Australian deputy prime minister survives leadership challenge, for now

By Colin Packham
Re-elected National Party leader Michael McCormack and newly elected Deputy leader David Littleproud arrive for a press conference after the National Party leadership spill at Parliament House in Canberra

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Tuesday survived a leadership challenge in a party room vote of the National Party – the junior partner in the coalition government.

McCormack defeated former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, who was forced to resign as Nationals leader in 2018 after having an affair with his then media secretary.

The Nationals leadership challenge comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison battles to regain voter support following wide spread criticism of his handling of Australia's bushfire crisis.

A Newspoll for The Australian newspaper on Monday showed Morrison's approval rating was at its lowest level since the last election in 2018, while his Liberal-National government is trailing the Labor party by a margin of 52% to 48%.

McCormack's victory is a slight reprieve for Morrison, who would have faced pressure from Joyce to deliver more concessions to rural and regional Australia, said John Hewson, former Liberal party leader.

"It would have been pretty awkward for him to stand next to him if Joyce was elected as his deputy," Hewson told Reuters.

Bushfires have killed 33 people, an estimated 1 billion native animals and destroyed land nearly the size of Greece. since September.

Parliament will sit on Tuesday for the first time in three months and Morrison is expected to be grilled by opposition Labor over his response to the bushfire crisis and a scandal over sports funding.

Morrison came under fire from voters in December when it was revealed he was on a family holiday in Hawaii as the country's bushfire crisis escalated.

When two fire fighters were killed, forcing him to return, his initial inaction and later refusal to link the fires with climate change drew criticism that he lacked leadership at a time of national crisis.

The margin of victory in the Nationals leadership vote was not disclosed, although local media reported McCormack retained his position by a single vote.

With spiraling reports of the razor thin margin of victory, another leadership challenge is widely expected.

"Another leadership contest is all but certain, and in the not so distant future," said Chris Salisbury, professor of political science at the University of Queensland.

(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Sandra Maler, Jane Wardell and Michael Perry)