While there’s a significant gender gap among voters in relation to both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, there’s also a large generation gap.

In polling conducted by Essential Research examining voters’ attitudes toward the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader over gender and temperament issues, differences among age groups loom as large or larger than the differences between men and women.

On age, sample sizes are smaller than for gender even with the large number of respondents, so the gaps need to be larger to be of statistical significance. But younger voters view Gillard much more favourably than Abbott. Sixty per cent of 18-24 year olds think Gillard has the right temperament to be PM; 53% of over-65s do, in an almost linear progression through age. Only 39% of 18-24 year olds think Abbott has the temperament to be prime minister (and 38% of 25-34 year olds), but 49% of over-65s do.

On whether Abbott can “effectively represent Australia’s interests,” only 37% of 18-24 year-olds and 40% of 25-34 year-olds agreed, compared to 52% of over-65s. Fifty one per cent of under-25s believed Gillard represented Australia’s interests effectively, compared to 45% of over-65s. Those aged under 35 (both under-25s and 25-34 year-olds) were much more likely to believe Abbott would be embarrassing as PM compared to the over-65s; 39% of under 35s thought Gillard was embarrassing compared to 50% of over-65s.

And while there was minimal difference between age groups over whether Gillard understood the challenges facing Australian women, 30% of under-25s and 35% of 25-34 year-olds thought Abbott understood the challenges facing women; 51% of over-65s did.

What’s interesting about the age difference is that it fits poorly with voting intention: younger people are less likely than older voters to support either of the major parties, so views on Gillard, for example, don’t at all reflect how different age groups say they’d vote.

There’s also a strong geographic flavour to reactions on gender issues. Queenslanders are far more likely to be pro-Abbott and anti-Gillard than NSW or Victorian voters (the latter particularly). Fifty two per cent of Queenslanders think Gillard is embarrassing as PM compared to 42% of NSW voters and 43% of Victorian voters; only 26% of Queenslanders think she’s the best person to lead her party, compared to 36-37% of NSW and Victorian voters; 47% believe Abbott has the right temperament to be PM, compared to 40-41% of southern voters. The WA and SA sample sizes are too small for meaningful observations.

What conclusions can we draw from all this? Firstly, there’s the issue of whether Gillard has a “problem” with male voters. The answer is, only comparatively, given her stronger support among women. She still leads Abbott on every positive indicator and trails on every negative indicator, except one: Abbott outscores her 39-36% on “will serve my interests as prime minister” (which arguably may be a better indicator of voting intention than most of the other attributes). Often times the comparison is starkly in her favour: she trails Abbott 25-44% on “has difficulty controlling their aggression”, despite the bump in male responses after her misogyny speech; she leads 58-42% on “has the right temperament to be prime minister”.

Second, Abbott’s “women” problem seems to apply particularly to young women. This may be because issues around reproductive choice and workplace s-xism are more live issues for younger woman than seniors, although they are of course issues close to the heart of many older women who’ve fought hard for decades for basic rights. But an alternative explanation may simply be that older, more financially-secure male and female voters are more inclined to support the Coalition and its economic policies compared to younger people with less financial security (there’s no clear pattern based on income, though higher-income voters generally seem more favourable to Abbott than to Gillard), and this flows through to their views on leaders.

Third, regardless of the animosity toward Abbott displayed by female voters, many are still prepared to vote for the Coalition anyway. Labor has narrowed the once-vast gap between the parties by lifting its primary vote into the mid 30% range, but it needs to push it into the high 30s to be competitive, and it has to do it by luring back voters currently in the Coalition camp, rather than cannibalising the Greens vote. And it’s likely it can only do this by getting the Prime Minister’s approval ratings back to neutral or even positive territory.

That is, regardless of how voters feel about Abbott, it’s ultimately the performance of Gillard that’s crucial for Labor.

Peter Fray

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