Senior Coalition ministers, including Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, have swung in behind Prime Minister Scott Morrison, amid mounting claims of racism.
Ahead of Mr Morrison firing the starting gun on the election – expected some time this week – Agriculture Minister David Littleproud also defended the government’s less than stellar showing in the latest Newspoll.
Elsewhere, Mr Joyce described historical racism allegations that blew up against Mr Morrison at the weekend as a “political hit”.
“The Lebanese community have come out and backed the Prime Minister,” Mr Joyce told the Seven Network.
“They see this as it is. When you get these accusations right on the eve of an election, they can wrap them up in political hits but it’s not a true reflection of what is the case.
“If this is the honest view, then they could have litigated this years ago.
“If you’re going to call someone a racist and they’re not, you’re using racism as a weapon.”
Mr Morrison faces accusations he organised a campaign against a preselection rival, Michael Towke, ahead of the 2007 election, because of Mr Towke’s Lebanese heritage. He has dismissed the claims as “malicious and bitter” and on Sunday told the Nine newspapers he was prepared to sign a statutory declaration denying them.
Quizzed about the issue again on Monday, Mr Morrison appeared to walk that back.
“[Court proceedings] is the only reason you would be required to do that – there’s no court proceedings on any of those matters,” he said.
“I’ve been very clear. I absolutely reject that as malicious slurs. I fully rejected those issues … but more importantly, leaders of the Lebanese community have made their own statements and I think puts that matter to rest.”
Liberal elder and Mr Morrison’s direct predecessor as member for Cook Bruce Baird also defended the PM’s character after reports two Liberals involved in the preselection process – including Mr Towke – signed statutory declarations saying Mr Morrison made the comments.
Nine newspapers and Schwartz Media reported Mr Towke signed the declaration in 2016. It came to light only last week after dumped Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who backed Mr Towke in 2007, used parliamentary privilege to lash Mr Morrison’s character.
Mr Baird said he never heard any racist comments, or allegations of bullying or dirty tricks.
“I’m not aware of any and I was as close as anybody to it,” Mr Baird told the ABC.
“Yes, I am a friend [of Mr Morrison], and I’m doing it because this is the truth. I am not about spin, I’m just stating it like it is, and to claim as others have that Scott is racist and a bully I think is wrong.”
Meanwhile, the latest Newspoll, released late on Sunday, showed the Coalition is closing the gap on the primary vote, with support for Labor slipping slightly following last week’s federal budget. But the opposition still appears in the box seat for victory.
The poll, conducted for The Australian, showed 38 per cent of voters plumping for Labor – down three percentage points since the last survey. The Coalition had improved a point to 36 per cent.
The findings mean the primary contest has tightened to just two points from a six-point margin three weeks ago.
On a two-party preferred basis, Labor is ahead 54 per cent to 46 per cent. If realised at the May election, that could translate to a national swing of more than 5 per cent.
But Mr Littleproud said while the polls weren’t being ignored, it wasn’t the first time the Coalition had been behind in the lead-up to an election.
“[Election day] is the one that counts and obviously this isn’t our first rodeo – we’ve been here and done this before,” Mr Littleproud told the Nine Network on Monday.
“What Australians will now do is start to put the ruler on [Opposition Leader] Anthony Albanese and what he stands for. There are a lot of platitudes flying around at the moment and not a lot of detail.”
Labor’s primary vote slip appeared to have been picked up by the Greens, who were up two points to 10 per cent. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the United Australia Party remain unchanged on 3 per cent, according to Newspoll.
An Ipsos poll published by The Australian Financial Review showed the two-party vote gap has widened slightly to 10 points, despite the government’s budget offering of $8.6 billion in cost of living measures, with Labor ahead 55-45 per cent.
When 7 per cent of undecided voters are excluded, the gap narrows slightly to 51-42 per cent.
Mr Albanese is one point ahead of Mr Morrison as preferred prime minister in the Ipsos poll, at 38 per cent.
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