Tony Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been keeping quiet, holidaying in France and ensuring information on asylum seekers is kept from the public — and it has helped him in the polls.

An Essential Research poll out today — one of the first of 2014 — shows Abbott’s approval rating has improved to 47%, the highest since his election in September. Disapproval is at 43%, down three points over the last month.

Abbott’s approval rating is net positive, which is quite unusual for him (it was net negative in early December). He continues to struggle with female voters.

On voting intention, the Coalition’s primary vote is up one point to 45% since the last Essential poll a month ago. That gives a steady two-party preferred result of 51%-49% in the Coalition’s favour, the same as last time. The poll is not a huge jump for the government by any means and may reflect Australians’ lack of interest in politics while on summer holidays. But it shows events of the past month — controversy over the government’s withholding of information on asylum seekers, claims of a looming fee to visit the GP, a contested review of the school curriculum — have done Abbott no harm in the public’s eye.

Abbott remains ahead of Labor’s Bill Shorten as preferred PM on 42%-31%, which has been the situation for a couple of months now.

The Essential result flies in the face of the only other poll of the year, a Roy Morgan poll out yesterday. That put the ALP ahead on the two-party preferred at 52.5%-47.5%. Roy Morgan gauged Coalition support on the primary vote as significantly lower than Essential did. Speaking to the ABC today, acting PM Warren Truss said the government did have to make unpopular decisions and “we naturally expect there will be some repercussions and flagging in public sentiment and popularity as a result of that”.

The Coalition might be holding up fairly well — according to Essential, at least — but the mooted levying of a fee to visit a GP could trip the Abbott government up. Former Abbott adviser Terry Barnes recommended the $6 fee in a submission to the government’s Commission of Audit, which has a broad mandate to tell the government what to do about the budget. The government has not ruled out the idea.

Essential found the public didn’t like it, with 28% approving while 64% disapproved (and of the total, a whopping 41% strongly disapproved). More Coalition voters disliked than liked the plan.

It has been proposed that the federal government introduce a $6 fee for each visit to a general practitioner. Would you approve or disapprove of charging a $6 fee to visit a doctor?

The poll found stronger animosity towards the plan from people on lower incomes. Among those earning less than $600 a week disapproval was at 78%, while for people on $1600 a week or more, disapproval was at 61%. Some health experts have warned a GP fee would discourage poorer people from seeing a GP and could ultimately lead to higher health costs as a result.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, given the frequency with which they visit the GP, older people were significantly keener on the idea of a GP fee than younger people (37% approval among the over-55s, 23% approval among the under-35s).

And finally, Essential found a quiet republican spirit is growing among Australians. Support for a republic at the end of the Queen’s reign has jumped from 39% to 47% since mid-2012. So all those stories about William and Kate’s fairytale romance and cute new baby George don’t seem to be enticing Australians to stick with the monarchy.

Republican fervour was particularly strong among Labor voters, those with a university education, and men. Older people were slightly keener on a republic than younger respondents.

The Essential poll of just over 1000 people was done online last weekend.