Two opinion polls have emerged this morning, with results that suggest Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Government have improved somewhat in the opinion of voters but not enough to take an election-winning lead from Labor.

While Newspoll found an increase in support for the Government, the Ipsos poll claims a decrease. Nevertheless, both polls have arrived at about the same overall result – albeit from different directions– measuring the Coalition’s primary vote at 39-41 per cent with 38-36 per cent for Labor. On these numbers, after preferences are allocated, Labor remains in the lead.

Both polls also found the gap closing between Abbott and the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on approval ratings. However, Newspoll suggests Abbott has closed in on Shorten as preferred PM (at 40 per cent compared to Shorten’s 41 per cent) but Ipsos found the opposite with Shorten at 46 per cent and Abbott at 38.

Even with the Government’s preferred opinion poll, Newspoll, showing a more favourable result for the Coalition, Government MPs would understandably be frustrated with the incremental nature of the improvement. PM Abbott has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at voters, ditching a wagonload of unpopular policies while hitching himself to populist causes such as food labelling and curbs against foreign ownership.

Unfortunately for the Government, the wholesale abandonment of tough budget measures may have been counterproductive. According to the Ipsos poll, 58 per cent of respondents said they want the budget deficit addressed as a high priority, but only 41 per cent saw the Coalition as better economic managers. That’s not to say Labor was considered any better: only 32 per cent of respondents saw the party of the former Rudd and Gillard governments as superior in managing the economy.

Agitators within the Government could seize on the Ipsos results to rekindle leadership speculation. According to the poll, Treasurer Joe Hockey’s approval rating has dropped to 33 per cent, with 58 per cent disapproving of his performance. This is an almost complete reversal of the Treasurer’s standing in March last year, just weeks before he delivered one of the most unpopular budgets ever.

Now the advocates for change might promote a 2-for-1 offer, suggesting the only way to offload the deadweight Treasurer is to dispense with the Prime MinisterA similar line has been used in the past about the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

It’s likely too that the antipathy Government MPs hold for Credlin will resurface in light of news on the weekend that NSW Liberal state director Tony Nutt will not be joining the Prime Minister’s Office as first suggested.

Nutt’s addition to the PMO would have been good for Abbott. If the experienced fix-it man had replicated the role he played in former PM John Howard’s office, Nutt could have taken on the enforcer part of Credlin’s all-encompassing responsibilities and provided another way for backbenchers to communicate with the PM. This would have freed up Credlin to concentrate on political strategy and policy.

However, according to well-connected conservative columnist Niki Savva, Nutt was unable to obtain assurances of access – presumably to the PM – and responsibilities, which is code for Credlin being unwilling to accede to a power-sharing arrangement.

Nutt joins a growing line of experienced and respected political or policy talent that has either been rebuffed or shown the door by Credlin and Abbott since the Coalition regained Government. Well-credentialed departmental secretaries such as Andrew Metcalfe, Blair Comley and Martin Parkinson were given the axe early onHockey reportedly wanted to keep Dr Parkinson as head of Treasury but was over-ruled by the PM and his CoS. Next month’s budget will therefore be in part a measure of the new Treasury head, John Fraser, who is said to have been Abbott’s preferred candidate for the role, as well as a test for Treasurer Hockey.

In total, eight departmental heads have been sacked or resigned since the change of government.

Such personnel changes, and arguable losses of vital experience and knowledge, have not been restricted to the public service. A recent media profile on Credlin claimed she had directed that Tony O’Leary, Abbott’s director of communication while in opposition, be escorted from a private election night victory party as his services were no longer required. Like Nutt, O’Leary is another former long-time Howard staffer, and both men are highly respected by the vast majority of Government MPs.

Those MPs will no doubt be wondering to what extent the Government’s electoral standing could have been improved if those two “old hands” had been in the Prime Minister’s Office over the past year or so, directing political and media strategy. This is particularly the case given Credlin’s charm offensive following the failed leadership coup in February has had only limited success.

Since the Coalition’s election 18 months ago, valuable corporate memory has been either eschewed or discarded by Abbott and his most senior adviser to shore up their power base. Given that today’s opinion polls will be used to recast a negative light on the PM and the Treasurer, it would be fair to conclude that power base remains fractured and in danger of being shattered.

Next month’s federal budget is the next leadership test for PM Abbott, but there is no guarantee it will be his last. Particularly if he continues to be saddled with a Treasurer who’s seen to be incompetent and an adviser who’s seen to have too much power.

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