With Tony Abbott delivering the first set piece of his leadership last night at the Sydney Institute, the full gory details of which can be read over here, it’s probably worth having a squiz at the size of the public opinion hurdle he faces on his two chosen policy areas – water planning and the environment.

We’ll use Newspoll data for this, although it carries both upsides and downsides. On the upside, the data on the environment goes back to 1989 and the data on water management goes back to the beginning of 2007.  The downside however is that there hasn’t been a poll on either issue since February 2009.

First up, Newspoll asks the question:

Which one of the (insert parties) do you think would best handle the issue of water planning?

(click to expand)

waterplanning1

There’s not really a lot to chew over here apart from the “Others” growing slightly over time (driven, one would imagine, by the Greens). The Coalition on the other hand, has been declining slightly over time and Labor hasn’t been doing much at all.

One partially interesting result though is how Labor didn’t get a very large incumbency boost in their first year of government on the water planning issue – a boost which often happens on these issue management questions. That 5-7 point boost they received in their honeymoon had been washed out by last February.

Even though the Coalition face a ten point deficit here, that honeymoon effect having already washed out for Labor is probably the good news for Abbott. So saying – the last poll was a year ago. We should get another one shortly.

On the environment, the Newspoll data covers a much larger time span. We’ll do two charts for this – one similar to above, and another showing the lead Labor has held over the Coalition on the issue: (click to expand)

newspollenviro1 envirolead1

The ‘Uncommitted’ and “None” respondents have been really stable across the period, randomly bobbing about their long term mean – so rather than clog the chart up with them, here’s the major details.

enviro2

We often think of the environment as always being a strong Labor owned issue, almost as if it’s an institutional kind of ownership – but that isn’t actually the case, at least as far as the Newspoll data is concerned. As we can see, there were periods of time where the Coalition was ahead of Labor on the environment, and not only during periods of Coalition incumbency. However, in recent years, there’s been two major shifts in the numbers.

The first came in the ALP/Coalition head to head stakes when Rudd assumed the Labor leadership in Opposition, opening around a 15 point gap on the Coalition after being approximately level with them for a number of years.

The second big change came after the election, where the Others numbers increased at the expense of the Coalition, leaving the Coalition struggling at the most recent Newspoll on the issue a full 9 points behind the Others and 18 points behind Labor. A table would probably be handy here:

newspollenviro2

While the water management issue might have a chance for some traction – particularly in South Australia where the Coalition is facing disastrous swings in the polls, the Coalition are probably whistling dixie on the environment.

There was something in Abbott’s speech that caught my eye – his use of the term “practical environmentalism”. I can see the idea behind it, but how politically successful do you really think it would be?

It reminds me a lot of Howard’s “practical reconciliation” – a term that simply alienated people in net terms. Rather than sucking up the moderates like it was supposed to, voters that believed in reconciliation seemed to treat the phrase with a bit of contempt while those that thought reconciliation was hogwash just thought Howard went too far. (I’ll see if I can hunt down some polling data on it from the time).

With “practical environmentalism”, will it really be substantially different?

The other thing that struck me about the speech was how much it reminded me of the desperate political positioning attempts by Howard in mid-late 2007 when he realised he was electoral toast – the practical reconciliation spiel being one example after having spent years entrenching in the minds of the public (rightly or wrongly) a quite contrary position. The late-game scramble to reintroduce some quasi no disadvantage test for Workchoices was another. On each occasion they played poorly because they looked like an insincere backflip that wasn’t compatible with what else the Coalition had done or were proposing.

Here we have Abbott, after having admitted to calling climate change “crap”, two months after voting down the CPRS and 2 days after announcing his desire to overturn the Qld Wild Rivers legislation, he throws a “Green Army” bone on the environment issue, expecting it to pay political dividends?

It’s a little bizarre. Although probably not as bizarre as Abbott’s blossoming Napoleon fantasies – anyone else notice that this Green Army is the second time he’s had an army idea, the first being Abbott’s Army from early December?

UPDATE:

NSW Irrigators flick the bird to Abbott over his Murray Darling referendum proposal.

And via @jtwnz on twitter, Abbott’s Green Army is much like Anna Bligh’s in Qld

UPDATE 2:

New Morgan phone poll taken over the nights of January 13/14 has the ALP on a two party preferred of 56/44 – running a sample size of 659 for an MoE that maxes out around the 3.8% mark. This is a a 3 point increase to Labor since the last Morgan Phone poll, which came in at 53/47 on December 4-9, from a small sample 493 (MoE = 4.4%)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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