After a week in federal politics spent focusing on the so-called “gender wars”,* the Prime Minister has received a substantial boost, today’s Essential Report has found — but Tony Abbott has also made up lost ground.

In the first polling since that speech ignited a row over not merely the role of gender in federal politics but the media’s ability to report it accurately, Gillard’s leadership approval rating has increased six points to 41%, her highest rating since May 2011. Her disapproval rating has also fallen three points to 51%.

The Prime Minister’s net disapproval rating of -10 points is also her best result since early 2011. Her net disapproval rating with women (-4%) is considerably stronger than with men (-14%), though that’s not too much different to the usual gender split over Gillard.

However, Abbott has also picked up ground with voters, enjoying a five point bounce in approval to 37% and a one point fall in disapproval to 54%, improving a disastrous worst-ever September net disapproval rating of -23% to -17%.

The PM was the winner in the head-to-head preferred PM indicator, however, extending her lead to 43-36%. Abbott and Gillard have been locked in a sort of deathly embrace over preferred PM for most of this year and much of last year, with the two leaders trading the lead but never opening up a sizeable gap. This is easily the biggest gap for 2012. The PM’s lead is entirely built on female voters — they prefer her 47-33%, while men are evenly split. But compared to Essential’s previous leadership approval poll, Gillard actually picked up support among men, not women: in September she trailed Abbott 36-44% among men as preferred Prime Minister; now it’s 40-40%

This poll was taken in the field after Gillard’s Tuesday speech, from Wednesday through until the weekend. So the first blush response has to be that the speech has done the PM some good, but the data doesn’t strongly support that, unless male voters were as delighted to see the PM hitting back on misogyny as many female voters plainly were (which is possible). And further confusing the picture is that Abbott seems to have improved more with women (net disapproval from -26 to -19) than men (net disapproval from -19 to -16).

This illustrates the dangers of attributing too much significance to one moment in politics. Gillard has been improving her ratings with voters for two months now and is within sight of something that, a year ago, looked impossible: a net zero approval rating. But Abbott clearly hasn’t been damaged. And it’s still not enough for Labor. On voting intention, Labor edged down to 36%, the Coalition was steady on 47% and the Greens remained on 9%. The 2PP result remains 53-47% to the Coalition.

Essential also asked about voter views on climate change. Since June 2011, belief that climate change is caused by humans has fallen from 50% to 48%. Belief that it is merely a normal fluctuation of the climate remains steady at 39%.

*There’s a whole essay to be written on why this lazy appellation is profoundly offensive, not least because if several millennia of patriarchy in most human societies haven’t amounted to one long “gender war” then the term has no meaning.

Peter Fray

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