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Death by water

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 9 July 2007

It is frequently alleged that when the economy is doing well the government will be re-elected. So why is John Howard trailing so badly in the polls?

As a result of the largest online qualitative survey into Australian federal voting intentions ever, we are now in a position to provide a definitive answer. The following analysis is based on the responses of 3,189 Australians who completed our Benchmark Federal Survey between April 20 and May 22 this year. This is the first of a series of articles that I will do based on this research. You can view the survey by going to What The People Want.

Some pundits say Howard is trailing because voters are “relaxed and comfortable” and, after the longest economic expansion in history, think that anyone can run the economy, so they are turning to other issues to determine their vote.


There is some truth in this, because some voters fit this category, but it doesn’t explain the magnitude of the change in public opinion, nor does it explain why Howard’s vote is holding up so well in Western Australia. WA is the state with the most to be comfortable about, so if this theory is true then West Australians should be less, not more, inclined towards Howard.

Our polling suggests voters are not “relaxed and comfortable”, and that the economy is partly to blame for John Howard’s predicament. Not the economy of today, but the economy of tomorrow. While interest rates may have been the key economic issue last election, this election it is water. Like the Fisher King, John Howard may be sacrificed because of the weather.

Climate change and drought, seen by many as twins, are the most important issues to Australians. If they are not fixed then there will be no economy to boast about. This is a bigger risk for most than the possibility of interest rates rising.

Labor has credibility on the climate. The Coalition generally has it on the economy. When the economy is viewed through the prism of climate it is undermined, even though it is the Coalition’s key strength. This helps to explain the sudden slump in its popularity independently of the accession of Kevin Rudd.

It also suggests that Industrial Relations and the Unions’ “Your Rights at Work” campaign are not the major agents of change. Nor is the Iraq War.

Drought also explains why the Coalition is travelling well in Western Australia. The conventional argument for the high Coalition vote in WA is that it has to do with AWAs. This has always seemed a bit tendentious to me. How many AWAs are there, and outside the mining communities how many voters do they really affect? Is this significant enough to explain a vote for the Coalition significantly higher than the rest of the country?


Water and drought provide a better explanation. The drought is an eastern Australian affair. Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide all have water shortages and are only starting to take hard medicine now. Indeed, there is a very real prospect that Brisbane will all but run-out of water before the planned solutions of a desalination plant, recycling and a water grid are in place.

Added to that, agriculture in WA is not as dependant on irrigation as it is in the east, while the bread basket of the nation - the Murray Darling irrigation ditch - has been over-exploited and is widely seen as an environmental disaster that may never recover.

Incumbency is also a problem for Howard. After 10 years in power he has upset everyone at least once. Electors are not actively seeking change as they were when they tossed Keating, Whitlam and Fraser, but they are grumpy.

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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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Federal Benchmark Report I

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