Now there are four polls showing the Coalition and Labor neck and neck — two from Newspoll, a fortnight apart, and two from Essential, a week apart. And both now show that the Prime Minister’s standing with voters is eroding — his net approval rating in Essential has fallen sharply and is down to just three in Newspoll (44% of those polls approve of his performance, versus 41% who disapprove).

Part of this is inevitable — no prime minister can sustain huge approval numbers for any length of time. Kevin Rudd’s initial popularity began wearing off in 2008 but then was turbocharged by his successful handling of the financial crisis, which sent his numbers to rockstar levels, so he was a special case. But Turnbull’s falling numbers have coincided with an evaporation of the government’s once strong polling lead over Labor. The Coalition might still be confident it could defeat Labor, but it’s no longer the sure thing it was a few weeks ago. Not given the recent displays from the ministry, which suggest a long election campaign might turn into a series of stumbles. And not given Tony Abbott’s Rudd-like bomb-throwing from the backbench.

There is some good news for the government, however. Today’s Essential poll also shows that voters — initially vaguely supportive but undecided about Labor’s negative gearing proposals, are starting to come down against it. Renters, the voters who will actually benefit from the policy — which slightly reverses the heavy bias of the current tax system in favour of home owners and investors — are much more supportive of it. But home owners and particularly investors are much more likely to be opposed, and far more receptive to a scare campaign that claims the value of their assets will be affected. This may be the first sign that, even though the Turnbull-Morrison scare campaign on negative gearing has been almost comically inept at times, it might seriously damage Labor, which has gambled on a bold policy in an area close to the socio-economic heart of Australians, home ownership.

It’s also likely Turnbull will benefit from an improving economy. The strong GDP numbers from the December quarter suggest a lot of the economic gloom of recent months is misplaced, and if they feed into stronger wage growth and/or stronger jobs growth, much of the malaise that has beset the economy since early 2014 may well retreat — a good sign for a government going to the polls.

But Turnbull has his own problem of a perception of paralysis and drift — particularly but not limited to tax reform. Ostensibly, launching a tax reform statement in the lead-up to the budget (or what may well be a combined budget-election announcement) will allow him to deal with the perception of drift. But the risk is that his tax reform announcement will leave voters with a “so what” feeling because it is so small — a few cents off current tax rates, or a small rise in tax thresholds, paid for with some tinkering here and there. And while Labor has led with its chin on negative gearing, it is also gambling that the electorate has a real expectation of reform, an expectation stoked by the Coalition itself, which hyped the “budget emergency” and the need for tough decisions. A “reform package” that is basically a tax cut might be superficially attractive but might leave voters wondering what, if that’s actual reform, all the fuss was about — and why we’re leaving the budget deficit stretching off into the medium term.

And if the poor polling continues, the atmosphere within the government will continue to deteriorate. There’ll be more sniping, the Abbott forces will sniff more blood, and there’ll be more backseat driving from self-appointed policy “ginger groups” on the backbench who see everything through a polling, not a policy, prism.

It all means Turnbull has to take charge, visibly and substantially, assert his authority as Prime Minister — whether a small coterie of reactionaries like it or not — and signal to voters that the Malcolm they were hoping for last year hasn’t vanished. Otherwise, the declining polls might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Peter Fray

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