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Julia Gillard has arrested a three-month decline in her standing with voters, to be back level with Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister, although Labor would still be beaten if an election were held now.
Both leaders sit on 46 per cent as preferred PM - an 8-point improvement for Ms Gillard since April and just 4 points below her December high of 50 per cent when she enjoyed a 10-point lead over Mr Abbott.
What chance a comeback?
Pollster John Stirton discusses new Nielsen numbers that suggest the budget has helped PM Julia Gillard claw back some popularity lost to Tony Abbott.PT7M22S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2jvut 620 349 May 20, 2013
The latest Age/Nielsen poll, taken after Treasurer Wayne Swan's unorthodox no-handouts pre-election budget, has found voters drifting back to Labor, with two-thirds approving of what was supposed to be the most politically risky aspect of the budget, the decision to scrap the generous Howard government baby bonus.
Asked about the decision to dump the $5000 payments for a first child (cut last year to $3000 for subsequent babies), 68 per cent of respondents backed the move, with 27 per cent opposed.
Majority support for dumping the cash bonus, ridiculed as the most blatant of all the vote-buying ''middle-class welfare'' measures built up during the ''rivers of gold'' resources boom, was evident across all age groups and party affiliations, although parents of child-bearing age gave the change its coolest reception.
Yet the poll also showed less than half of all voters, 44 per cent, think the budget will be ''good for Australia'' and 67 per cent think Labor's promised surpluses in the third and fourth years of the budget will not be delivered. And 45 per cent say the budget overall has made them less likely to vote Labor.
Labor's primary vote has rebounded from its disastrous post-leadership turmoil poll-dive, when it fell to just 29 per cent in April. The figure is still low but an improved 32 per cent.
That 3-point turnaround was actually smaller than the statistically significant 5-point drop-off in support for the Coalition since April.
The Coalition's primary support went from a 2013 high of 49 per cent to 44 per cent - almost identical to what it scored at the previous election.
On a two-party-preferred basis, the Coalition has a strong lead with 54 per cent of the total vote (down 3 points) compared with the government on 46 per cent (up 3 points).
Pollster John Stirton said the result was a return to the longer-term trend after the April survey recorded a sharp drop for Labor.
''Last month's results were a little on the low side for the ALP and a little against trend,'' he said.
''This one is on trend with perhaps a very slight improvement for the government.''
He said that trend was reflected in most of the voting intention numbers with the possible exception of the 5-point fall in the Coalition's vote.
''The Liberal and National parties would win an election held now with a two-party preferred swing of around 4 per cent,'' he said.
The result of the May poll, which canvassed 1400 voters from May 16 to May 18, will be seen as encouraging to a beleaguered Labor Party that has been staring down the barrel of a historic defeat for much of the past three months since Ms Gillard broke with tradition to name the September 14 election date nearly eight months in advance.
While Labor's primary vote languishes well below the 38 per cent achieved at the 2010 hung parliament election - itself insufficient to secure a majority in the House of Representatives - the government will take heart from what it hopes is a return to the slow but steady poll recovery achieved in the second half of 2012 when Mr Abbott's anti-carbon tax scare campaign collapsed.
However, neither Ms Gillard nor Mr Abbott is is popular with voters.
With 56 per cent disapproving of Ms Gillard's performance, and just 40 per cent approving, her net approval sits at minus 16 per cent.
Mr Abbott has the approval of 42 per cent but 54 per cent disapprove - a net approval rating of negative 12 per cent.
In response to Ms Gillard's stronger personal ratings, Mr Abbott told reporters on Monday: ''I never said it was going to be easy to win this election.''
''I've always said that winning an election from Opposition would be like climbing Mount Everest,'' he said.
''While this government is really hopeless at administration, they are really clever at low politics and that's why you can never ever take anything for granted.''
When Ms Gillard was asked about the results on Monday she said she did not comment on polls.
with Judith Ireland