Over the past few days, there has been a view expressed abroad, in the nebulous realms of the blogosphere, that Tony Abbott committed a disastrous bungle when he publicly resolved to “shirt-front” Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in doing so offered yet more evidence of his menacing incapacity to think on his feet.

As it so often does, this tendency found a spokesperson in Bob Ellis, who reckoned Abbott’s behaviour to be “symptomatic of football-induced, or boxing-induced, brain injury”. But for others among us, a more satisfying alternative explanation can be found in Abbott’s urgent need to keep public and media attention focused on the issues that have underwritten his recent poll recovery, and his prioritisation of such concerns over a more prudent approach to diplomacy.

Indeed, Abbott’s gambit of muscling up to Putin can be understood all too easily as part of the widely bemoaned tendency for modern politicians to be obsessed with opinion polls, driven by focus groups and fixated on the news cycle — failings Abbott’s foes tend not to ascribe to him, being largely incompatible with the more popular view of him as an implacable ideological zealot.

As demonstrated by the charts below, which show the trends of the two leaders’ poll ratings on net approval broken down by gender, the MH17 disaster in mid-July marked a clear turning point after Abbott’s post-budget poll slump, when his rating lifted by around 10% immediately afterwards.

For Abbott and his advisers, the opportunity presented by next month’s G20 meeting will be all the more golden for it being defined in the public mind as a showdown with Putin over 27 lost Australian lives. To achieve that end, it was evidently deemed that something more forceful was required than a mere reiteration of earlier stern words concerning an event that passed its peak as a news story two months ago.

The polling trend also shows that the recovery for Abbott and the Coalition didn’t ended with the MH17, with the more recent confluence of military commitments and terrorism concerns having generated a distinctive second bounce. Of particular encouragement to Abbott is that the rather masculine nature of the issue agenda that has been paying such dividends for him hasn’t stopped his stocks rising equally among both genders — albeit that the gap between the two remains at a historically remarkable level of around 10%.

Some change in the gender balance of leadership support has been evident over recent weeks, but it has related to the Opposition Leader rather than the Prime Minister. Since coming to the job in November, Bill Shorten’s net approval ratings has generally been around 5% higher among women than men. Partly this reflects a general tendency for women to make more forgiving opinion poll respondents, which makes the imbalance in Tony Abbott’s numbers all the more unusual. It is also reflective of a gender gap in voting intention that opened during Kevin Rudd’s first prime ministership, widened under Julia Gillard, and moderated, but by no means disappeared, thereafter.

But as the chart above shows, more recent polling suggests the gap has all but disappeared. Superficially, the narrowing appears to have resulted from a rise in Shorten’s stocks among men rather than a decline among women. However, another possibility is that whatever has driven his general improvement — perhaps a rallying-around-the-flag effect caused by war and terrorism talk, chiefly of benefit to Abbott but residually so for Shorten as well — has been negated by some countervailing tendency among women.

Troublingly for Shorten, the point at which the gap begins to shrink is in late August. It was on the 21st of that month that Shorten broke the official silence about the rape allegation that had been made against him, after police concluded an investigation and declared the matter closed. At the start of October, the allegation received a new round of publicity following high-profile media appearances by the complainant. The one poll on leadership approval to have been conducted since then was this week’s result from Essential Research, which found Shorten’s net rating to be three points higher among men than women; a finding without precedent in any of the 24 poll results to have emerged from Newspoll, Nielsen, Essential Research and Roy Morgan since Shorten became leader.

The Coalition has given the matter a very wide berth, offering comment only at the time Shorten went public. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull then offered that Shorten had made the “right decision”, while Tony Abbott declared the matter had been “dealt with”. However, history suggests it would be very unusual for any such chink in a politician’s armour not to be exploited, in one way or another.

Peter Fray

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