The Prime Minister’s approval rating with voters has worsened, but the collapse in Labor’s vote appears to have stabilised, according to today’s Essential Report.

Julia Gillard’s net approval rating, which peaked in mid-January at net minus 8 points, is at its worst since August last year, with 36% of voters approving of her performance and 56% disapproving, up a point from net minus 19 points in February. Tony Abbott’s approval rating has lifted by a point and his disapproval rating has fallen by two points, giving him a net approval rating of minus 14 points. Abbott and Gillard are now equal on preferred Prime Minister, on 39% each, a fall of two points for the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader’s best outcome since August.

However, Labor’s primary vote has lifted two points to 34% after plunging to 32% last week, with the Coalition (48%) and the Greens (9%) coming off a point. The 2PP outcome is 55-45% to the Coalition, a shift of one point in Labor’s favour.

Asylum seekers rated well ahead of 457 visas as an issues of concern — 38% of voters said they were most concerned about asylum seekers, 20% about the use of 457 visas, and 18% said they were most concerned about the overall increase in Australia’s population.

But that outcome changed significantly when more detail was provided: when voters were asked whether they were most concerned about 15,000 asylum seekers arriving by boat or 150,000 foreign workers using 457 visas or a population increase of 300,000 a year, the number most concerned about asylum seekers fell to 33%, the number concerned about 457 visas rose to 31% and the number concerned about population increase was about the same (down 1 point to 17%). That suggests Labor’s effort to exploit the issue might yet bear fruit if it is able to get voters to focus more on the issue.

And just over a week after the Queensland government announced a new privatisation-heavy health policy, Essential asked about attitudes to privatisation, which have traditionally been highly negative in the electorate. Just over half — 58% — of voters say privatisation is a bad idea, and only 22% say it’s a good idea. Curiously, the dislike of privatisation is also unmarked by the usual partisanship: 64% of Labor voters think privatisation is a bad idea, but 54% of Liberal voters agree, as do 70% of Greens voters.

Voters also overwhelmingly prefer key infrastructure services run by government, in attitudes little changed since similar questions were asked in 2011. Sixty two per cent of voters think electricity is better run by government; 69% water, 64% public transport, 66% motorways, 61% universities, 69% schools. Only telecommunications and broadband is viewed differently — 45% think telecommunications is better run by the private sector compared to 44% who think government should run it.