ONE deeply troubling question for the Coalition emerges from the last The Age/Nielsen Poll of the year: are Tony Abbott's dismal ratings now pulling down the Liberal primary vote - and threatening the victory that seemed assured at next year's election?
Abbott's popularity hits new low
Tony Abbott's popularity among voters has fallen once again, with the AWU affair apparently backfiring on the opposition leader.
The Liberal leader now has an approval rating of just 34 per cent, and is the preferred prime minister of 40 per cent of voters. Both numbers lag behind the Coalition primary vote of 43 per cent, which is six percentage points lower than it was this time last year.
And it gets worse. Abbott's disapproval is now the second-highest in the history of the poll at 63 per cent, and his net rating (approval minus disapproval) has been worse than minus-20 for four straight months. No longer can it be said that Abbott has a problem with female voters - he is almost equally on the nose with men and women alike, old and young, city and country.
Moreover, the tactic of his deputy, Julie Bishop, using almost all of the Coalition's questions in the final week of Parliament to probe Julia Gillard's conduct as a lawyer two decades ago, appears to have backfired on Abbott.
Sixty-four per cent of those who followed the AWU slush fund story disapprove of Abbott's handling of it, and 71 per cent say it has made no difference to their attitude to the Prime Minister. For all of the Opposition's focus, one in four voters are oblivious to the issue.
The number that counts, of course, is the one that best reflects voting intention, and it still offers comfort to Abbott.
Here, little has changed in the past 12 months. The Coalition is ahead on the two-party preferred vote, 52-48 (compared with 53-47), and would secure a 2 per cent swing if these figures were reflected in the election outcome.
But in almost all other areas over the 12-month period, Gillard can take a measure of comfort: from the improvement in Labor's primary vote (up six points to 35); the rise in her own approval rating (a negative 23 has been reduced to a negative four); and she now leads Abbott by 10 points as preferred PM (after trailing by four last December).
Labor's numbers went backwards in the first half of last year, propelled by internal dissent and Abbott's carbon tax scare campaign. These figures show that the clear recovery since the carbon price came in in July has stabilised, or stalled - but not yet begun to recede.
So, while Gillard ends the year with the government within striking distance and some daunting challenges ahead (including the perennial one of keeping at bay those wanting a return to Kevin Rudd), Abbott is under immense pressure to change the style and substance of his leadership.