Less than half the population supports compulsory voting — but whether forced to vote or not, no one is in a hurry to cast a ballot for Tony Abbott as prime minister.

The latest poll results from Essential Research show voters are not enamoured with Australia’s electoral system, which is based on compulsory voting, often with mandatory preferencing thrown in. When Essential asked its online panel about a bid to make voting voluntary at the state and federal levels, just 49% said they’d oppose the move. Forty per cent said they’d support it and 11% said “don’t know”.

Coalition voters were the most enthusiastic about making voting voluntary, while Labor voters were more inclined to keep it compulsory. However, Labor voters were the most likely to give the ballot box a miss if they had the choice; 61% of Labor voters would “definitely vote” if it was optional, compared with 67% for Coalition and Green voters. Lumping all voting intentions together, 25% said they would “probably vote”, leaving a small minority — 15% — to say they would probably or definitely not vote (or “don’t know”).

Last week, Liberal figures including Brownyn Bishop floated the prospect of compulsory voting with optional preferencing (some experts predict such a system would most help the Liberals, while stripping Labor of some Greens preferences, and perhaps disadvantaging the Nationals). Essential found the public are certainly no fans of mandatory preferencing in elections.

When asked which of three systems they preferred — preferential, optional preferential or first past the post — the preferential option came last, with 23% making it their choice. First past the post was the most popular option, with 44% support, while optional preferencing came second on 25% support. The public split along party lines; Coalition voters were particularly keen on first past the post, Labor voters liked a preferential system and Greens voters went for optional preferential.

However you ask the question to Australian voters in an election, the answer is rarely “Tony Abbott”. Essential found Abbott’s low popularity has sunk further, while Julia Gillard has staged a modest resurgence with punters.

Approval of Gillard has lifted four points to 41% in the last month — her best result in almost two years — while disapproval of her has fallen to 49%. She’s still in net disapproval territory, but in contemporary Australian politics those numbers aren’t bad.

Abbott just can’t get off the mat — he’s on 33% approval and 57% disapproval, his highest disapproval rating in at least three years. Despite recent attempts to improve his standing with women — including media appearances by his wife, and chief of staff Peta Credlin — 30% of voters strongly disapprove of him.

When asked who would make a better PM, more than a quarter of Coalition voters (27%) responded “don’t know” or “Julia Gillard”. Overall, Gillard leads Abbott 42% to 33% as preferred PM.

However, while the public loves to hate Abbott, it’s not proving an election winner for Labor. Essential found voting intention was largely unchanged from last month, on 54-46% to the Coalition on two-party-preferred. On the primary vote, which if voters had their way could be a lot more important than 2PP, the Coalition leads on 48% from Labor (36%) and the Greens (8%).

Essential polled just over 1000 respondents between Thursday and yesterday.