All of the political focus in the past fortnight has been — correctly — on the Prime Minister.  Even if the leadership speculation is entirely the product of journalists craving the excitement of a leadership contest — because it’s been a good seven months since we had one — and the partisan agendas of some outlets, the spectacular collapse of Kevin Rudd’s own standing and the Labor vote has merited extensive analysis.  And got it, by the bucket load.

That’s fortunate for Tony Abbott because in other circumstances coalition MPs would be looking very closely at his performance.

Essential Research’s polling shows that the coalition primary vote has been at about 41% since early May.  For an extended period this year, the Liberal vote was stuck in the mid-30s, but in the May 10 poll it pushed up to 39% and has been there ever since, apart from May 17 when coalition support briefly spiked at 43% (41% for the Liberals and 2% for the Nationals).

Since then, all the action has been with the Greens, not the coalition.  Given that the government has been stumbling from one stuff-up to the next and lacked any clear air to communicate its key messages, this stalling of the coalition vote raises questions.  As with any polling analysis, of course, the next poll could blow all this to bits, but something appears to be weighing down the conservative vote.

The obvious answer is that it’s Abbott.  If there’s any leader less popular than Rudd at the moment, it’s Abbott, who has even higher dissatisfaction ratings.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, Abbott does indeed appear to be a problem.  Asked who has the best leadership team early this month, Labor held a 16% lead over the coalition.  But, problematically, only 75% of Liberal voters thought the coalition had the better team (compared to 95% of Labor voters).  And 34%-5% of undecided voters thought Labor had the better team.

This can be deceptive.  Governments naturally have higher-profile senior ministers because they’re constantly in the media.  Shadow ministers, even high-profile ones, struggle to get coverage and that influences voters’ perceptions.  But that doesn’t stop voters from kicking governments out — the inevitable criticism of beleaguered governments that their opponents are “inexperienced” never gets traction with voters, perhaps because they understand the basic logic that if you’ve been out of power for a decade, of course, you’re not going to have massive ministerial experience.

But Abbott’s approval numbers from late May also suggest he has a problem with undecided and even Liberal voters.  It was during this period, of course, that he was regularly taking aim at his own foot and firing rapidly.  Rudd scored 21%/68% strongly approve/approve with Labor voters.  Abbott only managed 11%/61% from Liberal voters.

And 32% and 14% of undecided voters disapproved/strongly disapproved of his performance.  Rudd got 23%/9% disapprove/strongly disapprove from undecideds, and 28% approve, compared to 10% for Abbott.  And, again, Liberal voters were less enthusiastic about Abbott than Labor voters were about Rudd — 72% total approval for Abbott, 89% for Rudd from Labor voters.  The only really stark comparison in Abbott’s favour is with older voters — Rudd is entirely out of favour with voters over 65, while Abbott at least polls well with them.

Guess that increase in the pension’s not helping, Kevin.

It could be that Abbott’s problems will disappear when sufficient time elapses between his remarkable meltdowns on Neil Mitchell and the 7.30 Report.  But his stocks have been falling ever since he lost the health debate with the Prime Minister earlier in the year, which hit him hard.  He recovered briefly, but ended up back at his post-debate low after stuffing up in those interviews.

Like the Prime Minister, Abbott needs to respond to an obvious disillusionment with him among voters.  Possibly some of Abbott’s reputational issues are long-established and hard to shift, but diehard Abbott-haters were never likely to be Liberal voters anyway.  In particular, Abbott might need to hand off some of the negative campaign work to offsiders so that he can look more prime ministerial.  Like Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott seems to have suffered from doing his own dirty work.  Rather than letting their lieutenants do the attacking, both men elected to take the personal attacks against the Prime Minister up themselves.  Turnbull’s blew up in his own face in spectacular fashion, of course, but Abbott has had a lot more success.  In both cases, however, they have been victims of their own tactics.

Abbott’s success has put his party back within reach of the government.  The problem is whether he can go that further step and get them ahead.  His colleagues might face the same problem that Labor faced with Kim Beazley — Beazley made them competitive, but didn’t have what was necessary to get them over the line.

Last weekend at the Deakin Lecture on the Politics of Climate Change, Turnbull got a hero’s welcome.  This is the Turnbull who cut a deal with the government to further neuter an already-useless CPRS in favour of polluters.  Nevertheless, he is by default the only major politician in favour of real action on climate change.  His party colleagues, apart from Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth, have cut and run (or, in the case of Greg Hunt, opted to save their own political skins and toe the denialist line).  Kevin Rudd has transformed one of his greatest strengths into probably his greatest weakness on the issue.  Purged of his disastrous association with Godwin Grech by the fire of his leadership ordeal, Turnbull might be able to redirect a lot of the votes that have drifted from Labor to the Greens over towards the Liberals, which would probably win the election, and win it handily.

But that’s all for the coming months.  Tony Abbott has time to turn around his problems with voters, if he’s smart enough.

Peter Fray

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