Polling shows the budget sales process has damaged both the budget and its chief spruiker, the PM. Tony Abbott now finds himself in Julia Gillard’s situation; can he climb out of it?
While the Coalition’s polling position shouldn’t give too much cause for concern for government strategists — it’s over two years until the next election — the damage inflicted by the budget on Tony Abbott should be. The Prime Minister has emerged from the budget process badly wounded.
The most recent leader approval figures from Essential Research, two weeks ago, show approval of Abbott at 35% to 58% disapproval, or a negative disapproval rating of 23%. That followed a poll on the eve of the budget of 35%-55%. It’s the sort of -20% levels that Julia Gillard routinely occupied from 2011 (barring a brief period over the summer of 2012-13) until her removal a year ago.
In April this year, before the government’s pre-budget messaging was badly derailed by a leak about a debt levy, Abbott was on 41%-47%; he’d been on 40%-47% in March and had actually had a net positive rating in January — unusual for Abbott, who has never received strong voter approval numbers.
The surge in disapproval has come a little from Labor voters, who already loathed Abbott but now loathe him even more, but also from voters who continue to indicate support for the Liberals but who have taken a dislike to Abbott — whereas around 5% of Liberal voters disapproved of Abbott’s performance before the budget, now around 12% do. The other group that has ramped up its dislike of Abbott is “Other”/PUP voters (who currently form around 12% of the electorate, although PUP is primarily a Queensland phenomenon), whose disapproval went from the fifties to the seventies after the budget. Worse, the level of “strongly disapprove” among those went from the low-twenties to over 40%.
The budget also saw Opposition Leader Bill Shorten take a narrow lead as preferred prime minister. It’s unusual for a first-term opposition leader to overtake a prime minister so early in a government’s term, but Shorten, while hardly popular with voters himself — he’s a had a single-figure net disapproval rating for most of the year — has converted many of the “Don’t Knows” that characterised initial voter reaction to him into positives.
But the budget also damaged voters perceptions of Abbott’s political personality. Shorten now has big leads over Abbott on nearly all leadership traits, Essential has found, suggesting not so much that voters regard Shorten as “visionary” or “good in a crisis” or “in touch with ordinary people” as they don’t like Abbott.
Again, Abbott’s fairly average performance before the budget dramatically worsened afterwards, particularly on issues around trust and an understanding of voters’ concerns. Between April and the end of May, Abbott fell a full 11 points on “trustworthy”, from 40% to 29%. On “out of touch” he also rose 11 points, to 67%. Even on characteristics that have nothing to with the budget, like “hard-working”, Abbott fell 9 points.
In the same period, Shorten lifted on positive traits and fell on negative traits, albeit by smaller amounts. He did, however, lift 9 points to 51% on “a capable leader” while Abbott fell 9 points to 42%, as if the two men had simply swapped spots in voters’ minds. Gillard’s last rating as a “capable leader”, taken just days before she was dumped, was 44%; Abbott and Gillard both scored 42% on “understands the problems facing Australia” while Shorten lifted to 53%.
And while this has been happening, Australians have also been souring further on the budget, in what has been an unusually extended period of public debate about the measures in it. Between the week after the budget and the start of June, the proportion of voters who thought the budget cut spending too much rose from 41% to 48% while those who thought it cut spending the right amount fell from 26% to 21%. The post-budget selling process not merely damaged the salesman, it damaged the product. Liberal voters and “Other”/PUP voters particularly soured on it — the number who thought the budget cut spending too much rose by 7 points in each case.
This suggests a focus on getting budget measures through the Senate is unlikely to start a resurgence of the Coalition’s fortunes. Instead, the government is shifting tack to focus on the carbon price and the possibility of repealing it after July 1. That may shore up its stocks with its old, climate denialist base — pensioners who may be worried about what the government is going to do to their pensions and laws protecting them from financial planners.
But, for now, the government is stuck with a leader who has reached Gillard-like levels of unpopularity with voters. For Gillard, it was a long, slow struggle to regain voters’ respect, and she lost it all again at the start of last year, just when she was threatening to become competitive. Abbott now has the same challenge of regaining voters’ respect.