The muzzled dog of the Australian election

Last week, we saw that Australian PM Julia Gillard’s proposal for a citizens’ assembly to analyse and propose climate policy was widely criticised – but that despite the hype, there really wasn’t any evidence that it was turning the election against Labor. A week on, and it looks like the fuss about Gillard’s plan has completely disappeared, and climate change has become the muzzled dog of the campaign.

For anyone not following the election – you’re missing out. When Gillard called the election last month after toppling Rudd to become Prime Minister, Labor had a fairly healthy lead over the Liberal/National Coalition. But of the last eight polls, three have given the lead to the Coalition, three to Labour (including one being reported as I write), and two call it as a dead heat.  The excellent Pollytics has produced an election simulator that gives a wafer-thin majority to Labor, but it’s clear at this point that the result could easily tip either way.

One of the key factors will be the performance and role of the Greens. They could be crucial in two ways. Firstly, they have a good shot of winning the Melbourne Division from Labor, having polled 45% in the redistributed share in the last election. In an election as close as this, the result in that one seat could make a big difference to Labor – and potentially to the Greens if they win it, and can use its leverage in helping Labor form a government.

Secondly, while the Greens didn’t have any seats in the lower house of the last parliament, they’re polling at around 13% and the election uses Alternative Vote. To bring their redistributed share above 50%, Labor will rely on Green second preferences votes; in the latest Nielsen poll, Labor is getting 83% of those votes – which is strong but leaves perhaps crucial room for improvement.

Nevertheless, it may be that Gillard made a calculation that since there are only a few Green second preferences left to win (17% Coalition second preferences of 13% of Green voters is only 2% of the electorate up for grabs), it is more important to retain those Labor voters who might defect to the Coalition (and to gain potential Coalition voters), by keeping potentially divisive climate policies out of the news. By kicking climate change policy into the long grass, Labor probably took more of a hit from Greens who wanted stronger action than it did from potential Coalition voters – even those who were worried that the assembly plan was a cover for future radical action.

If that was Gillard’s aim, it may well have succeeded. Climate change has been largely out of the campaign news since coverage of the citizens’ assembly faded. So despite the wave of criticism for the announcement, perhaps it was more carefully planned than it initially appeared.

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