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Time ticking for embattled Labor

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Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald

View more articles from Lenore Taylor

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JULIA Gillard has three weeks to try to regain control of the political agenda as previously strong supporters contemplate the desperate threat to both the Labor Party and the union movement posed by Labor's dire standing in the polls.

The latest Nielsen poll - confirming a potentially devastating election year shift against the government and the Prime Minister - and the already set election date mean MPs are no longer prepared to hang on and hope for a political recovery.

The next two-week sitting period, starting on March 12, is crucial because it is the last before the May 14 budget, which will lock in Labor's strategy for the election.

Monday's result was so bad only the Prime Minister herself held to the pro forma lines about not commenting on every twist and turn in the opinion polls. Her ministers, including Greg Combet and former leader Simon Crean, acknowledged it was a shocker.

MPs who have not been Kevin Rudd supporters were openly speculating about the mechanism that could bring about a leadership change, including whether confirmation of a comprehensive collapse in caucus support could persuade the Prime Minister to stand down.

Even those still steadfastly opposed to change, including ministers, conceded ''something has to give'', both to end the ongoing leadership tensions and improve Labor's political strategy and ''messaging''. Some questioned the overt appeal to ''blue-collar workers'' and many appeared disconnected from the tight group in the Prime Minister's office that formulates strategy.

The Nielsen poll cemented Labor MPs' frustration and despair - both the prospect that the party could lose 26 seats, and the real possibility that if those wipe-out numbers were replicated at the election Tony Abbott could gain control of the Senate with the support of right-wing minor parties.

That scenario means there would be no impediment to the Coalition undoing most of what Labor has done in the past five years.

And the threat of that extends to the union movement, which fears a reversal of Labor's industrial relations changes, changes to political donation laws to break the funding link between Labor's political and industrial arms and possibly inquiries into union conduct in general and the ''AWU affair'' in particular.

It is impossible to predict what Labor will do. But no one thinks waiting and hoping is still a viable option.

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