For the first time in almost three years, Labor has taken the lead in two-party preferred terms in this week’s Essential Research poll, with the party’s primary vote reaching 40%. The last time Labor led was on February 21, 2011, before the party’s vote collapsed in the wake of then-prime minister Julia Gillard’s announcement that she was embracing a carbon price.

The Coalition’s primary vote has fallen 2 points to 41%, while the Greens remain on 8% and Clive Palmer’s party has picked up a point to 4%.

Labor’s primary vote in Essential’s poll (which uses a fortnightly rolling average, with a sample size of around 1800) has been slowly but steadily building since the start of the year, while the Coalition’s vote has been well below its September election result of just under 46% — although Labor’s vote still remains below that of the Coalition by a whisker.

Labor’s steady rise might reflect the dominance of manufacturing and employment in the political conversation for the last few months, given Labor’s relative strength in those issues. Some 55% of voters are concerned that they or a member of their immediate family will lose their job in the next 12 months, compared to 47% in August 2012. That includes 48% of Coalition voters. In particular, the number of voters saying they are “very concerned” has risen from 13% to 22%, the highest figure since Essential began asking the question in mid-2009, in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Concern is particularly high in Victoria (61%)

Some 46% of voters also believed the government did not do enough to keep car manufacturing in Australia, compared to 36% who think it did enough. The response splits heavily along party lines, with Labor voters (68%) and Greens voters (55%) much more likely to view the government’s response as inadequate than Coalition voters (22%). Other voters also view the government’s response as insufficient, 54% to 36%.

Manufacturing more broadly also ranks highly in voters’ expectations of what industries will provide jobs in the future: 58% say construction, 57% say agriculture and 55% manufacturing; the only big change since the same question was asked in February 2012 was mining, regarded as big future employer by 64% of voters back then but now by 52%. Telecommunications is the lowest-ranking industry at only 37%.

Quite what this question is tapping into on the part of voters isn’t clear: agriculture is a tiny employer, and no one expects it to dramatically increase its ranks of workers any time soon, except perhaps some diehard Nationals. Mining, while a tiny employer, has at least enjoyed several years of attention in the media, but manufacturing is currently associated with job losses. The question might thus be being interpreted by respondents as asking for the industries they hold in high regard, not the industries they genuinely think will be big job providers in the future.

The government’s decision to approve dredging and dumping near the Great Barrier Reef to expand the coal port at Abbot Point is also intensely unpopular with voters: 66% of voters disapprove of the decision by Environment Minister Greg Hunt to allow dumping of spoil near the reef, and only 17% approve. That includes 41% of voters who “strongly disapprove”. The sentiment is also relatively uniform: 59% of Coalition voters disapprove of Hunt’s decision, including 28% who strongly disapprove.

Essential also asked about how interested people were in hearing about drug trafficker Schapelle Corby. Forty-seven per cent said they were “not at all interested” and a further 24% said they were “not very interested”. Only 6% of people admitted they were “very interested”. Slightly more women (9%) than men (4%) said they were very interested, but otherwise there was virtually no difference between men and women and ages, except for older people being even less interested than younger people.

There’s more of a difference in views of her treatment: while 25% of people think she was treated too harshly and 21% think too leniently (37% say “about right”), men (22%) are less likely to think she was treated too harshly than women (28%) and more likely to think she got off lightly (25% to 17%). On the other hand, older people are more likely to think she was harshly dealt with than younger people — 30% of over-55s think her treatment was too harsh and only 19% too lenient.