Australian voters appear to be finally warming to the Government they elected in September, but not because they like Tony Abbott any better, according to an opinion poll published yesterday.
The Fairfax-Nielsen poll puts Labor behind for the first time since the election, a retreat which is being blamed on Bill Shorten, whose honeymoon as party leader seems to be over.
On a two-party preferred basis, support for Labor has dropped to 48 per cent, four points behind the Coalition - a reversal of the parties' pre-Christmas positions.
Shorten's personal approval rating has fallen by a dramatic 11 points since Nielsen's last survey in late November. But Abbott's rating has also dropped, albeit by a much smaller margin of 2 per cent, at the same time as support for his Coalition has strengthened by four points. Labor's primary vote is down to 33 per cent, back where it was at the 2013 election.
The fall in Shorten's fortunes is being attributed mostly to his opposition to the recently announced royal commission into trade union corruption, and his own background as a unionist.
Before entering Parliament he ran the huge Australian Workers Union, one of five named by Abbott in the inquiry's terms of reference.
As for the unusual phenomenon of a boost for the Government but a drop in the PM's popularity, the Nielsen pollster John Stirton suggested voters had long ago formed a strong opinion of Abbott. "Tony Abbott has always struggled with his approval numbers," he told Fairfax Media. "They are usually negative, but not always, and they don't tend to move much."
Stirton also suggested the Government had benefited from taking "some big decisions, some hard decisions, that people notice" - particularly its refusal to use public money to bail out ailing car manufacturers and the SPC Ardmona fruit canning company.
The Coalition had a dreadful run during its first three months in power, suffering the swiftest drop to a losing poll position of any newly elected Government in the past 40 years.
The Nielsen survey suggests it would easily win an election held now - although if preferences were distributed according to the wishes of the 1400 people polled last week, rather than according to how they flowed at the last election, the Government's lead would narrow to two points.
A Newspoll survey last week had Labor still two points ahead, at 51 per cent, indicating it may be too early for the Coalition to open the champagne.
Abbott - who is approved of by 45 per cent of voters and disapproved of by 47 per cent - announced the royal commission in the wake of corruption allegations in the building industry. When Shorten opposed it, he accused the Labor leader of "running a protection racket for a protection racket".