As the Australian Government seeks to map out a new strategy for passing its carbon pollution reduction scheme bill through the Senate, opinion polls show the public support for it has decreased. A February Nielson Poll found that support for a CPRS was down to 56 per cent, with opposition up to 29 per cent. While this shows that there is still strong public support in electorate, the result represents an 11 per cent drop in support since a similar question was asked in a Nielson Poll in July 2008
One major factor which may at least partly explain this shift is the role of trust, and in particular the public's trust in government. The recently released Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that since early 2009, public trust in government has dropped 15 per cent, from 56 per cent to 41 per cent. Admittedly, the 2009 result was influenced by the global financial crisis. In early 2009, Australia was staring down the possibility of a major recession brought about by the collapse of global financial markets. The public understandably looked to government to support the Australian economy and protect jobs.
But despite the success of the Federal Government's stimulus package, which the OECD credited with shielding Australia from the full force of the global financial crisis, public trust in government has still plummeted. This may, in part, explain the shift in public support for the CPRS. Climate change is an environmental, economic and social challenge that can only be addressed through government action. Of course, you can rely on market mechanisms and incentives to address climate change as the CPRS proposes to do. However, at the core of any policy response to climate change, there is a need for government leadership. However, if the public does not trust government, it may become somewhat suspicious of any policy proposals that governments put forward.
It could be argued that the issue of trust is a problem with any policy area. However, it is arguably more of a problem in the case of climate change than with other policy areas. This is because any response to climate change will be very complex, and the CPRS is a highly complicated bill. It has to be, as it effectively represents the recalibration of the entire Australian economy.
Complexity brings with it uncertainty. There is uncertainty about the need for such a complex reform in the first place, with climate change sceptics and even some politicians actively trying to stoke such uncertainty with their attacks on the science behind climate change. There is uncertainty regarding the employment and industrial displacement impacts of the CPRS, with workers in particular industries worrying about the possibility of job losses if their employers are required to pay for carbon emissions. There is uncertainty about the effect on households, with people concerned about how much living costs will increase and how they will pay for this.
The government has sought to manage uncertainty about the need for a CPRS. While still in opposition, Kevin Rudd, together with state and territory governments, commissioned the Garnaut Review to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia. After the 2007 election, a green paper was prepared, examining policy options and setting out a proposal for a CPRS.
The industry assistance and exemptions contained in the CPRS legislation, as well as its comprehensive household assistance package are an attempt by the government to manage uncertainty regarding the employment and industrial displacement impacts of the CPRS, and its effect on households.
However, any attempts to manage uncertainty can only be effective if there is public confidence to do so. If the public doesn't trust government, it may continue to doubt that there is a need for a CPRS. If the public doesn't believe that government can deliver the assistance contained in the CPRS bill, then public support for the CPRS will waver.
So how can this problem of trust be overcome? Any progress will, at least partly, be the result of a two-way dynamic. First, government needs to be more open and honest, particularly concerning its mistakes and failures. Trust depends on performance and delivering results, but it also depends on admitting when you've made a mistake or failed. Second, there needs to be a shift in the media's approach to reporting on government.
Traditionally, the media has tended to focus on government failures, with less attention given to government successes. With a political culture where governments are reluctant to admit to failures, this is understandable. But unfortunately it distorts the public's perception of government performance and it provides a disincentive for governments to be more open and honest. The only result of this will be even more attention given to government failures.
Any such change in political culture will be difficult. Governments are elected to govern, and therefore must take the lead in restoring the public's trust in them. But the media, too, must also shift its approach in order to develop a new political culture of openness and honesty. A lot is at stake, as Australia's ability to address policy challenges such as climate change, both now and in the future, depends on restoring trust in government.
Krystian Seibert is a public policy professional based in Melbourne. He has worked as a policy adviser to two Australian Ministers and studied regulatory policy at the London School of Economics.