Voters have reversed their recent judgment of federal Labor, and Julia Gillard strongly leads Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister in today’s Essential Report poll, conducted last week and over the weekend.

Voting intention has remained stable, with Labor retaining its primary vote increase from last week and a two-party preferred lead of 54-46%, although the Greens have stabilised their recent fall in support from historic levels and moved back up to 11%.

Gillard’s first approval ratings as prime minister are also strong, although not in the same scale as Kevin Rudd’s early ratings. Almost half (48%) of voters approved of her handling of the job (up seven points on Rudd’s last poll) and only 27% disapprove, a huge drop of 20% from Rudd, giving her a 21% net satisfaction rating.

There’s no good news for Abbott, nor recognition he in part accounted for Rudd’s demise. He has fallen back into the negative territory where he has spent most of his time since March, with a big increase in disapproval and a small fall in approval, sending him 10 points into the red on net satisfaction.

Gillard has also increased 2PP lead to 49%-29% — Rudd’s last poll showed a 17% margin. Only 70% of Liberal voters prefer Abbott.

But it is in perceptions of Labor that Gillard has achieved a significant turnaround. Under Rudd, the Labor brand had become badly tarnished, and compared unfavourably to the Coalition across nearly all areas of policy. Gillard’s ascension has significantly improved perceptions of Labor in areas like representing the interests of working people, understanding the needs of average Australians and representing the interests of voters, where Labor holds strong leads over their opponents.

The Coalition still leads in areas like handling the economy, and handling international relations (and particularly handling immigration), but Labor has reduced the gap across all those areas. Only in the areas of standing up to multinational companies and honesty and integrity has Gillard not had any effect — in fact Labor’s perception for honesty and integrity fell one point, doubtless in response to the manner of the disposal of Rudd.

Gillard has also dramatically improved on voter perceptions of Rudd, with big increases in perceptions of her intelligence, hard work (bizarrely, given Rudd’s work ethic), capability for the job and being ‘good in a crisis’. The biggest rise, 21%, was in ‘down to earth’, unsurprisingly. She also achieved big falls on Rudd’s scores in negative traits like ‘narrow-minded’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘out of touch’.

Abbott, however, can’t take a trick: compared to the previous poll on voter perceptions, back in May, the opposition leader is now regarded as more arrogant, more out of touch, more narrow-minded and more complacent and less trustworthy than in May, and Gillard has big leads across all characteristics, most of all in ‘narrow-minded’, ‘capable leader’ and ‘good in a crisis’.

Essential also found consistently strong opposition to the idea of a population of 36 million by 2050, with 55% saying it was bad and only 16% saying it was good. And while Liberal and Green voters were more likely to say it was a bad idea, overall the results were very consistent right across voting intentions. There was a similar consistency across voting intention about attitudes toward our current migration levels, with 48% saying it was too high and only 35% saying it was about right.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey