How will the ascension of Australia’s first female prime minister influence female voters, if at all? And how will Tony Abbott fare with them now his opposite number is a woman?

Following Abbott’s move into the Liberal leadership, a lot of us suggested he would have a problem with women voters, given his fundamentalist image and history in office of opposing women’s right to reproductive choice. But that simple analysis was complicated by the fact the Liberals appeared to be consistently under-performing with female voters before the right-wing putsch that installed Abbott. Back in January, my colleague Possum considered the issue and noted the Coalition under both Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull “had a problem with women”.

This means the issue was more about whether Abbott widened or closed the gender gap as he first surged strongly in voters’ estimation, then fell back until he became even less popular than Kevin Rudd.

In April, Possum drilled down into the Roy Morgan Reactor data for the Rudd-Abbott health debate and found that, if anything, it was men who had a bigger problem than women with Abbott, who performed disastrously in the debate — despite the perception women rank health issues higher than men in importance.

In Monday’s Essential Report, Julia Gillard had a strong lead over Abbott as preferred prime minister — 53-26%. But the gap among men was significantly smaller — 48-31% — than that among women, among whom it was a mammoth 35 points, 57-22%.

But Abbott has had a poor preferred prime minister rating amongst women for a long time. In June, only 23% of women preferred Abbott to Kevin Rudd. The male preferred PM gap was seven points in Rudd’s favour; among women 26 points. In March, 28% of women preferred Abbott as prime minister, compared to 32% of men — but both men and women preferred Rudd over Abbott by around 20 points.

In short, Abbott does appear to have a problem with women, or at least has continued Turnbull and Nelson’s problem with women. Gillard’s ascension, at least initially, appears to have exacerbated it.

A gender gap also opened up in relation to Abbott’s own approval ratings. His net approval ratings plunged back into the red last week, but only by four points among men, 41-45% approval/disapproval. Among women , it was -14 points, 34-48%.

Previously, men and women have been almost identical in their disapproval of Abbott — for example, at the end of May his all-s-xes disapproval rating  was 49%. But he has performed consistently slightly  worse with women on approval — in June 41% of men approved of Abbott’s performance and 38% of women; in May, 38% of men approved of his performance and 33% of women; in March it was men 36%, women 31%.

Whether this translates into voting intention is obviously the key issue. As Possum noted in January, the strength of support from women voters was, along with that of seniors, crucial in keeping John Howard in office. Essential’s numbers suggest that if Abbott’s consistently poorer performance with women wasn’t affecting the Coalition vote — over the last two months women have been consistently favouring the Coalition in voting intention more strongly than men.

However, that started to reverse three weeks ago and under Gillard the Labor vote picked up significantly among women. Too much shouldn’t be read into this, though — these are raw numbers, which tend to bounce around a lot, and the Gillard prime ministership is in its infancy.

In any event, even if Abbott does have a problem with women voters, his preferred PM and net approval ratings suggest it’s part of a bigger problem that voters just don’t like the guy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey