The government is again falling further behind Labor as voters lose faith in the government’s capacity to deal with the key issues that influence votes, today’s Essential Report shows. It suggests the government’s focus on terrorism and national security matters is, for the moment, failing to cut through — and may in fact exacerbate — the electorate’s negative view of the Abbott government.

Essential’s polling also shows the government’s apparent decision — still unannounced — to acquire the next generation of Royal Australian Navy submarines from Japan rather than build them locally is strongly opposed, with 51% of voters opposing and 28% supporting it. Even Coalition voters are on balance opposed (42%-40%) with Labor voters opposed by a factor of three to one, Palmer United Party/other voters are very hostile (70%-17%), and Greens voters opposed by a factor of two to one. More than a quarter of voters recorded being “strongly opposed” to the decision.

Voters are also strongly opposed to the changes to compulsory superannuation made by the government as part of its deal with Clive Palmer to abolish the mining tax. The polling shows 49% oppose the delay in increasing the level of compulsory super contributions, while 29% support it, with Coalition voters mainly in favour (56% to 25%). However, virtually no one has bought the government’s claim that the delay will mean higher wage rises for workers. Just 10% agree that the deferral of the rise in super contributions will lead to larger wage rises — a claim eagerly spruiked by both the Treasurer and Prime Minister in the wake of the mining tax deal — while 65% believe it won’t. Greens voters are especially sceptical (83% believe it won’t), but there’s not that much difference by voting intention: the least sceptical are Coalition voters, but 60% of them say they don’t believe it will lead to bigger wage rises either.

And there’s surprising unanimity among voters about the whole concept of compulsory super, with 61% of voters agreeing it should be compulsory compared to 31% who say workers should be free to do with their money as they please. There’s virtually no difference among voters of the major parties and the Greens, with only Other/PUP voters more likely to oppose compulsory super.

There’s also been a big shift in voter sentiment about the government’s ability to handle important issues. On economic management — consistently rated as the most influential issue in shaping voting decisions — 30% of voters rate the government as good versus 36% who rate it as poor. That net -6 point difference compares to a positive 3 point difference when the same question was asked in February. That is, the government has gone backwards by nine points since February on the most important issue when it comes to deciding how people vote. The issue usually ranked as second most influential, health, has seen a much worse deterioration for the government. The government’s net rating in February was -13 points, but that has now more than doubled to -27, with just 19% of voters saying the government’s handling of health has been good.

On education, another issue that regularly features as influential, the government has gone backwards even further, from a net rating of -7 in February to -22. The only issues on which the government has made some headway are relations with other countries, from -3 to 15, and supporting Australian business (-7 to -5). On every other issue — social welfare, climate change, industrial relations, supporting Australian jobs, even treatment of asylum seekers — the government has gone backwards.

This is the same path traced by the Rudd and Gillard governments: from 2010, Labor’s lead across most of these issues began narrowing even before voting intention signalled it was beginning to struggle. Eventually, under Julia Gillard, the then-government went into negative territory on most issues, even ones where Labor is traditionally strongest, like health.

There’s some chicken-and-egg semantics here — voting intention is likely to influence how voters view a government’s handling of issues, perhaps as much as handling of issues influences voting intention. But the numbers suggest voters distinguish between issues — a simple blank hostility to the government wouldn’t produce a big rise in voter estimation of its handling of foreign affairs, for example. And the deterioration on education and health, two areas where the government has been floundering since the budget, is particularly problematic given how important those issues are for voters. Worst of all, however, it’s coupled with a deterioration on the most important issue of all, economic management. A negative score on that spells trouble for any government, and reflects poorly on Joe Hockey’s performance as Treasurer.

For the government, the only positive dimension to the numbers is that, so far, the shift in sentiment is primarily among lower income voters who are more likely to vote Labor anyway — among voters earning less than $600 a week, the government’s net rating on health is -42; on education, -34. If the shift starts taking place among middle-income voters, the government will be in real difficulties.

On voting intention, the Coalition remains on 39%; Labor remains on 38%; the Greens are up a point to 11%, PUP is on 4%. The two-party preferred outcome is now 53%-47% in Labor’s favour, up a point from last week.

Peter Fray

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