On one level, it is perhaps not surprising that the Abbott government should be ending its first full year in office in a spot of bother in the polls.

For Coalition governments especially, the first year is a time for tough medicine, to be sold as a regrettable but necessary consequence of the outgoing Labor government’s profligacy. A punishing first budget might be accompanied by a hit in the polls, but the government can reassure itself that it has laid the foundation for pre-election sweeteners at the appropriate point in the electoral cycle.

So while the government’s polling slump in May was undoubtedly worse than anticipated, there was no sense at the time that it faced an existential crisis.

However, nervous Liberal MPs have considerably less basis to feel philosophical about a second dip in the polls that has unfolded over the past two months — which, according to the BludgerTrack poll aggregate, finds the government ending the year in a worse position than ever.

At the time of the government’s post-budget nadir, the model shows Labor with a two-party lead of 53.8-46.2, after which the Coalition staged a recovery on the back of the MH17 disaster and domestic terrorism concerns.

The backslide began at the start of October, and by the time the calendar ticked over to December, Labor’s lead was back where it had been in late May. A continuation of the trend since has brought the two-party gap to its present peak of 54.2-45.8.

There have also been more novel indications of peril for the government in general and Prime Minister Tony Abbott in particular, such as the findings from Essential Research this week that only 29% of respondents expect Abbott to survive to an election that 46% expect Labor to win, compared with only 27% who continue to back the Coalition.

While things haven’t quite reached that level at the tote, the major betting agencies have scaled back the payout on a Labor win in just the last month from $2.55 to $2.05, while the Coalition has gone from $1.50 to $1.77.

For a government barely more than a year into its life, this is an extraordinary state of affairs. But is the situation facing it really as grim as these indications suggest?

As can be observed on the sidebar of my blog The Poll Bludger, data from the BludgerTrack model has been generated as far back as the early 1990s, providing a basis for comparison without the level of statistical noise that routinely attends individual poll series. This encompasses seven terms of government not including the present, three of which ended in the defeat of the incumbent party.

“As soon as terrorism and/or foreign policy crises fade from the headlines, so disappears any Coalition poll recovery … “

Each of the three terminal phases included periods of varying length in which the governments were travelling as badly or worse than the Abbott government is at present.

Labor under Paul Keating plunged in the polls after its wildly unpopular post-election budget in August 1993, but it soon fought back as the Liberals floundered through the leaderships of John Hewson and Alexander Downer. Once John Howard was back at the wheel after January 1995, Labor’s position was roughly as bad as Abbott’s for the remainder of the year, before improving very slightly in the lead-up to its defeat the following March.

Before Kevin Rudd’s victory in November 2007, Labor spent most of the year further ahead in the polls than it is at present, although its lead moderated as the election approached.

As far as the past few decades are concerned, the prime minister who suffered hardest from the lash of the polls was Julia Gillard, who led Labor to sub-46% two-party ratings from June 2011 until the demise of her leadership two years later, outside of two periods of respite at the beginning and end of 2012.

It should be stressed that in each case, the results were evident with a consistency that Abbott hasn’t yet matched — and probably isn’t about to in the short term.

The aftermath of the Martin Place siege seems very likely to repeat the earlier noted pattern where terrorism fears translate into improved poll ratings for Abbott and the Coalition, who may enjoy a further boost from the general tendency of attitudes towards the incumbent to soften over the New Year period.

But what makes the trend of the last two months so alarming for the government is its implication that as soon as terrorism and/or foreign policy crises fade from the headlines, so disappears any Coalition poll recovery.

This brings us to the one occasion of recent history where a government persistently polled as badly as Abbott’s is at present, yet lived to tell the tale.

For the first half of 2001, it appeared for all the world that the Howard government’s gamble on introducing the goods and services tax had been a fatal mistake.

Debate continues to rage as to whether a mid-year change in the breeze would have carried Howard home in any case, but the observable fact of the situation is that Labor’s advantage was erased after the Tampa episode in late August, then obliterated after September 11.

Considering the current government’s polling record alongside the precedent of 2001, it might be thought that Abbott’s best chance of a second term lies in voters attending to the polling booths in a state of nervous agitation over war and terrorism — assuming Abbott does indeed make it that far, which is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Peter Fray

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