Australia's Leader Gets Poll Boost Amid Tough Stance on Refugees

(Bloomberg) -- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s bid for re-election received a fillip from an opinion poll released Monday that showed his hard-line stance against asylum seekers may be winning back voters.

The ruling coalition now trails Labor by 2 percentage points, 49 percent to 51 percent, according to the Ipsos Fairfax poll conducted Feb. 12-15 and published Monday. The margin has narrowed from 8 points two months ago.

Morrison, who heads a minority center-right government, lost a vote Feb. 13 on legislation that will allow doctors a greater say on the medical evacuation of sick asylum seekers held in detention centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru to Australia.

The prime minister claimed at the weekend he would strengthen the country’s maritime border protection, after warning that the new laws backed by the main Labor opposition last week would weaken its boundaries and raise national security concerns. The latest flare-up over refugees is putting immigration policy back at the top of the political agenda ahead of a national election due by May.

“The Australian government has zero tolerance for people smuggling and illegal boat travel to Australia,” Morrison said in a video message at the weekend. “No one who attempts an illegal boat journey to Australia will ever be allowed to settle here.”

Australia's Leader Gets Poll Boost Amid Tough Stance on Refugees

Labor has rejected the government’s assertion that the new rules will embolden people smugglers and lead to more boat arrivals, saying the rules will only apply to existing refugees in offshore detention, not new arrivals.

Morrison said in the video message that it was more than four-and-a-half years since the last successful maritime people smuggling venture to Australia. Since then, the government had intercepted more than 800 people from 34 boats.

“More than 1,200 people died attempting illegal boat voyages to our country. We will never allow this to happen again,” Morrison said.

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