Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s popularity fell to a six-month low as opposition attacks over her work as a union lawyer 20 years ago reversed her party’s gains ahead of elections next year.
The ruling Labor party’s primary vote fell four percentage points to 32 percent with Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National opposition rising three points to 46 percent from a poll two weeks earlier, according to a Newspoll survey published in the Australian today. Taking preference votes into account, the opposition’s lead swelled to 54 percent to 46 percent.
Today’s survey reverses a trend that saw Labor close the gap in recent months against Abbott’s coalition. Gillard’s bid to focus attention on her minority government’s economic credentials, as she strives to return the national budget to surplus ahead of elections that must be held by November, have been countered by Abbott’s claims that she may have broken the law when she was a union lawyer in the 1990s.
“The government is in serious trouble and will probably get belted at the next election,” said Nick Economou, a political analyst at Monash University in Melbourne. “No doubt the attack has re-enforced in voters’ minds the previously formed belief that she’s not trustworthy.”
The telephone survey of 1,173 people, conducted Dec. 7-9, had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. Abbott fell two points to 28 percent on the question of whether voters were satisfied with his performance, while Gillard declined one point to 36 percent.
Three months after winning the prime minister’s job in a back-room party coup against predecessor Kevin Rudd in June 2010, Gillard, 51, was forced to cobble together a minority government after the closest election in seven decades. That led to accusations from Abbott, 55, that she had compromised her credibility by reneging on a pledge not to implement a carbon tax in return for Greens support in parliament.
Gillard’s political upheavals come even as Australia, which has gone 21 years without a recession, shows signs of withstanding the global slowdown.
Unemployment dropped to 5.2 percent in November from a 2 1/2-year high the previous month, data showed last week. The Reserve Bank of Australia has reduced interest rates four times this year to help support consumption and the nation’s housing market.
“We’ll have the election next year and I’m very clear about what that election will be decided on,” Gillard told reporters in Sydney today. “It’ll be about Australia’s future, and who’s got the policy muscle to bring the solutions Australia needs in an uncertain world.”
Gillard signaled Dec. 7 that her 2013 budget surplus goal relies on the economy continuing to expand. Weaker growth threatens to curb revenue and derail her commitment to create a A$44 billion ($46 billion) swing back to surplus.
“I want the Australian people to know that if there is a change of government next year they can be confident that they will have a better future,” Abbott told reporters in Sydney today. “Australians are oppressed by a sense that we are a great nation being let down by a bad government. There’s a pervasive lack of confidence in our society.”
On the question of who would make the better prime minister, Gillard fell three points to 43 percent and Abbott rose 1 point to 34 percent in today’s Newspoll.
Abbott used the last parliamentary sitting week of the year to allege Gillard had failed to answer questions on why she left law firm Slater & Gordon in the 1990s after establishing for the Australian Workers Union a fund that was later embezzled.
Australia’s first female leader has countered that Abbott - - whom she accused of sexism and misogyny in an October speech in parliament -- was using negative tactics in a campaign to smear her reputation.
“Gillard’s practice of trying to be divisive through gender politics to shore up support is failing,” Economou said. “The only thing giving Labor any chance of winning next year is the performance of Abbott, who is seen by some as being too negative.”