LABOR MPs have warned that Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership could be under threat when Parliament returns in three weeks as they digested the latest, devastating poll for the government.
Faith in Ms Gillard's 2013 re-election strategy has evaporated after the primary vote slipped to 30 per cent in the latest Age/Nielsen poll, erasing recent gains and increasing the lead of the Coalition to 17 points.
After spending time in their electorates canvassing the mood of their constituents, MPs from the Senate and House of Representatives will return to Canberra on March 12.
Some are grimly accepting that the leadership question may have to be revisited, and that a second showdown with Kevin Rudd is increasingly likely.
This could throw the September 14 election timetable into doubt and potentially put at risk the stability of Labor's majority in the House of Representatives.
Most senior ministers contacted appeared to be sticking with Ms Gillard on Monday but many said the numbers in the most recent Age/Nielsen poll could not be ignored.
''It's simple arithmetic, we can't go to an election with these numbers,'' one minister said.
Asked if the situation would come to a head when parliament returned in March, another responded: ''I don't see how it can't''.
He said he remained loyal to Ms Gillard but conceded there had been a discernible shift in momentum towards Mr Rudd in the past fortnight. But he said Mr Rudd's case for the leadership had been undermined as MPs in marginal seats recognised his public utterances as self-serving and destructive.
Arts and Regional Development Minister Simon Crean, an outspoken critic of Mr Rudd in 2012's leadership ballot, was one of the few to go on the record about him.
Mr Crean, a former Labor leader, said Mr Rudd needed to understand how ''dissension can cause difficulties for us, not just in terms of the polls''.
''It just detracts from us being able to get a consistency of message across,'' Mr Crean said.
''I don't think it's a question of telling him to shut up,'' he said.
''I think it's a question of ensuring that he stays on the issue, rather than just having the perception that it's a thinly disguised effort to promote him as the alternative leader.''
Labor MPs were rocked by the poll that showed Tony Abbott ahead of Ms Gillard as preferred prime minister, jumping nine points to 49 per cent with her support slipping by five points to 45 per cent.
It followed a poor start to the election year for Labor, marred by policy and political errors, the failure of the mining tax, and the prominent emergence of Mr Rudd even as he called on people to take a cold shower over the leadership.
Mr Rudd was in Victoria on Monday for what his office described as ''private'' functions, and was not commenting on the polls.
Among voters, Mr Rudd holds a decisive lead over Ms Gillard as preferred ALP leader,
61 per cent to 35 per cent, according to the poll.
Ms Gillard refused to discuss the poll on Monday as she spruiked the government's latest initiative, the $1 billion Industry and Innovation Statement.
But as Fairfax Media reports today, most of that money, supposedly being directed into Australian jobs, will be returned to the budget bottom line.
Climate Change Minister Greg Combet also acknowledged the government's dire standing with voters.
''No sugar-coating it, it's a bad poll today and there's no doubt about it,'' he told ABC Radio on Monday.
Senior Liberals welcomed the findings with just months to go before the election, but played down claims it was the result of Tony Abbott hiding his negative side.
Manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne said the Coalition's 17-point lead on primary votes showed Mr Abbott had what voters wanted.
''The polls showing a Coalition win are just a reflection of the Coalition focusing on the issues that matter - cost of living, job security, the economy and border protection - while the Labor Party is inwardly focused on leadership,'' he said on Facebook.