Are women Gillard's untapped ace?
Women prefer Labor by a margin of about five percentage points. Photo: Andrew Meares
A gender gap in voting intentions played a major part in Barack Obama's win in the recent United States presidential election, raising the question: could a campaign heavily directed at women voters win an election for Labor in Australia?
According to the latest Newspoll published in The Australian, the Coalition would have comfortably won had one been held last week.
But the election was not last week. And one positive is that women prefer Labor by a margin of about five percentage points.
This is less than half Obama's gender gap of 11 percentage points, achieved in part thanks to some controversial comments from Republicans about rape, birth control and abortion.
Nevertheless, the gap is something on which Labor might be able to work.
Perhaps making a start, so far this month Prime Minister Julia Gillard has:
■ Announced that her government will act to stop the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation in Australia;
■ Presented the inaugural Prime Minister's Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award for a high-achieving female student to undertake research overseas;
■ Presented the Prime Minister's Women in Sport Award to gold medal Paralympic swimmer Jacqueline Freney; and
■ Hailed the ''significant advance for equal pay for women'' with the implementation of pay rises for 150,000 social and community sector workers across Australia.
On top of these statements, which are focused directly on women, Gillard issued two media releases on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, one of the ''soft'' issues believed to be more favourably regarded by women voters.
This is not to say that Gillard has dealt only with women's issues. There were the other standard prime ministerial missives on COAG, the Toyota engine plant opening and anti-dumping measures.
But the statements featuring women were more highly represented than usual. And they came on top of Gillard's resounding misogyny speech, which was very well received by women.
An astounding 83 per cent of women approved of the way she handled Abbott's behaviour.
With Justice Steven Rares' decision to throw out James Ashby's sexual harassment claim, Gillard's speech has been further vindicated in maintaining the traditional position that politicians should not jump into matters before the courts. Most of the press gallery should hang their heads in shame for their comments criticising Gillard's speech and whipping up the Slipper lynch mob.
In addition to the women's vote, Gillard also has a few other factors running in her favour.
Most voters prefer her over Tony Abbott as prime minister, and there is an overwhelming dissatisfaction with Mr Abbott's performance, by a margin of 59 per cent to 28 per cent.
John Stirton, of Nielsen research, has pointed out that we have had five changes of government since 1972 and on each occasion the opposition leader who went on to become prime minister was popular. Gough Whitlam had a net average approval rate of plus nine, Malcolm Fraser plus 18, Bob Hawke plus 31, John Howard plus 18 and Kevin Rudd plus 40.
Abbott has a massive hurdle to overcome at minus 31.
On top of that, veteran commentator Laurie Oakes has pointed out that by the time of the next federal election Abbott will have been Opposition Leader for nearly four years. The last opposition leader in the job that long, who went on to win, was Gough Whitlam 40 years ago. Ever since, all successful opposition leaders have been in the job for only a short period.
Although the Coalition is now comfortably in the lead, there is no doubt that by the time the election rolls around, the polls will show a much tighter contest.
The third observation that might give Labor some heart comes from the ABC Insiders opinion poll analyst Andrew Catsaras, who has noted that of the 36 federal elections since preferential voting was introduced, the government has won 28 and the opposition eight.
And to win in every one of those eight, the opposition needed to attract more than 51 per cent of the two party-preferred vote.
The incumbent has the obvious advantage of being able to choose the timing of the election, and has addition resources at its disposal right up until the election is called.
Gillard can be seen to be doing things. Abbott can only comment.
The challenge for Labor is find ways to make some of the social issues count. No matter how well the government runs the economy, it seems Labor will never be recognised by the electorate as the better economic manager. Labor has to set the agenda on other issues - Work Choices, the environment, live animal exports, health and education.
And it has to at least neutralise the asylum seeker issue.
Abbott has to work on his image and, in particular, women's perception of him. He cannot afford any loose statements on anything that might be perceived as a ''women's issue''.
At the same time the Coalition has clearly decided to tarnish Gillard's image. While they failed to identify any specific charge against her, the endless questions on the AWU-Slater & Gordon affair have been damaging.
While the shock jocks will continue to take every opportunity to bash her, Gillard now has her own external defence team. After Alan Jones claimed women were ''destroying the joint'' the social media exploded with, among other things, a ''Destroy the Joint'' website putting alternative points of view.
Jones has his following of elderly, mainly poorly educated voters, while Gillard now has a rapid response team of young shock troops ready to hit-back.
It will make for an interesting campaign.