Most politicians declare that they do not take much notice of opinion polls, that election day is the only poll that counts and so on. What they really mean is they do not focus on polls until the next one is released.

Tony Abbott is something of an exception. He has been known to express disappointment at poor poll results. He did so late last month following the release of a Newspoll in the wake of the Opposition Leader’s debate with the Prime Minister on health.

Abbott should have been pleased with yesterday’s Herald-Nielsen poll – which received surprisingly little media coverage. On ABC Local Radio in Sydney, Deborah Cameron declared the result was not strong for Abbott and mused about his future as Liberal Party leader. This interpretation is contrary to the facts.

The Herald-Nielsen poll has the Coalition ahead of Labor on the primary vote by 42 per cent to 39 per cent. Moreover, after a notional distribution of preferences, Labor leads the Coalition by only 51 per cent to 49 per cent. The margin has not been so narrow since mid-2006.

This is only one poll. Kevin Rudd has a high approval rating with a strong lead over Abbott as the preferred prime minister. However, Abbott’s rating approval, at 46 per cent, is relatively good for an Opposition Leader up against a first-term government. And Abbott’s preferred prime minister ranking is well above that recorded by Malcolm Turnbull before he lost the leadership in December.

When Turnbull was trying to convince his colleagues to support the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme late last year, his supporters put it around that a failure to embrace an emissions trading scheme would cost the Coalition some 20 seats at the next election.

If electors vote according to the latest Herald-Nielsen poll, it will be Labor – not the Coalition – which will lose parliamentarians at election time.

Such a result would almost certainly raise questions concerning Rudd’s political longevity and about when it would be an appropriate time for him to step down in favour of his deputy, Julia Gillard. Neither Rudd in particular, nor Labor in general, would want such an outcome.

When the Prime Minister gave his extraordinary “mea culpa” interview to Insiders presenter Barrie Cassidy on February 28, Rudd acknowledged he “didn’t anticipate how hard it was going to be to deliver things, particularly given the burdens imposed on us by the global financial crisis last year”. He added: “But that’s no excuse; the public expect you to honour the things you have said.”

This was a surprisingly naive comment from a politician who has worked as a chief-of-staff to a premier and headed the public service in Queensland. As the German sociologist Max Weber said early last century, democratic politics is all about slow boring through hard boards. Politics, both in government and in opposition, is invariably difficult. If anything, the global financial crisis should have made the government’s job easier because it provided a plausible rationale to change priorities and delay implementing promises.

Rudd went to the 2007 election with two big change agendas – on environment and health. Ratifying the Kyoto agreement was the easy part of the first commitment. For starters, this was symbolism. What’s more, Australia was meeting its designated Kyoto targets, even though it had not ratified the treaty. Canada, on the other hand, ratified Kyoto but never went close to honouring its obligations.

Rudd Labor’s commitment to an emissions trading scheme was always going to be of enormous difficulty. What the inner-city based environment movement calls the big polluters are, in fact, the big employers which provide jobs in rural and regional Australia and which pay large amounts of company tax that pay for spending on education, health and welfare.

Like the US President, Barack Obama, Rudd has found it is easy to make environment commitments but very difficult to implement them. Rudd Labor’s failure in this instance has turned on its inability to convince seven senators – from the Greens, independents and Liberal Party – to support its emissions legislation.

Then there is Rudd Labor’s promised health reform. Here the problem is not so much the Senate but the reluctance of all six state premiers to embrace the Prime Minister’s version of health reform. It is not clear where the health debate will end up. But it seems Rudd will promise more funding and make more administrative concessions than he originally intended. And all this is essentially process. Real reform may, or may not, come later.

Australia’s ability to withstand the worst effects of the global financial crisis was primarily due to the fact Commonwealth governments over the past two decades were able to implement significant economic reforms. This is true of the administrations headed by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard. At the state level, most reforms during this period were achieved by Nick Greiner in NSW and Jeff Kennett in Victoria.

Certainly, the Reserve Bank’s decision to dramatically cut interest rates helped – as did the economic stimulus package. But nations like Britain and Ireland did not have strong enough economies coming into the economic downturn to undertake large stimulus packages.

Labor still remains the favourite to win this year’s election. Yet the most recent Herald-Nielsen poll suggests Abbott’s line that Rudd is ineffective has some resonance with the electorate.

The Prime Minister’s essential problem is that, so far at least, he has not been able to implement significant and lasting change. That’s why the health negotiations have an importance to Labor beyond the health of the nation.