Gillard’s Labor Hits Six-Month High in Opinion Poll

Australian Liberal Party Opposition Leader Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott, Australia's Liberal-National opposition leader. Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Australia’s governing Labor party recorded its best polling performance in six months as Prime Minister Julia Gillard seeks to overcome public opposition to her carbon tax and stave off a leadership challenge.

The Labor government was favored by 35 percent of voters in a Newspoll survey published in the Australian newspaper today, up 2 percentage points from two weeks earlier, compared with 45 percent for Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National opposition coalition. Taking second-preference votes into account, Labor was 6 points behind the opposition, compared with 8 points in the last poll.

Labor’s consistently poor performance in opinion polls had sparked speculation that Gillard may face a leadership challenge in the party ahead of elections that must be held by next year. The uptick in her polling numbers, almost two months after she enacted taxes on carbon emissions and mining, could ensure Gillard leads Labor into the next election, said Andrew Hughes, who conducts political-marketing research at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“If Gillard is able to string together a couple more improved poll performances like this, her job as Labor leader is safe,” Hughes said. “Party members in marginal electorates would be encouraged they may have a chance to keep their seats in the next election.”

Better Leader

Gillard was level with Abbott at 38 percent when respondents were asked who would make the better prime minister. That marked an increase of two percentage points for the prime minister from the previous poll. The survey of 1,129 people, conducted Aug. 17-19, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll results show Labor’s primary vote, which reached a record low of 26 percent in September, has risen to 35 percent for the first time since February, the month Gillard saw off a leadership challenge from her predecessor Kevin Rudd. It hasn’t been above that level since March 2011.

Gillard’s popularity slid after she backtracked on a pre-election pledge not to introduce carbon trading. When Labor lost its parliamentary majority in the 2010 election, she proposed the legislation to secure the support of the Greens party to form a government.

Recent Australian data have shown stronger consumer spending, fueled by at least A$2 billion in government carbon rebates and benefit checks paid out since May. Retail sales in June matched the biggest advance since April 2011.

Budget Surplus

Gillard is attempting to return the budget to surplus next year, a move that she says could help the central bank add to its series of rate cuts, in a nation where almost 90 percent of mortgages are at variable rates.

The passing of a law last week to reopen offshore detention centers for refugees, an issue that had been damaging Gillard’s government due to the rising number of asylum-seeker deaths, may also have helped her, said Hughes.

At least 604 people, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations paying smugglers to ferry them from Indonesia and Australia, have drowned since October 2009, according to a government-commissioned report.

“Gillard came out of the asylum-seeker issue looking a bit harder and determined, which probably appealed to voters,” he said. “She’s starting to clear away issues that were taking the oxygen out of her message. She’s hoping she can now focus on things like the economy and education, areas in which Labor has done well.”