The Victorian election is the first to be held since the crystallisation of the link between the drought and climate change has fundamentally shifted the politics of both the environment and infrastructure across Australia.
Quantitative and qualitative research conducted by Graham Young and me for The National Forum shines a light on the importance of these issues. Water has been one of the few issues in the campaign to get much traction in the public mind. In our quantitative polling, 36% of 250 respondents nominated water as a key issue.
While Melbourne faces only level two water restrictions, regional cities are not so lucky. Bendigo and Ballarat are both at level four, and Geelong is about to join them. Victorian voters are keenly aware of the water crisis, and many have made the link with climate change. The polling is intriguing, therefore, in that it sheds light on how these issues will play out electorally.
The story is good news for the Bracks government. Respondents were appreciative of the appointment of John Thwaites to a portfolio including water, and there’s no evidence that voters are inclined to ascribe blame to Labor.
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The Baillieu led Opposition has tried to dramatise the issue by promising to build a desalination plant, and a new dam on the Maribyrnong River. Neither promise has cut much ice with voters in our focus group. They’re sceptical about whether desalination is either viable or cost effective. And the dam is dismissed with scorn, with one focus group participant deriding it as “fatuous”. Several respondents pointed out that for a dam to fill, you need rain.
As David, 80, of Fairfield, put it, “Perhaps Family First could all pray for rain”.
Baillieu’s promises seem to be consistent with the Liberals’ policy approach generally – promising quick and expensive fixes to problems voters perceive as ingrained. But they’re met with scepticism, while Labor’s policy work on water was characterised by Jamie, 59, of Frankston:
“Bracks and co were the first to realise that water needed real attention. A dedicated, senior minister. Again, real policy takes time and work. They started four years ago.”
There’s probably a message for the Federal Government too. Voters are sceptical of responses which can be characterised as “pulling a rabbit out of a hat” and respectful of a record of serious recognition of environmental issues and their infrastructure implications.