Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has recorded the worst polling of his time as leader in the wake of his appearance at the trade union royal commission and his admission of a years-late political donation, today’s Essential Report finds.

Just 27% of voters approve of his performance, with 52% disapproving. Shorten’s 25-point net disapproval figure, up from 13 points in June, is easily his worst ever. Tony Abbott has only recorded a worse figure once — 33 points, in February, and scored 25 points in March and April.

Last week, Shorten spent two days being questioned at the trade union royal commission about his time as secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union at the national and Victorian level, and he admitted that a $40,000 in-kind donation to his 2007 election campaign had only been reported days before.

Damagingly, 29% of Labor voters disapprove of Shorten’s performance (the same percentage of Liberal voters disapproved of Abbott in February). Shorten fares slightly better among women (net 21 point disapproval) compared to men (29-point disapproval).

Tony Abbott (37%) has slightly extended his lead over Shorten (30%) as preferred prime minister, up from five points in June. However, the Prime Minister hasn’t been able to use Shorten’s problems to improve his own standing with voters. His own net disapproval rating has deteriorated from 11 points in June to 16 points, with 37% of voters (-2) approving of his performance and 53% (+3) disapproving.

But there is no change in the two-party preferred voting intention. The Coalition remains on 41%; Labor as dropped a point to 38%; the Greens are up a point to 11% for a two-party preferred result of 52%-48% in Labor’s favour. The two-preferred has been at 52%-48%, with the occasional shift to 53%-57%, since March.

Between them, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten have a total approval score of -41 — the biggest since Abbott was elected (the next biggest was in February, based on Abbott’s colossal -33-point score) and only slightly better than mid-2012, when voter loathing of both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott  had both leaders with net disapprovals in the 20s. And while Abbott has recovered from the diabolical ratings of early in the year, his experience offers little hope to Shorten. Look at where the Prime Minister has managed to get to, after jettisoning the government’s reform agenda and abandoning a serious attempt to address the deficit — he touched -11 in June, but has now blown out again. Based on Abbott’s experience, it will be early next year before Shorten has clawed his way back to mere mild voter hostility.

As the voting intention figures indicate, this need not be an impediment to electoral success for Shorten; indeed, Tony Abbott’s entire period as Liberal leader has been a demonstration that voter antipathy isn’t an impediment to electoral success if your opponents are bad enough. But given how poor Abbott’s performance as prime minister has been, Labor’s four-, and occasionally six-, point lead is not much of a return. Particularly problematic is how Shorten has been unable to convert the opportunity presented by voters not knowing him. As they’ve become more familiar with Shorten and what he offers, his disapproval numbers have steadily risen.

It’s impossible to avoid the sense that if Labor had a competent, experienced leader who could communicate effectively, Tony Abbott and the Coalition would be staring into the political abyss. Instead, Labor’s leadership woes, having delivered Abbott the prime ministership, may well mean he keeps it into a second term.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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