“Some participants see Scott Morrison as irretrievably damaged by the bushfire crisis and thought this was particularly likely to be the case for voters in areas that were fire-affected,” Ipsos said of the focus groups in Sydney and Melbourne last week.
The frustration with Mr Morrison contrasted with confidence in the “competent and appropriate” leadership from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, as well as strong praise for the senior fire chiefs in each state.
One voter, Rob, from the northern suburbs of Sydney, said he believed Mr Morrison had “done his dash” while another said the Prime Minister struck her as “dismissive and arrogant”.
In Melbourne, retail worker Chris said Mr Morrison would have been better to admit his mistake in leaving the country at a time of crisis.
“He should have just acknowledged he made the wrong call on going on holidays instead of justifying it. People would have been more forgiving,” he said.
The negative impression was compounded by media coverage of Mr Morrison’s meetings with fire victims, with voters recalling the heckling he received in the NSW town of Cobargo on January 2 and his comments in South Australia on January 8 that there had been “no loss of life” when two men had died.
One voter, Jill, from the northern beaches of Sydney, said she was “horrified” that Mr Morrison had not remembered the deaths on Kangaroo Island. The Prime Minister’s office said he had been referring to firefighters and had not forgotten the deaths of Dick and Clayton Lang.
Ipsos concluded that the focus groups conveyed the view that Mr Morrison and his advisers had shown poor judgement while the Prime Minister himself had shown a “lack of empathy” during the crisis.
“Only one individual in the Sydney group was less critical of Scott Morrison and one Melbourne participant held back from overt criticism,” the research company found.
Michael, a retired builder from the northern suburbs of Sydney, said Mr Morrison had not been helped enough by those around him while coming under criticism in the media.
“I think the media’s destroyed him,” he said.
“He can’t do everything. He has a lot of people under him. I just feel that he’s been torn to pieces. It’s all been done by the media and they only show the bad things, not the good things.
“He is the Prime Minister and he does deserve some respect regardless of whether it’s him or someone else.”
Ipsos found that this vocal support for Mr Morrison was a “minority” view in the focus groups, which comprised nine people in Sydney and eight in Melbourne selected to be broadly representative of different age groups, voting backgrounds and suburbs.
But Ipsos concluded there was “little confidence” Labor leader Anthony Albanese would have provided better leadership.
“Participants did not seem to think he would have made the same mistakes as Morrison, but he was seen as bland by most voters, including those who had voted Labor at the last federal election,” the research firm concluded.
One voter, Rob, who generally agreed with Labor on policies including its approach to climate change, said Mr Albanese was not “too bad” but suffered from similar flaws to the previous leader, Bill Shorten.
“He’s just a bit bland and wishy-washy like Shorten was,” he said.
While Mr Albanese has made a significant effort over the summer to visit communities, the response in the focus groups is a sign of the challenge ahead in gaining wider recognition for the Labor leader.
“I think he’s weak. He comes across as bland,” said Carmen, an office assistant and mother in the Sydney focus group.
The deployment of the Australian Defence Force gained strong support from voters and there was praise for volunteers in state fire authorities and emergency services. But those surveyed did not back the idea of a permanent role for the ADF in fighting fires.
“Participants do not see [the ADF] as having a permanent role to play in responding to natural disaster,” Ipsos found.
“They see them as a resource to be called on only in extreme emergency. As such, there was no enthusiasm to fund an extension of their role as part of the response to natural disasters.”
On climate change, many participants said the bushfires had heightened the need for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but this did not extend to strong support for putting a price on carbon.
“While the broad movement of opinion in Sydney and Melbourne was that the government needed to do at least a little more in response to climate change, participants were not able to identify what specifically should be done,” Ipsos said.
Many were unfamiliar with the details of how climate policies might work and reluctant to back ideas that increased their household costs.
“While the majority of participants had a heightened sense of concern about climate change, this generally did not translate into a greater willingness to change their behaviour,” Ipsos said.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra