Essential Report

Labor should tread (water) warily

Oct 19, 2010

First Published on The Drum 19/10/2010

As the Federal Government attempts to quell the backlash to its plans to save the Murray Darling by slowing the process to a crawl, it would do well to consider the lessons of the recently aborted Emissions Trading Scheme.

If there were a structured training program for politicians (and maybe there should be) the former Rudd government’s failure to deliver on its commitment to address climate change would be a required text.

It is a story of how tortured process can kill off reform, confuse would-be supporters, drain the public of confidence in their government and ultimately leave leaders in a no-win situation.

In 2007 the public was squarely behind action on climate change, ranking in the top four reasons for voting alongside industrial relations and the perennials, health and education.

In his first days as leader Rudd travelled to Bali to sign the Kyoto Proposal, before further raising expectations by appointing an eminent economist Ross Garnaut to report on the best vehicle for delivering on the government’s commitment.

And then, and then, well for 18 months nothing expect a series of econometric reports, discussion about scheme design, ill-defined targets, a whole bunch of acronyms and a process, masterfully conducted by Penny Wong, that seemed to stretch on and on.

If the Australian public has asked for a car, what they got was a national debate about the workings of a carburettor. And as the details got more technical, the public disengaged.

Just after the 2007 election Essential asked voters: Should Australia commit to targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 even if it means our energy prices increase marginally? 71 per cent said yes, 12 per cent no, just 17 per cent said “Don’t Know”.

By mid-2008, support for an ETS had dropped to 58 per cent, opposition was basically stable at 18 per cent, while those with no opinion had risen to 24 per cent.

By October 2008, with Copenhagen approaching, the Don’t Know vote had stolen the march to 38 per cent with just 16 per cent saying the government had got the balance between business and the environment right.

From that point on, most questions relating to climate change drew “don’t know” as the most common response.

The big myth is that Tony Abbott defeated the ETS. In truth, he came to the debate at the eleventh hour after the government has first inspired, then confused, and finally alienated the electorate.

Of course, the irony is that it was only at the point where Rudd (at the urgings of people still at the heart of the government) announced he would be abandoning the ETS that the world collapsed for him. The rest is very recent history.

By the time Australia went to the polls in August, climate change was (and remains) a third tier political issue, all the urgency and engagement whittled away through what can only described as a failed public engagement strategy.

And now the government has a new environmental crisis to address, the failing of Australia’s dominant river-system due to over-allocation of water rights.

At this election, Australia’s water security rated a higher issue than climate change, most markedly in Victoria and South Australia where communities are literally dying of thirst.

As this week’s Essential Report shows, a majority of Australians support action, with just 17 per cent supporting the status quo.

Q. The Murray-Darling system is in crisis because for decades state governments have allocated too much water from the river for irrigation, affecting the environment and communities further down the river. Which of the following government actions do you most support?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Leave existing water allocations in place 17% 14% 24% 6%
Purchase water rights from irrigators willing to sell 36% 37% 39% 34%
Compulsorily buy water rights from irrigators and farmers 17% 19% 13% 36%
Don’t know 29% 29% 25% 24%

Given the angry scenes last week in regional communities that will suffer from water buy-back, it is not surprising the government has decided to regroup by calling a Parliamentary Inquiry.

But if it wants to learn from the climate change debacle, it should bear a few things in mind.

1. Keep the science central. Do not allow the focus to shift on the impact of saving the river at the expense of actually saving the river.
2. Beware of the undecided voters. The Don’t Knows are already worryingly high – ignorance is the enemy and is where denial-ism can ferment.
3. Shift the focus to the costs of inaction – what is at stake is the viability of an entire state.
4. Accept there will be pain and address this in the context of the broader mission to save the rivers, rather than pretending that everyone can be a winner.
5. And finally, act before it comes too hard – the longer these issues are tied up in committees, the more the public begins to feel things can’t be that urgent anyway.

There is a lot to learn from the ETS car wreck – and the current Government’s ability to absorb these lessons will have a lot to do with whether it is actually capable of confronting the big environmental issues that our national interest demands.

Peter Lewis, Director, EMC


Read Essential's ongoing research on the public response to Covid-19.

Sign up for updates

Receive the Essential Report in your inbox.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.