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Climate change's ugly sister

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 14 March 2011

Australia is unique. Nowhere else in the world has climate change featured as a major issue in national elections in the way it has here.

In 2007 it was a major 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 who was out of touch with the problems of the day.

In the 2010 election it made only the odd cameo appearance, such as when Julia Gillard categorically ruled-out a carbon tax. But here 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 in 2010 was between the future and the past, and the technological marvel of the NBN 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 also passed with the dams filling up and our collective attention span moving on to other issues.

Next election, it will be back, but this time its role will be likely to be as a supporting actor in an election fought on cost of living, and on balance it will be bad for Labor. Surprisingly it may also be bad for the Greens.

Our most recent On Line Opinion qualitative poll of 1936 "opinion leading" Australian voters shows around a four point slump for Labor since the last election. This is only half what the latest Newspoll shows, but our samples tend to be less volatile, particularly this far out from an election.

Unlike Newspoll, 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 are the most important, 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 now moved to cost, and this favours the Coalition. It is also occurring in an atmosphere where people have concerns about the quality of government, so they are suspicious that any extra money the government takes will be wasted.

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.

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An edited version of this article appeared in The Weekend Australian on March 12-13, 2011 as "Prices take over from climate as polling tool".

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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