Kevin Rudd has led Labor to the brink of a first-term defeat that was unthinkable just weeks ago, with Essential Media’s new poll showing Labor’s once-formidable lead giving way to a 50:50 2PP.

And the Prime Minister’s reputation with voters has been shredded, with significant falls in how he is regarded.

Essential picked up the collapse in Rudd’s personal standing last week, with Newspoll and Nielsen subsequently confirming that his performance since the COAG health summit has badly damaged Rudd’s appeal to voters.  Today’s result now brings all major polls into line, putting Labor and the Coalition on level pegging with just months to come before the election.

Essential’s poll shows the Liberals picking up substantially on their primary vote, to 42%, directly from Labor, which lost the same amount to fall to 37%, with the Greens unchanged.

Essential asked voters about the personal attributes of both the Prime Minister and Tony Abbott.  While Abbott’s attributes were relatively unchanged compared to early December, when the question was previously asked and Abbott was only days into the job, Rudd’s appeal has collapsed since then.  The number of voters who regard him as a “capable leader” has fallen 14% to 55%; a similar fall has occurred for “good in a crisis” to 44%; 10% fewer regard him as trustworthy or more honest than other politicians, and there was a 10% rise to 55% in the number of people who regard him as out of touch.  Rudd still leads Abbott in most attributes (except “narrow-minded”, where Abbott has a 10% lead), but that lead has shrunk dramatically.

The only bright spot in the poll for the Government is the high levels of support for the its taxation measures, including a strong 52-34% approval rating for the RSPT, 74% support for the increase in the compulsory superannuation level, and even 63-31% support for the tobacco excise increase, suggesting any Rudd fightback should start with a better prosecution of his tax reforms.

Nevertheless, the collapse in Rudd’s appeal to voters is clearly at the core of the loss of Labor’s once-massive head. A constant theme of all polls is that Tony ‘what would Jesus’ weatherman do?’ Abbott is not drawing voters to him — but Kevin Rudd has repelled them. Worse, this has been brought about not by sticking to his principles or fighting for unpopular reform, but in the course of running away from reforms, most particularly its emissions trading scheme, and sliding to the right on the political spectrum to prevent a more reactionary Abbott Liberal Party from stealing voters.

Today’s Caucus meeting, the first since mid-March, will be an opportunity for Labor backbenchers to demand to know how Rudd and his team are going to salvage his reputation with voters, since he is clearly the problem out in the electorate.  The situation isn’t terminal for Rudd — John Howard endured similarly dire polling during his first term — but the Prime Minister is damaged goods and he only has a few months to turn it around with an electorate that has rapidly fallen out of love with him.

This is now a genuine crisis for Rudd, and one entirely of his own making. He must figure out a solution, and fast.

Peter Fray

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