Prices take over from climate as polling tool

AUSTRALIA is unique. Nowhere else has climate change featured as a big issue in national elections in the way it has here.

In 2007, it was an important plank in Labor's push for election, driven by the fear of electors on the east coast that they might run out of water. It allowed Labor to frame John Howard as yesterday's man, out of touch with the problems of the day.

In last year's election it made only the odd cameo appearance, such as when Julia Gillard categorically ruled out a carbon tax. But climate change was no longer the golden celebrity, as she was forced to promise not to be a financial nuisance to anyone.

The key issue last year was between the future and the past, and the technological marvel of the National Broadband Network was the new "it girl". Climate's time as an unalloyed benefit for Labor had passed, just as the peak of climate change concern had passed with the dams filling up.

Next election, it will be back, but this time its role will likely be as a supporting actor in an election fought on cost of living. On balance it will be bad for Labor.

Surprisingly, it also may be bad for the Greens. Our most recent On Line Opinion qualitative poll of 1936 "opinion-leading" Australian voters shows about a four-percentage-point primary slump for Labor since last year's election.

Our poll also suggests that after peaking at the end of last year the Greens vote is in a slight decline. When we ask voters what the most important issues are, climate change-related matters came out on top, but split between climate change and the carbon tax. Ominously for the government, the carbon tax is most closely associated with an intention to vote for the Coalition and it attracts more mentions than climate change. So, while climate change is still important, the emphasis has moved to cost, and this favours the Coalition.

Voters are also concerned about the state of infrastructure. It seems that after years of governments containing cost increases by skimping on maintenance and expansion, as well as milking public utilities for dividends, the cost of reinvestment is painful.

Added to that, the economy is not being kind to most. Just as we appeared to be emerging from the global financial crisis, the floods in Queensland, NSW and Victoria have had a substantial effect on the consumer economy everywhere. In an inter-connected economy the knock-on effect of closing a business in Cairns or Rockhampton can be felt as far away as Melbourne.

Voters were happy to do something about climate change as long as the price for their carbon sins wasn't much more than a couple of Hail Marys - such as turning their lights off for an hour once a year - but if penance is to involve hairshirts, or worse, you can shove it. Which partly explains why the Greens vote seems to have peaked.

Greens voters have always been a mixture of rusted-on supporters, who really do believe the Greens can deliver heaven on earth, and protest voters parking their ballot safely to send a message to the two main parties. Now that the Greens are a significant force in running the government, and the main force in driving up climate-related cost of living, they are losing their safe-haven status and a percentage of that vote appears to be leaking across to the Liberals.

The leakage is reluctant, however, because politics appears to have become more personal and less inspiring than it has been for a while. Labor voters are likeliest to cite Tony Abbott as the reason for their voting preference and also to be defensive of the government's efforts: "They are trying to tackle the big issues . . . trying to reach a balance between wants and needs" with the use of the word "trying" being the giveaway.

Labor as a badge is also very damaged. Interestingly, while "Juliar" is big on the talkback circuit, it's not a hit with our respondents. When asked to rate Gillard's performance only three respondents used the term (that's 0.16 per cent) although 11 per cent used terms such as "liar", "lie", "untrustworthy" and "dishonest".

The best thing that Labor has going for it is that an election is not due for more than two years and the independents have no incentive to force an early one.

In 2013, the carbon tax will be a fait accompli and, as with the GST, it may hurt in its apprehension more than its implementation.

Our poll contains evidence this may be the case. When the mining tax was first proposed we found 50 per cent in favour and 40 per cent against. We asked about the tax again this time, and now the figures are 61 per cent and 27 per cent respectively.

Support seems to have shifted because industry has acquiesced in the tax and because it follows the popular narrative of soaking the rich.

Our respondents are against a carbon tax, 49 per cent to 45 per cent. But what if business decides it is inevitable and caves in, the compensation package really does no one any harm and cost-of-living pressures have been absorbed and normalised?

There's only a slight chance that all of this would happen in time for 2013 but, if they did, these polling figures could easily shift and Abbott might need to find another tune to sing. At 30 per cent primary vote in the latest Newspoll, Labor is probably at its nadir. It will probably improve, but under Gillard probably not by enough to win the next time.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian 12-13 March, 2011.

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