Essential Report

Turning around the Titanic

Mar 8, 2011

First published on The Drum: 08/03/2011

The media works in eight-hour news cycles, politicians live and die by three-year cycles, while the planet’s climate is working on a significantly longer time frame.

The way these three cycles interplay over the next few months will determine not only the outcome of the next federal election but whether Australia will be a beneficiary or a victim of the shift in energy use that climate change will inevitably require*.

As this week’s Essential Report shows the Government has taken a short-term hammering after it’s decision to move on a carbon price. Not only has the Government failed to win popular support for its carbon pricing scheme, this has translated into a 4 per cent turnaround in the Two Party Preferred.

Of particular concern to Labor would be the high level of strong opposition, compared to strong support for the plan and the fact that barely half of Labor voters are backing the scheme.

Q. Do you support or oppose the Government’s recent announcement to introduce a carbon pricing scheme from 1 July 2012, which will require industries to pay a tax based on the amount of carbon pollution they emit?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Total support 35% 54% 18% 75%
Total oppose 48% 25% 72% 13%
Strongly support 9% 16% 2% 34%
Support 26% 38% 16% 41%
Oppose 19% 13% 24% 10%
Strongly oppose 29% 12% 48% 3%
Don’t know 18% 21% 9% 11%

These figures reflect the way the Opposition has controlled the short-term news cycles over the past 10 days, with the dual focus on rising household prices and the ‘Liar, Liar’ broken promises narrative.

Q. Tony Abbott and the opposition claim this is a ‘backflip’ on a promise Prime Minister Gillard made before the 2010 election not to introduce a carbon tax in the next term of parliament. Which of the following statements is closest to your view:

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
The Prime Minister has broken an election promise and should wait until after the next election before introducing a carbon pollution tax 59% 33% 86% 26%
The Prime Minister is showing strong leadership on an issue of national importance 27% 51% 7% 67%
Don’t know 13% 16% 7% 7%

But our findings also suggest there is opportunity for Labor if it can hold its nerve and play the political long-game – shifting the political focus from the daily news cycle to longer-term cycles of the nation’s economic and environmental interests.

First, despite their opposition to the current proposal, there is a majority view that now is the time to act on climate change.

Q. Do you think the Government needs to take action on climate change as soon as possible, should they wait a few years before taking action or don’t they need to take any action at all?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Need to take action as soon as possible 47% 60% 33% 85%
Can wait a few years before taking action 24% 19% 33% 8%
Don’t need to take any action 19% 9% 29% 3%
Don’t know 11% 12% 5% 4%

The interesting split in this finding is amongst Coalition voters, showing that the dominant group of the Parliamentary wing denying climate change do not reflect the views of Coalition voters.

Herein lies a danger for Tony Abbott; the more he attacks the Government’s carbon price, the more he boxes himself into a corner as denying climate change. Sure he will point to his Direct Action plans, but most credible scientists and economics see it as nothing more than a $10 billion piece of political puffery.

The second opening will be provided by the industry lobbies, who will lock into a scare campaign on jobs to extract the maximum compensation possible.

Having bludgeoned the Government into dumping the Resources Rent Tax, elements of the mining industry are already at the forefront. But if they think they can expect public support, they may be a little disappointed.

Q. It is expected that a tax on carbon pollution will increase the cost of electricity. Which of the following do you think should receive compensation for this increased cost?

Should receive compensation Should not receive compensation Don’t know
Low income households 84% 8% 8%
Farmers 74% 13% 13%
Small business owners 70% 14% 15%
All households 70% 16% 14%
Trade exposed industries 28% 44% 29%
Manufacturing industries 26% 51% 23%
The aluminium industry 18% 56% 26%
Power companies 15% 68% 17%

If the carbon price debate becomes a contest for compensation between households and industry, with the Coalition arguing for a larger share of the pie for big business, then the Government will have an opportunity to recast the debate not as ‘should we pay?’ but ‘who should pay’.

Prosecuting these cases effectively will require significant finesse and focus from the Government; and will be reliant on a number of external factors.

First, the science community needs to find its voice again. Since the fracas over a number of inaccuracies in the IPCC report, amplified by the deniers networks, it is as if the science of climate change is again contested.

Without the voice of science there is no imperative to act – if the debate is should we have higher prices or not, of course lower prices wins out. It is only if the question is HOW do we deal with the challenge of global warming, that a genuine debate on pricing carbon can occur.

Secondly, there needs to be an honest debate about the current causes of rising power prices and, for that, matter pressures on our commodity industries through the strong Australian dollar.

Finally, there needs to be a clear analysis of the costs of not acting on climate change – the threat to climate-exposed industries like agriculture, tourism and insurance as well as the impact on jobs when Australia is forced to change its energy profile in the future.

These are the long-cycle challenges that have to be met if the Government is to stem the bleeding and position itself for a long game surge in 2013.

The thing to remember is that over the past two decades front-runners have rarely won elections in Australia. Being behind in the polls, even significantly, is not a recipe for defeat provided there is a long-term strategy to clearly articulate the party’s values.

After the last election, turning around the Titanic was never going to be easy, but there is nothing in these figures to suggest Labor should be giving up the fight before it has really started.

* Assuming you accept the consensus of the world’s climate science community. Deniers, start your engines!

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC


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