Paula Matthewson: If politicians ignore this issue – and the polls – get set to fry

For the first time since 2011, Australians see environmental problems as the chief concern facing the country.

For the first time since 2011, Australians see environmental problems as the chief concern facing the country. Photo: TND

The thing about political truisms is that they’re considered the golden rule, until they aren’t.

Commentators used to sagely intone that voters would ‘never’ kick out a first-term government, until Liberal state governments in Victoria and Queensland were swiftly dispatched by their constituents in 2014 and 2015 after only one term.

We were told voters ‘always’ reject political parties that chop and change leaders, until the Liberal Party was returned to government this year despite having three leaders in three years.

And we’ve been constantly assured that the iron law of Australian politics is that “it’s the economy, stupid” – namely that voters will ‘always’ put economic concerns before others when deciding which party to support on polling day.

There’s no doubt this ‘fact’ has been proven time and again – it’s kept the Coalition in government for all but a handful of years over the past two decades.

And now the Labor opposition is again grappling with the dilemma, trying to find ways to improve the party’s appeal to voters by improving its economic credentials. Some of the party’s more vocal elements have suggested this reorientation to voters’ economic concerns might require Labor to have a reduced focus on environmental issues and climate change.

However such a move might condemn Labor to re-contest the last election rather than equip it to fight the next one. The same caution applies to all parties and candidates.

Remember the 2016 federal election? At the time, it was health and not the economy that topped the list of voter concerns in a regular survey conducted by the Essential Poll.

Essential found shortly after the election that the most important issues that influenced people’s votes were health policies (60 per cent) and Medicare (58 per cent). Economic management came in third at 53 per cent and the environment/climate change was eighth at 34 per cent.

This is why Labor’s scare campaign on the privatisation of Medicare was so successful – it tapped into high levels of voter anxiety about access to quality health care.

bill shorten medicare

Bill Shorten’s so-called ‘Mediscare’ campaign resonated with voters at the last federal election. Photo: AAP

These days, health has dropped on voters’ list of concerns, after job creation and power prices, but another issue has made a dramatic shift to fourth position, improving 11 percentage points since February this year. This is the environment, and by extension, climate change.

As I noted in this column just last month, the cavalcade of politicians in shiny RMs dragging camera crews to the Outback to get kudos for doing ‘something’ about the drought has delivered unintended consequences.

By showing the rest of Australia what climate change can do, even if they deny the link, these MPs’ PR stunts are exacerbating people’s concerns about the environment.

Essential Poll had already found last month that ‘effects of climate change’ was one of the top three concerns for personal safety nominated by survey respondents, rising from 7 per cent in 2017 to 20 per cent this year. The other top two concerns were terrorism (21 per cent) and car accidents (21 per cent).

While Essential’s survey places the environment fourth in its list of overall issues for voters, another reputable polling company, Roy Morgan, released survey results this week that puts the issue at number one for the first time since February 2011, which coincides with the end of Australia’s last worst dry spell, the Millennium drought.

When asked to nominate the most important problem facing Australia today, 41 per cent of respondents to the Roy Morgan poll nominated the environment, up a whopping 17 percentage points since June. In contrast, 22 per cent (down 12 per cent) cited economic concerns.

Roy Morgan notes this is the lowest level of concern for economic issues since April 2006, prior to the Global Finance Crisis.

There is one other important time in recent political history when voters believed environmental issues were more important that economic ones – as measured by Roy Morgan at least – and that was when Labor’s Kevin Rudd swept into government promising to be a younger, better version of the long-standing Liberal PM John Howard.

The issues that are troubling Australians. Source: Roy Morgan

It’s no coincidence that Mr Rudd’s winning campaign platform featured a commitment to ratify the Kyoto agreement on climate change. Even Mr Howard sniffed the prevailing winds and promised an emissions trading scheme.

Given 2007 was the only time in recent decades that Labor managed to win government from the Coalition, the role of the environment as a voter concern in that outcome cannot be denied.

This week’s Roy Morgan survey, along with previous findings from Essential, are a strong indication that voters’ greatest concerns may again be shifting from the economy to the environment. It might therefore be a truism to say so, but to ignore such a shift in voter priorities would be to place any party in political peril.

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