CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — With a possible early election looming, the Australian government suffered a confidence blow on Tuesday when an opinion poll showed it is trailing the opposition party for the first time since changing its leader last year.
With an election possible as early as July 2, the Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper found that support for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's conservative coalition was behind the center-left Labor Party 49 percent to 51.
Sydney-based market researcher Newspoll publishes a survey on the major political parties' popularity every two weeks. The survey has become a reputable barometer of Australia's political mood.
When Turnbull successfully challenged his predecessor Tony Abbott for leadership of the ruling party in September, he told reporters: "We have lost 30 Newspolls in a row. It is clear that the people have made up their mind about Mr. Abbott's leadership."
Turnbull on Tuesday refused to comment on the latest Newspoll.
"I will leave the commentary on matters like that to the commentators," Turnbull told reporters.
The poll was a weekend nationwide survey of 1,743 voters. It has a 2.3 percentage point margin of error.
A Newspoll two weeks earlier found the government was ahead 51 percent to 49. The shift is within the polls' margins of error.
But the result is a blow to the ruling party's confidence as it prepares to campaign for a second three-year term in office.
Government ministers point out that the latest Newspoll shows many more voters think Turnbull would make a better prime minister than would opposition leader Bill Shorten.
On the question of who would make a better prime minister, 48 percent chose Turnbull, down 4 percentage points in two weeks. Shorten had the support of 27 percent, up 6 percentage points. Another 25 percent were uncommitted.
Senior government minister Chris Pyne blamed a "messy week" for the government in which most state leaders rejected Turnbull's plan to allow states to share the federal government's power to levy personal income tax.
The government faces tough decisions in its annual budget on May 3 since falls in prices for commodities such as iron ore and coal due to the cooling Chinese economy have cut deep into Australian tax revenues.
Abbott, who remains a government backbencher, refused to comment on the poll.