Julia Gillard’s approval with voters has slipped significantly and she now finds herself once again as unpopular as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, today’s Essential Report finds.

The Prime Minister’s net disapproval rating with voters has fallen from -8 to -19 since January, with a five point fall in her approval rating to 36% and a six point rise in her disapproval rating to 55%. She now rejoins Tony Abbott, from whom she appeared to break free in the last quarter of 2012, in voters’ antipathy. Abbott picked up three points in approval to 36% and disapproval fell four points to 53%, giving a net disapproval of 17 points, his lowest since March last year. The Prime Minister’s lead over Abbott as preferred PM also fell seven points to two points, 39-37%.

While Gillard fell with both men and women (though she’s still much more popular with women than men), she fell significantly with Labor voters, losing 12 points on approval and gaining 12 points on disapproval among Labor voters. Part of Abbott’s recovery was a substantial fall in approval from women — his net disapproval among women fell from -31 to -21.

Labor also went backwards on trust in relation to key issues among voters, an area where the party also made progress late last year. The Coalition leads Labor on trust in handling the economy by 15 points (+1); leads by three points on health (level) and leads by three points (up one) on “protecting Australian jobs and protection of local industries”, which has now displaced education as the third most important issue for voters, and which has been a crucial area of Labor’s political strategy. Labor’s lead on IR shrunk from nine points to six points; its lead on education shrunk from five points to two and the Coalition lifted its lead on controlling interest rates from 11 points to 14 points.

Labor’s lead as the party with the best policies for pensioners, the unemployed, people with disabilities, carers and people on low incomes also fell across all those categories.

The Coalition also extended its lead on voting intention: the major parties stayed the same on primary vote, 48 points to 34, but the Greens dropped a point back to nine points, yielding a 2PP outcome of 55-45, up from 54-46.

While the results don’t fully reverse the gains made by Labor at the end of 2012, this is a dire poll for Labor, confirming its late-2012 momentum has vanished both for the Prime Minister herself and for the party’s brand: even as Australians enjoy a remarkable confluence of low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment and record investment, the government’s reputation as an economic manager is failing to improve and may even be deteriorating.

Essential also found that 63% of voters preferred fixed-term elections, a view shared across voting intention. But Labor’s fare looks grim regardless of when we go to the polls.