said.

"In our October poll a third of voters were uncommitted, and that's now dropped to just over a fifth.

"There will always be people who make up their minds at the last minute, but time is running out for the government to win over a significant bunch of uncommitted voters."

Asked about policies, respondents cut their ratings for the government by small amounts on issues such as healthcare, education, and keeping the cost of living low.

On the key measure of managing the pandemic, however, voters favoured Mr. Morrison and the Coalition by eight percentage points over Mr. Albanese and Labor in net terms. While this was an improvement of four points from last month, it compares to a lead of 25 points for the government after the May budget.

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