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Abbott breaks poll drought

The government is back in front in the opinion polls. Nielsen's John Stirton says the government's strong economic message and Bill Shorten's union links help explain the turn around.

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First blood to Tony Abbott. After a faltering first three months, the Coalition has reclaimed the ascendancy and Bill Shorten is suddenly under pressure.

An 11-percentage-point fall in personal approval and an eight-point turnaround in the two-party-preferred standings represent a shocker of a start by the new Labor leader to a very challenging year.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott dashes through a downpour after meeting graziers and community members at the shearing shed of Phillip and Di Ridge of "Jandra" near Bourke NSW as part of a drought tour with Agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce on Sunday 16 February 2014.

Bringing the rain: Prime Minister Tony Abbott runs for cover during a tour of drought-affected areas that included Bourke in western NSW. Photo: Andrew Meares

Put it down to Shorten's failure to cut through, Abbott's prescience and determination to right the Coalition ship, and circumstance.

Last week saw the kind of bad news incumbents dread - the highest jobless rate in a decade and the death of the car industry. Yet it was Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey who handled both issues more adroitly in the first week of Parliament and emerged with their authority enhanced.

Labor's accusation that Abbott has presided over the loss of one job every three minutes would have resonated more if the former government had not predicted this very outcome under a continuation of its own policies.

Similarly, its critique of the Coalition's inaction on industry assistance would have bitten had Abbott not been vindicated on SPC Ardmona. Had the fruit processor pulled up stumps when Abbott turned down its request for a co-investment of $25 million, he would have been held responsible for the job losses. Now, after the Napthine government came to the party with $22 million, the jobs are secure without a cent of Commonwealth money.

Abbott has been lucky, too, because revelations by Fairfax Media and the ABC of corruption and intimidation in the construction industry have generated public support for a royal commission into union behaviour - a probe that might otherwise have smacked as an exercise in retribution.

Workplace relations is supposed to be Labor's trump card, but Abbott is playing it carefully, insisting penalty rates are a matter for the workplace tribunal and imploring companies to renegotiate enterprise agreements to improve competitiveness.

And, yes, Abbott's success in ''stopping the boats'' must also have played a part in the Coalition's recovery from very unimpressive ratings late last year.

The qualification in all areas is that it is early days. There is still so much we don't know about Abbott's border protection strategy - from the harm done to those turned back, or sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea, to its impact on the Indonesian relationship - that conclusions are premature.

Similarly, the jobs debate has a very long way to run. Abbott has promised a million more jobs in five years, and scrapping the mining and carbon taxes and restoring the Australian Building and Construction Commission won't get him within cooee of that goal.

The challenge for both sides is to articulate where the new jobs will be found and how transitions will be made from the investment phase of the mining boom, and the end of car making, to high-end manufacturing and services.

For Shorten, the immediate task is to relax the furrows in his brow, hold his opponent to account and project a sense that he is relishing the challenge. Right now, that is not the impression.

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