I await each morning radio news with the expectation that Mr Shorten will have a new expensive promise for us, and so far I haven’t been disappointed. What does disappoint me is that his accounts of how his party would be able to pay for them are so empty, and there is never a mention of reducing the budget deficit. No journalist seems able or interested in asking questions of this kind. On the one occasion when one did, Mr Shorten’s response was that the wealthy would pay more in tax, and they could afford to. Surely somebody, somewhere, sometime will ask him the hard questions about imagined revenue. Mr Turnbull is avoiding the whole business, alas, apart from sledging Labor on its promises. But the same applies to him.
On the other hand, there has been hardly a word about ‘climate change’, that fearful prospect awaiting our grandchildren that we have to fix right now with an ETS and more regulations. Yet, according to a ReachTel poll of 2400, nearly two in three said they would be more likely to vote for a party seeking 100 per cent renewable energy in 20 years and 48 per cent said they would be more likely to support a party reducing Australia’s net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. More than half, 56.4 per cent, want the government to do more on climate change, while 27.8 per cent think the current settings are right and 9.9 per cent want less action. In this poll respondents were reacting to propositions put to them by the interviewers
Why aren’t the parties taking notice? Well, they’re probably more interested in another poll about the perceived important problems facing Australia, by the Roy Morgan team. A summary of responses to this question for the past decade appears in the graph. In the Morgan poll respondents were asked to nominate what they themselves thought were the most important problems facing our country. The Roy Morgan organisation has been asking questions in the same way for years, so the pattern of responses has some validity.
Let’s look at Environmental problems, which occupied second place to Economic problems during the Millennium drought and the fuss about global warming leading up to the Copenhagen Conference in 2009, then slipped away as the drought ended and the Conference that was to bring the world together turned out to be a fizzer. Ten per cent of respondents in the survey conducted this month nominated something or other to do with environment. ‘Climate change’ or global warming was nominated by just seven per cent, men and women alike.
Why the difference between the two polls? I’ve written about this before, though the search engine for this website didn’t find it for me. Briefly, there is a tendency to respond to questions offering you options in what might seem to be the right, or approved response — that is, if you really don’t have an opinion. It’s called ‘yea-saying’ in the literature. You don’t want to sound like a dill, and you know you ought to have an answer. What should it be? The great conversation out there that you listen to in a kind of way provides the socially acceptable answer. So you give that one. Latin provides a way of asking questions that indicate the kind of response the questioner is expecting. We can do it in English by adding ‘do/are you’ or ‘don’t/aren’t you’ to the text — ‘You’re not in favour of adding any further taxation burden to poor people, are you?’ The only possible reply is ‘Dear me, no.’ Asking questions in a neutral way is quite an art.
When you are asked to nominate something yourself the whole scene changes. Yes, you might still reach for a socially acceptable answer, but you are much more likely to provide an answer that means something to you. I used this technique myself in my own survey research, and deep analysis of the data suggested to me strongly that a personally nominated problem or attribute (of a leader) was highly consistent with other answers — they hung together well. So I have much more faith in the utility of the Morgan results than I do in those of the ReachTel survey.
Let’s look at another aspect of the graph. Back in the best-forgotten Gillard days (2011, say) there was a much greater spread in the range of issues that respondents thought were problems facing Australia. Environmental concerns were important, immigration was important, political leadership was important, and of course economic concerns were most important. But today the economy (work, unemployment, money, foreign ownership, interest rates) is paramount, and the other issues have slipped to much lower levels than was the case five years ago. By and large that was the case in October last year, too, long before the July 2nd election was in prospect. And despite the focus on the leaders in an election campaign, leadership as a problem stands at nine per cent. What are the components of the leadership problem, exactly? They seem mostly to be ‘too much Government spending’ and ‘lack of vision’.
As I wrote above, this graph seems to me to explain the lack of salience of ‘climate change’ in the election so far, and I expect it to continue. The issue is not an attractive one to either major party. Tony Abbott put a well-known sympathiser with the AGW orthodoxy in as his Minister for the Environment, and Mr Turnbull kept him there, to the irritation of sceptics. But there was a simple reason. The Coalition does not want to disturb the faithful supporters of the orthodoxy, which it would do if it put somebody sceptical there. So the Coalition says as little as possible, and makes soothing noises about the need for a clean environment when it has to. Sceptics have nowhere else to go.
Labor is in a more difficult situation. If it says too much about the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions it will get in trouble with the unions of the workers whose jobs will be at risk. But if it doesn’t say enough, then it risks a leakage of voters to the Greens, who think that there is nothing more important than ‘climate change’. Maybe their preferences will come back, but maybe they won’t. Anyway, neither major party wants a leakage to any third group. Mr Shorten has said that a Labor Government will introduce an ETS that is not a carbon tax. This is playing with words, because the intended effect of an ETS is the same as that of a carbon tax, to make energy more expensive so that we use less of it, since 86 per cent of all our electricity comes from coal, oil and gas. Wind (4 per cent), rooftop solar (2 per cent), and biomass (1 per cent) make up the rest. The fact that no matter what Australia does global temperature will not change is any discernible way is not important to Labor. It’s the perceptions that count.
I’ve no doubt there will be a set piece or two about climate change in the next few weeks. But with only one person in 14 thinking it’s a real problem, there are more important fish for both the major parties to fry. As an endnote, Roy Morgan also asked people what they thought the major issues affecting the world were. The top three were Environmental (25 per cent), Economic (24 per cent) and Terrorism/ War (23 per cent). Plainly, for Australians ‘climate change’ is a matter that affects other people, not us!