The ascension of Tony Abbott to the Liberal Party leadership was launched out of a wave of hysteria gripping some parts of conservative Australia over climate change and emissions trading. The deluge of emails, letters and phone calls into the offices of coalition members — so we’re told — signified a revolt! That’s all very good and well, but if we used local contact with politicians as a yardstick for public views on any particular issue, then we’d all be wandering around believing that 80% of the country is the victim of some vast conspiracy perpetrated by the Child Support Agency.

Angry, noisy people  — usually with minority held opinions — are the ones that overwhelmingly get agitated enough about issues to start writing stern letters to politicians. So it is with emissions trading.

Nielsen asked the same question in two polls 16 months apart to gauge public opinion on a generic emissions trading scheme — not any particular system like the CPRS — just a broad generic question testing opinion on the whole general idea of an ETS. The first was back in July of 2008 and the most recent was last weekend.

One of the fantasies that you hear regularly from the wingnut end of the media, is the idea that there is this huge public backlash starting to form against climate change in general and emissions trading in particular. The problem is it just doesn’t exist. If we compare the change that’s occurred in the Total Support and Total Oppose responses over the past 16 months on the question of a generic ETS, the results speak for themselves.


Total Support for a generic ETS has dropped by 2 points — not a significant change. What has occurred though is that the “Don’t Know” camp has crystallised out into opposition to any ETS.

If we break down these results by party voter, it starts to become clearer.


Majorities of both voting blocks show generic support for an ETS. This is where Abbott’s railing against an ETS becomes dangerous for the Liberal Party, for he’s effectively arguing against the opinion held by a majority of his party’s voters. If we break this down into age groups, it paints an even more dangerous picture.


The coalition has been weak among younger voters for a while and that group is more likely to vote on the basis of climate change than any other cohort — yet 18-39-year-olds have actually increased their support for a generic ETS significantly over the past 16 months. Abbott is effectively chasing a demographic set with his bullish anti-ETS position (the over 40s)  that cannot win him an election. Yet he risks alienating a group — the under 40s —  that can lose him as many elections as he can count.

What really puts some proper context to this fanciful talk of a backlash against climate change and emissions trading is looking at the net support level of a generic ETS by major cohorts, using the last poll.


Abbott, by going in hard against emissions trading, is on the wrong side of public opinion by at least 35 points in every demographic —  going as high as 58. For all the climate change denialists running around the place in the coalition — here’s some more food for thought. Nielsen asked “which of the following statements best describes your view …” and gave three alternatives.

  1. Australia should introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme as soon as possible.
  2. Australia should wait until the Copenhagen climate change conference shows what other countries are doing.
  3. Australia should not introduce an Emissions Trading Scheme.

The results by party vote come in like this.090212_etstiming

Only 14% of coalition voters want no ETS at all. Abbott will run into the same problem as Turnbull did when he’s forced to devise his own post-Copenhagen climate change policy — a large proportion of the coalition party room he now leads is on a completely different planet when it comes to the views of not only the broader Australian public, but the views of coalition voters.

That deluge of complaints they experienced last week wasn’t representative of anything other than a small, angry and noisy conservative rump.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey