Hope for Labor: now only a landslide, not a catastrophe

SOME of the aggravation has drained out of the two most vexing issues in national politics, and the Gillard government is benefiting. Benefiting, but not winning.

Today's Herald-Nielsen poll shows that on the carbon tax and asylum seekers, the government has moved closer to popular opinion. After almost two months of living with the carbon tax, 54 per cent say that it makes no difference to them personally.

This is a huge change. It's an increase of 17 percentage points in the number of people who are untroubled personally. That's an increase of almost half.

The tax is still unpopular - the majority still oppose it in principle - but the fear of the tax was worse than the reality of it.

And on asylum seekers, the government's spectacular policy change has put it on the popular side of the debate.

The poll shows that two-thirds of voters support the government's new policy, which was also the Coalition's pre-existing policy, of processing asylum seekers offshore in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

On neither issue does this make the government itself popular. It has maddened most voters on both issues for months and there is a great deal of residual ill-will towards Labor.

But the government is making progress in neutralising them as agents of political foment. It's like receiving an antidote for a snake bite - you're not going to forgive the snake in a hurry, but you no longer fear imminent death.

The net effect? Today's poll ''confirms that there's a real recovery happening for Labor'', says the Herald's pollster, Nielsen's John Stirton. ''You can only spot trends in hindsight, and for the last two or three months Labor has been in recovery. We see it in other polls too.''

From a low point at the end of May of 26 per cent in Labor's primary vote, it's slowly clawed its way back to 32 per cent today.

That is still six percentage points below its primary vote at the last election and, as we know, that was not enough for victory.

On the election-deciding measure of the two-party preferred vote, Labor is now at 46 per cent to the Coalition's 54.

''It's still a bad poll for Labor if the recovery stops now,'' Stirton says. ''And whether the recovery is sustained is the impossible question - polls tell you about the past, not the future."

In other words, as Stirton puts it, ''the result for Labor has gone from being catastrophic to standard, garden-variety landslide''. An election today would see Labor suffer a defeat of about the same magnitude as the Keating government suffered at the hands of John Howard in 1996.

Now, as then, the mood is simply that Labor's time is up. The Gillard government has done nothing to change that mood.

Peter Hartcher is The Sydney Morning Herald's political and international editor

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