The ALP retains a commanding lead over the Coalition according to this week’s Essential Report, and Kevin Rudd has attracted strong support for his health reform plan.

Essential Research’s poll, conducted from 16-21 March, shows no change in the ALP’s high level of support, with a 2PP outcome of 56-44. Kevin Rudd still holds a strong lead over Tony Abbott as preferred Prime Minister, 50% to 30%, but Abbott has improved on his 25% from immediately after he became leader.

Last week’s speculation, fuelled by the Opposition, that Labor may be turning its mind to a post-Rudd future has little electoral support. In addition to the Rudd-Abbott match-up, Essential also compared Julia Gillard and Abbott and Rudd and Joe Hockey. Gillard bested Abbott by 10% – with stronger support among female voters for Gillard — and Rudd doubled Joe Hockey’s support, 53-27%, although interestingly Hockey drew stronger support than Abbott from other parties’ voters and the same levels of support from older voters (traditionally more conservative) and Queenslanders.

However, the only evidence from the electorate is of a PM with a strong lead over his rival and a popular deputy to step in in the event of disaster.

The surprise of the poll is that Kevin Rudd’s health reform plan, involving a Federal takeover of hospitals funding controlled by small-area hospital networks, drew very strong support right across all voters. Overall, 58% support Rudd’s plan and only 12% oppose it, including 25% of voters saying they strongly support the plan. The numbers also show exactly why the Government is happy to have the political agenda dominated by health.

Worryingly for the Coalition, 46% of Coalition voters say they support Rudd’s plan and only 22% do not. Even the Coalition’s base supports the plan, with 31% of older voters strongly supportive and 25% of higher-income earners.

With Tony Abbott saying he will refuse to reveal any details of his own policy at tomorrow’s health debate, the only way he can shift this debate in his favour is to launch an enormously successful scare campaign about Rudd’s plan, a tough ask given he is on the record as supporting both federal funding and local management.

Essential asked about a federal takeover of hospitals not long before the Rudd plan was revealed and the results were very similar – 58% support, 10% opposing, and 26% very supportive, suggesting neither Abbott’s line about “a great big new bureaucracy” nor the State Premiers’ demands to see more detail have gained any traction with voters since the announcement.

The only areas of concern for Labor are Queensland and the apparent softness of its vote. Asked about the firmness of voting intention, there are significantly fewer “very firm” ALP voters compared to Coalition voters (43% to 58%), although the Greens are far lower than the major parties at only 26%.  Labor’s vote and Rudd’s preferred PM rating are lowest in Queensland and highest in NSW, suggesting the idea of state parties dragging down their federal cousins isn’t as simple as it appears.

Interestingly, Queensland is also the only state where Tony Abbott outpoints Julia Gillard as preferred PM.

The Coalition can take some solace from maintaining its lead over the ALP as the best economic manager, with a 7% lead (the same as in January).  It also has a huge lead – 42%-22% – over Labor in terms of ability to keep spending under control and leads Labor on controlling inflation and keeping interest rates low, but Labor has solid leads as perceived manager of the economy in the interests of workers and as a promoter of jobs for Australian workers.

Ironically, the Opposition has been ignoring the economy for months.  By taking up Rudd’s challenge, Abbott really is keeping the political narrative firmly fixed on an issue where Rudd has commanding support.  And when the Coalition eventually tries to focus on the economy, where it should be far more comfortable, it will be hamstrung by Barnaby Joyce’s and Tony Abbott’s economic illiteracy.