Perchance for Labor to dream
Federal Labor's electoral stocks have been on a steady if slow rise since May and June, when a Fairfax-Nielsen poll had its primary vote at a disastrous 26 per cent. The Coalition is still on the inside track to comfortably win the next election, but Labor has at least looked more competitive since August, thanks largely to Julia Gillard's growing assertiveness in regular parliamentary jousts with Liberal leader Tony Abbott. That assessment still holds good, despite the latest Nielsen poll indicating Labor's primary vote has, for the third month running, stubbornly remained on 34 per cent. Labor's two-party preferred vote, which had reached 48 per cent last month (against the Coalition 52 per cent), dropped back one percentage point to 47 per cent, but Ms Gillard retained her lead over Mr Abbott as preferred prime minister by 51 per cent to 42 per cent.
Labor's goal had been to increase its primary vote to 38 per cent by year's end - which would have matched the vote it secured at the 2010 election and brought it a realistic chance of winning re-election. That won't happen now, but most Labor MPs would be happy and relieved in equal measure at the recovery in Labor's fortunes. However, whether this poll indicates a brief lull in proceedings or the beginning of a slide back to electoral irrelevance for Labor will remain a niggling concern for MPs, especially those in marginal seats.
Some of the poll's key findings suggest it may not take much of a wind to again fill Labor's sails. Support for Ms Gillard's decision to call a royal commission into child abuse ran to 95 per cent, and some 67 per cent of voters said they backed the government's decision to institute the offshore processing of asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Fifty-three per cent of voters said they attached a high priority to a federal budget surplus (as against 41 per cent who considered it a low priority), a finding of some equivocation that may encourage Labor to further distance itself from what has become a troublesome commitment. Labor can take some heart, too, from a softening in public opposition to the carbon price, down six points to 56 per cent, and a similar increase in support to 39 per cent.
Tony Abbott remains Ms Gillard's greatest single asset in her bid to retain office. The Opposition Leader was the preferred prime minister of 42 per cent of voters polled by Nielsen - an increase of two points on last month - but his disapproval rating remains at 60 per cent. His net approval rating of minus 24 is a new low for an opposition leader. This has prompted the Coalition to revise its parliamentary strategy of investing everything in Mr Abbott (including interrogations in question time) and it has served as a reminder of the fact that Malcolm Turnbull's net approval rating when opposition leader never fell below minus 10. Mr Turnbull's loyalty to his leader cannot be said to be in doubt, at least in public. Nevertheless, his many careful public appearances suggest a man more than willing to be serve again if called upon.
The clear advantage the Coalition commands over Labor in the primary and two-party preferred votes ensures that Mr Abbott is relatively immune from challenge from within, at least for now. But at no stage in his almost three years as Opposition Leader has Mr Abbott looked less convincing than he does now. The pugilistic style so effectively employed against Ms Gillard and Kevin Rudd has worn thin with many voters, particularly women, and Mr Abbott's daily media appearances have served to dilute rather than enhance his appeal. A lower profile may be an obvious short-term strategy to counter negative perceptions, but the best way for Mr Abbott to improve his standing would be to tone down his blanket denunciations of the mining and carbon taxes and concentrate instead on policy substances and ideas.
Ms Gillard has handicaps of her own, notably some policy reforms lacking detail or paid for on the never-never, and an episode from her past which has the potential to remind voters of Labor's close and frequently incestuous relationship with the unions. Then there is Labor's front-bench which, with one or two exceptions, has shown itself to have no great stand-out abilities.
The strength of Ms Gillard's performance in the past three months has prompted some commentators to suggest she may call an early election. This, however, ignores an agreement that Labor signed with three independents guaranteeing to serve a full three-year term. In fact, time may be Labor's greatest ally in its bid for re-election, though it will need to re-establish momentum before Parliament rises for the Christmas break.