Coalition's handling of bushfires causes 'substantial decline' in support, ANU poll finds

Paul Karp

Australia’s bushfire crisis has caused a spike in concern about the environment, a hit to the popularity of the Coalition and Scott Morrison and a drop in support for new coal mines, even among Coalition voters.

Those are the conclusions of a poll of 3,249 Australians conducted by the Australian National University’s centre for social research and methods, which found a “significant and substantial decline” in the Coalition’s vote from 40% in October 2019 to 35% in January.

The poll, released on Tuesday, confirms the results of the Newspoll and Guardian Essential poll that a horror summer – in which Morrison chose to holiday in Hawaii during the extended bushfire crisis that claimed at least 33 lives and more than 2,000 homes – has significantly impacted his popularity.

The lead researcher, professor Nicolas Biddle, said the ANU poll showed “quite strong disapproval” of the federal government’s handling of bushfires and “in particular” with Morrison’s performance.

Related: Scott Morrison suffers blow to personal approval rating in first poll of 2020

In a rating of confidence in party leaders, Morrison scored an average of 3.92 out of 10, a net negative score and a slump since he rated 5.25 in June 2019. Labor leader Anthony Albanese recorded a “small but significant increase” from 4.87 in June 2019 to 5.04.

Confidence in the federal government also declined, with only 27% of respondents reporting they were “confident” or “very confident” in it, down 10.9% since October.

“This is one of the largest declines in confidence I have seen in such a short period of time,” Biddle said.

State governments enjoyed support from 40.4% of respondents.

Labor was not the only beneficiary of voters’ move away from the Coalition, with less than half of those changing their vote from the Coalition choosing Labor instead (44%), while the rest opted for the Greens (14%), another party (25%) or did not know who they would vote for (17%).

Around half of respondents now list the environment as the most or second-most important issue in deciding their vote, up from almost 42% in October.

The ANU election survey found a record number of voters listed the environment or global warming as their top concern, making it a vote-winner for Labor at the 2019 election, although it was outweighed by the economy, which weighed in the Coalition’s favour.

According to the poll, the proportion of people who said global warming or the greenhouse effect would have an effect on them increased to 72%, while those that rated global warming a “very serious threat” has reached 33%.

People in non-capital cities were less likely to see global warming and climate change as an issue or threat and more supportive of new coal mines compared with people in capital cities, but the ANU report found these differences “are a matter of degrees, rather than direction”.

Three-quarters of respondents reported being indirectly affected by bushfires, including having their holiday plans affected, being exposed to smoke, feeling anxious or having friends or family threatened by property damage.

Exposure to the bushfires was associated with an increase in whether a person thought the environment was a major issue, Biddle said. “Many Australians changed their views, though, regardless of exposure, with females and young Australians the most likely to be more concerned about the environment than previously.”

Related: Can Scott Morrison redeem himself after his disastrous summer?

Some 37% of respondents said the government should allow the opening of new coal mines, down from 45.3% in June 2019.

The poll found the greatest drop in support for new coal mines was among those who voted for the Coalition at last year’s federal election – from 72% support in June 2019 to 57% in January 2020.

Those who live in a non-capital city were far more likely to have changed their vote from the Coalition, with an estimated probability more than twice as large as those in capital cities (all else being equal) – 21% compared with 10%.

In a warning for the government, the ANU report noted the results suggested that changes in attitudes on climate change and coal “are not restricted to those who would not have voted for the Coalition in the first place”.

“A disproportionate amount of the swing did occur outside of the capital cities, likely to be key battlegrounds between now and the next election,” it said.

The Morrison government is currently debating coal’s role in Australia’s energy mix. Moderate Liberals including Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman have argued the government should not back new coal plants in Australia, while the Nationals are exerting pressure to move beyond a feasibility study for a new coal-fired coal plant at Collinsville in Queensland.

Labor MPs have sought to play down suggestions of a breakaway pro-coal group within the party.

The ANU poll used a nationally representative sample and was conducted in the fortnight from 20 January. Using the Life in Australia panel, researchers could track individual voters’ changes in voting intention between surveys.