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Albo holds on as voters rate his handling of economy, borders in new poll ahead of crucial by-election

Sarah Blake, Katina Curtis and Dan Jervis-Bardy
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during Question Time.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during Question Time. Credit: LUKAS COCH/ LUKAS COCH

Labor is hopeful of a narrow victory at Saturday’s pivotal by-election in Victoria as a new poll reveals Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also retains support for his handling of the economy.

Exclusive polling by Painted Dog Research for The Nightly puts Labor ahead in the Dunkley by-election but also shows a large proportion of voters in the Bayside Melbourne electorate — one quarter — are undecided. It reflects concerns from senior Labor strategists about voter apathy amid low pre-polling rates.

While both major parties have thrown everything they have at the race, early voting is tracking slightly behind rates for the 2022 Federal election and seven percentage points lower than those at last year’s referendum.

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Polling last weekend showed slightly more than a third of voters (34 per cent) intended to vote Labor, 24 per cent Liberal while 26 per cent were undecided.

The by-election was necessary after the death in December of popular Labor MP Peta Murphy and its outcome is seen a broader test of Labor’s electoral fortunes ahead of a likely March 2025 Federal election.

Ms Murphy recruited Labor candidate Jodie Belyea to the party and encouraged her to think about the possibility of running if it came to it. While she has lived in the area for many years, she had minimal public profile, so much of the campaign effort has been on introducing her to voters.

Ms Belyea is up against Liberal candidate Nathan Conroy, who has been a local mayor of Frankston for three years.

While Labor has been the favourite for the seat, taken by Ms Murphy after a two decade hold by the Liberals following a redrawn boundary in 2018, senior Liberal figures including former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett this week said it was within the party’s grasp.

A senior Federal Labor figure on Thursday told The Nightly they believed the ALP would narrowly win.

The new polling also showed voters rated Mr Albanese’s handling of the economy at 60 per cent over 40 per cent for Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.

And on border protection the pair were almost evenly split. Mr Dutton had the backing of 51 per cent, showing that the Opposition had failed to capitalise on recent boat arrivals off the coast of Western Australia. Older voters aged over 55 were more likely to rate Mr Albanese’s handling of borders as stronger than that of the opposition leader.

On voting intentions for Saturday in Dunkley, young voters were least likely to vote Liberal while those over the age of 55 were most likely to vote for The Greens.

A third of women were undecided, much more so than men at 18 per cent.

The poll of 278 Dunkley voters revealed Mr Albanese was more trusted than Mr Dutton, at 46 per cent to 17 per cent. However a third of voters said they trusted neither.

Men were far more likely to trust Mr Dutton than women — 25 per cent to 10 per cent respectively — while almost half of all female voters didn’t trust either, compared to 29 per cent of men.

The level of net distrust of Mr Dutton (52 per cent) also far outpaced Mr Albanese’s 36 per cent.

The contest in Dunkley could have major implications for Mr Albanese and Mr Dutton.

It appears to be “evenly balanced” as the two major parties throw everything but Mr Conroy needs to overcome a 6.3 per cent margin to take the seat

Mr Dutton was on Thursday playing down expectations saying a 3-point swing would be a “big outcome” for the Liberals and “bad for the Government”.

“Despite Nathan’s great efforts and all the work of volunteers, 6 per cent is a tough ask,” he told Sydney’s 2GB radio.

 Liberal candidate Nathan Conroy
Liberal candidate Nathan Conroy Credit: Supplied

Senior Liberals are privately hoping for a swing of at least 4 per cent, which they say would put the party within striking distance at the next Federal election, especially if Mr Conroy contested the seat again.

Cost of living is widely considered the number one issue in the mortgage-belt seat, with health a distant second.

The by-election also doubles as the first electoral test of Labor’s revamped stage three tax cuts, which overwhelmingly favour low-to-middle-income earners.

A senior Liberal source said the campaign felt like a genuine “marginal seat battle” with both sides pouring significant resources into the contest.

Right-wing lobby group Advance — which spearheaded the No campaign in the Voice to Parliament referendum — has been a major presence, running a full-page attack ad in the local newspaper and driving billboards around Dunkley telling voters to “put Labor last”.

 Labor candidate Jodie Belyea.
Labor candidate Jodie Belyea. Credit: Supplied

A senior Labor source was confident the party had been outspent during the campaign, estimating Advance alone had forked out between $270,000 and $300,000.

Advance was “organised” and “competent”, the source said, and could pose a serious challenge to Labor at future elections unless the party worked out how to respond.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers said Advance’s ads — one of which falsely claimed Mr Albanese “let loose 149 criminals” after the High Court ruling on immigration detention — was “well beyond the acceptable norms of sensible politics”.

“I think it will be really close, because by‑elections are tough on incumbents usually, and it’s made harder by this influx of rabid right‑wing money that we’ve seen with the Advance campaign,” Dr Chalmers told ABC radio.

Labor has focused its campaign around promoting its tax cuts and attacking Mr Dutton and Mr Conroy, the latter for his record as Frankston mayor, banking on his profile being a double-edged sword.

A Labor source said the contest was “genuinely evenly balanced” with both sides putting “everything into it”.

Kos Samaras, a former Labor strategist who now heads up polling firm Redbridge, said “anything could happen” on Saturday night.

He said the level of stress among voters was unprecedented in his lifetime, with Labor’s decision to redesign the tax cuts appearing to do little to ease concerns about cost of living.

“At first, everyone was like ‘this (redesigning the tax cuts) is a good thing’. But now they’ve had a closer look, it won’t even touch the sides,” Mr Samaras said.

“Voters are saying, ‘yes, it’s welcome — but my problem is in the hundreds of dollars each week.”

This is reflected among Labor’s campaign strategists, who believe the tax cuts give Ms Belyea an answer to voters wanting to know what the Government is doing for them — but it’s not the whole answer.

Mr Samaras said strategists from both major parties would be watching for any backlash against Labor in the highly mortgage-stressed parts of the seat.

A sizeable swing against the Government in those suburbs could have implications beyond Dunkley, with the pollster saying there were a dozen seats across the country with similar demographics.

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