Climate change in the Australian election

The Australian media has been deeply critical of Julia Gillard’s proposal for a citizens’ assembly to explore policy responses to climate change. It’s been attacked both by advocates, and critics, of action to tackle climate change – with the coverage attributing particular significance in the heat of the election campaign.

There’s indeed some polling evidence to suggest that voters aren’t convinced by Gillard’s proposal, but its importance in influencing the election seems to have been exaggerated. Despite some of the claims, there’s very little evidence that it’s having much of an impact on voting intentions.

Gillard’s proposal is for a 150-strong assembly of citizens, selected to be nationally representative, which would analyse and discuss climate issues, and make recommendations to policy-makers. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a majority of 53% oppose the proposal, while 41% support it. Another poll for the Daily Telegraph apparently found 62% opposed.

Unfortunately, Australian pollsters don’t appear to be as obliging with their data as are those in some other countries, so I only have these papers’ word to go on for the results of the polls, and can’t check how fairly they’re worded.  This is important because the wording of a question can have a huge impact on the results that come out. But taking the two polls on face value, the conclusion appears to be that the policy is slightly unpopular – but not wildly so.

Despite this, some of the coverage has presented public reaction in a very different light. According to the Australian, “voters have turned against Labor’s proposal for a citizens assembly on climate change”. 3AW claim it could be “the ‘turning point’” of the election.

But these claims that the policy is swinging the election look rather like bluster without any real evidence behind it. Gillard made the announcement on 23rd July. Since then, the polls have shown no trends and no movement outside the margin of error. One pollster has Labor falling 3pts; another shows them gaining 2pts, then losing 2pts in the next poll; a third has them falling 1.5pt and then losing another point in a subsequent poll.

If this really were a disaster for Gillard, the numbers would have moved more, and been more consistent in the pattern across pollsters (a more normal pattern after a disaster would be an immediate dramatic fall, and then a gradual recovery as reaction died down).

We can guess that there are indeed some people who hate the idea of possible action being taken on climate change, and suspect that it’s  being delayed until after the election and then will be far tougher than they would accept. And there are certainly others who are furious that Gillard isn’t taking action now, and see this as a failure of leadership. The former probably were never Labor voters; the latter may have been and perhaps are defecting to the Greens. But without any published polls that go into this level of detail, we shouldn’t take seriously any grand claims about the policy’s impact so far.

Thanks to Fi McKenzie for the heads-up about the coverage


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