Most Australians say cost of living rising

Voters think cost of living pressures, particularly energy prices, have increased over the past 12 months, and a majority of Australians earning below the average weekly wage believe their income is going backwards, according to the latest Guardian Essential poll.

The new poll, which maintains the 2017 trend of Labor in an election-winning position on the two-party preferred measure (54% to the Coalition’s 46%), comes ahead of a scene-setting speech by the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, to the National Press Club on Tuesday, which is expected to focus on cost of living pressures and economic inequality.

With the economy, jobs and household incomes expected to dominate the national political debate in 2018, Malcolm Turnbull late on Monday also continued to flag the prospect of income tax relief for voters, while stressing that tax cuts could only be delivered when the budgetary circumstances allowed.

The prime minister said the government’s priority for the new political year was to “put more money into the pockets of hardworking Australian families and businesses”.

The new poll of 1,028 shows voters are fretting about their household circumstances. It shows that a commanding majority think cost of living (73%) and electricity prices (75%) have deteriorated over the past 12 months.

More than half of the sample, 51%, believe their income has fallen behind cost of living increases in the past two years, while 28% think it has stayed even with the cost of living and 14% think it has gone up more.

A majority of workers earning less than the average weekly wage (currently $1,543.80 for full-time workers) believe their income has fallen behind (64%), while workers on higher incomes, people earning more than $2,000 per week (54%), think their income has stayed the same or gone up.

In a series of questions about private health insurance, 83% of the sample agreed the government needed to do more to keep it affordable, and also should limit the profits insurers make if they increase fees for policyholders – while 60% agreed with the statement that health insurance wasn’t worth the premiums.

But while voters are focused on the household balance sheet, they have also sensed a positive turn in the economy. While people are acutely conscious of rising energy prices and cost of living pressures more generally, voters in the Guardian Essential sample also think unemployment, the economy and company profits have improved over the last year.

Asked which major political party they trusted to handle a range of issues, voters nominated the Liberal party on security and the war on terrorism and management of the economy. Labor got the thumbs up on managing climate change, industrial relations regulation and housing affordability.

Since the series of questions were last asked in June 2017, Labor has improved its standing against the Liberals on political leadership, controlling interest rates and economic management.

The final Guardian Essential poll for 2017 found a majority (54%) of respondents felt 2017 had been a particularly bad year for Australian politics.

Voters were asked questions this week about whether they believed Australia’s political and economic system needed a fundamental overhaul, incremental refinement, or the status quo should prevail. Only 8% backed the status quo, 48% backed refinement, and 32% backed a fundamental overhaul.

Voters more inclined to support fundamental systemic change are Greens supporters and people inclined to vote for someone other than the major parties. A majority of major-party voters were in the incrementalist refinement camp, as were voters aged over 55.

The first Guardian Essential poll of 2018, published last week, indicates Shorten’s approval went backwards over the summer, slipping from 36% to 32%, and the Labor leader’s disapproval increased from 45% to 49%.

Turnbull increased his lead as preferred prime minister over the political off-season, but the prime minister also lost popularity, with his net approval rating slipping from -3% to -7%. Some 45% disapprove of the prime minister’s performance compared with 38% who approve.

The government, which trailed Labor in every Guardian Essential poll in 2017, but believes it has put the travails of last year’s dual citizenship imbroglio behind it, is now trying to build political momentum before the resumption of federal parliament next week, and ahead of the May budget, by focussing on job creation and the improving trend in the economy.

Labor, which faces continuing pressure on the citizenship front, has opened the political year by focusing on stagnant wages growth for ordinary workers – a focus which builds on public signals it has been sending over several months that current labour market regulations give employers too much power at the expense of workers.

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