The Coalition is honing its economic pitch for the election on reducing national debt by curtailing public spending — and it seems that many voters agree.

A new poll by Essential Research, released today, paints a picture of a parsimonious public concerned about debt and keen to see government funding slashed for foreign aid, the arts, welfare and private schools. The poll has been taken in the wake of a series of worsening budget deficits and downgrades of government revenue projections.

The poll of just over 1000 people, taken from Friday to yesterday, indicates the public is more interested in reducing debt (48% chose this option) than maintaining government spending (35% said that was more important). The numbers have shifted a little since the question was last asked in May, with the public taking a dimmer view of debt now.

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When asked what (if anything) governments should do about the debt, 45% said “reduce spending”, 6% said “raise taxes”, and 21% answered “both”. Even among Labor and Green voters, a clear majority wanted action taken to reduce national debt.

And how would voters like to achieve this? The most popular item on the chopping block is foreign aid — 76% of those who said they wanted spending cut would like to see aid reduced (be aware that these numbers only relate to those polled who said they would like to see overall government spending curtailed, which was 66% of the total). Coalition voters are the keenest to see this happen (82%) while 72% of Labor voters want aid cut, and 43% of Greens. This indicates the major parties’ bipartisan promise to increase foreign aid to 0.5% of gross national income (the target has been delayed) is not a vote-winner. Will the parties dump this pledge before the election?

The second least-popular spending item is the arts; 70% want funding cut, including almost two-thirds of Labor voters.

In a muted and after-the-fact vindication of former Labor leader Mark Latham, those polled did not support the current level of public funding of private schools; 59% said this should be reduced. The same proportion wanted cuts to subsidies for business. And 43% wanted cuts to welfare support, which is a major budget item. Again, these numbers refer only to the 66% of those polled who said they wanted overall spending reduced.

The public may be in a miserly frame of mind, but Essential found they did not want funding cut to public schools, health and hospitals, roads or public transport.

Essential found the first week of the federal election campaign has not changed people’s minds on who they’ll vote for. Primary voting intention remains essentially unchanged on 43% Coalition, 39% Labor and 8% Greens, very similar to the week before. This gives an all-important two-party-preferred result of 51% to the Coalition and 49% to Labor; so Labor is not out of the race.

But the gloss is wearing off Kevin Rudd, making Labor’s comeback challenge harder. Approval of Rudd has slipped from 50% to 45% in the last month, while disapproval has lifted from 35% to 43% (those numbers do not fully reflect the reaction to Sunday night’s leaders’ debate, as many of those polled were asked the question before the debate). This gives Rudd a wafer-thin net approval rating of +2% — which for Australian politics in recent years is still quite good, and significantly better than former prime minister Julia Gillard’s approval rating back in early June.

Do you approve or disapprove of the job Kevin Rudd is doing as Prime Minister?

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s approval rating remains at a lacklustre 37% approval to 51% disapproval; a net rating of -14%. His approval has hovered around this level for some time.

Rudd is the preferred PM, 47% to Abbott’s 35%. More than one in five Coalition voters did not name Abbott as their preferred PM.

*Essential Research is a part of Essential Media Communications (EMC). EM Advertising, a business wholly owned by EMC, is contracted by the ALP to provide advertising for the federal election campaign. Directors, staff and contractors working on the EM Advertising business have no involvement in the production of the Essential Report. Your Source manages Essential’s online research panel. Essential Research and Your Source are ISO accredited market research companies.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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