Kevin Rudd isn’t the only one having trouble communicating his messages. This is shaping as an electoral clash of two of the least-popular leaders in recent political history, today’s Essential Report shows. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott have suffered big falls in public approval over the past month.

The government and opposition remain locked in today’s poll, with only a 1% drop in Labor’s primary vote changing the 2PP outcome to 51-49% from last week’s 52-48%.  The coalition parties’ vote remained steady.

But while Labor’s previous polling free fall may have ended, Rudd’s fall in voters’ estimation has yet to bottom out. Compared to the beginning of May, the Prime Minister’s total approval rating has fallen 5% to 41%, and his disapproval rating has increased 5% to 47%.  For the first time, Rudd has a net disapproval rating of 6%.

Labor’s only consolation is that Abbott has suffered an even bigger blow-out in voter disapproval. In the same period, which coincided with Abbott’s brain snaps on talkback radio and the 7.30 Report, his approval rating has fallen 4% to 35% and disapproval went up 7% to 50%. This undoes Abbott’s recovery from his disastrous health debate performance, which trashed his approval numbers in March after a strong start to the year.

Essential last week also asked voters in detail about industrial relations issues, and the results must be deeply worrying for the coalition.

Asked if they believed Abbott would try to restore Workchoices if he won government, a whopping 58% believed he would (including 28% who thought it “very likely”), against only 21% he thought he wouldn’t. And while Labor and Green voters strongly believed it, more than 40% of Liberal voters also thought that Abbott would do what he has repeatedly ruled out. 45% of voters polled said they would be “very” or “quite” concerned about the return of Workchoices — and particularly concerned about the removal of unfair dismissal rights, which worried even 24% of Liberal voters.

The poll also suggests that Abbott’s attempt to paint his IR position as working within the government’s post-Workchoices framework isn’t working.  Only 24% accept Abbott’s position, but 43% prefer the position — characterised in the question as that of trade unions — that his changes would be a return to Workchoices.

Nearly half of voters — 46% — said that the coalition’s IR position would make them less likely to vote for them.  Only 14% said more.

In what is shaping up as a close election, the Liberals’ simple inability to learn the lesson of Workchoices could yet be fatal.