Over the next 12 months, we’ll have more polls on pricing carbon than we can poke a stick at – some more valuable than others –  so it’s probably worth taking a squiz at where public views of carbon pricing sit at the starting gates of what will probably be a bit of a rollercoaster that most of the country will get sick to death of before it ever gets implemented.

The last Nielsen poll taken back on the 12th February is as good a place as any to start. They asked the basic question:

Do you support or oppose the introduction of a price on Carbon?

Breaking the answers down by age, region, gender and voting intentions we get:

Even though the Nielsen polls run a sample of 1400 (MoE ~2.6%), some of the breakdowns will have quite small subsamples (gender ~4%, age groups ~5%) so treat them as indicative rather than exact.

We see the usual suspects turn up in the demographics – where support starts out high with the young and weakens as we move through into the older cohorts, and where men are both more oppositionalist and more certain in their beliefs than women, by a significant margin. We’ve consistently seen these same patterns before with climate change questions generally (things like do you believe global warming is happening? Do you believe it is man made? etc), as well as polls on the old proposed CPRS .

What’s also interesting is how Labor and Coalition voters are mirror images of each other (around 60/30), as too are capital city and non-capital city respondents (around 40/50).

Another issue worth mentioning is how the strength of opinion plays out across age cohorts. If we compare those with generic positions (simple support and oppose) against those with strong positions (strongly support and strongly oppose), what we see is that position strength increases significantly with age, and a much larger proportion of men than women hold strong positions on carbon pricing.

As we saw with the ETS when it was merely an abstract proposition – something that could happen in the future – support for the policy was always somewhere between a large plurality to a large majority. But once the ETS changed from being a generic concept to a specific one, once the ETS changed from being “Oh yeah, that ETS thing that will help climate change” to “This thing with details and will cost me money”, support for the ETS dropped significantly.

While the public supported the idea of any given ETS, that support collapsed when that ‘any given’ ETS changed into a (and probably any) specific ETS.

We should expect to see the exact same thing happen here with this ETS as well, particularly since the brains trust at ALP Central thought it would be a smashing idea to cede ground on Day 1 and effectively admit that over the first three to five years it will be a carbon tax rather than an ETS with a fixed price, letting the meme get away from them.  Nice work guys  – really missing the obvious about the political connotations the word “tax” carries in the real world.

Another issue where we should expect to see some significant change in public opinion is on the broad notion of willingness to pay for any action on climate change.  Last year (as well as in 2008), the Lowy Institute included willingness to pay questions as part of their annual Lowy Poll, specifically in regard to electricity prices. The question asked was:

One suggested way of tackling climate change is to increase the price of electricity. If it helped solve climate change how much extra would you be willing to pay each month on your electricity bill? Please say an amount, rounded off to the nearest ten dollars.

If we look at the 2008 and 2010 results, as well as the change over that 2 year period, this is what we get:

Back in 2008 when the idea was – again- more abstract than real, only 21% of the population was not prepared to pay anything while 71% was prepared to pay at least 1 to 10 dollars per month.

In 2010, as the reality of action approached and the partisan politics became strongly polarised, the number of people prepared to pay something dropped 12 points to 59%, boosting the not prepared to pay anything response to  1/3rd of the population. It’s worth noting that the big demographic mover here was the over 60’s, increasing the proportion not willing to pay anything from 23 to 43 points.

Expect to see the willingness to pay – which goes to the very core of public support for a carbon price – to contract even further now that it’s crunch time.

The problem that Labor has here comes down to a number of groups, two of which are worth mentioning – the first being older people, particularly fixed income older people. The second being middle income families with 1.5+ earners (blue collar workers are another group – but that’s worth another post all to itself).

The first group is nearly always a right off for Labor in the broadest sense of the phrase, so it doesn’t really matter what either major party does or say with that mob since it has the smallest swinging voter proportion of any age cohort, the most strongly held views of any age cohort as Policy Day approaches and, if history is anything to go by,  a profound ability to dismiss what they don’t want to hear should it ever interrupt their preconceptions. They’ll bitch and moan and carry on even if the compensation outweighed their additional costs by 6 to 1.

The latter poses a delicate political problem for Labor, primarily because of the reality of their socioeconomic situation. If you are a middle income family in Australia today with 1.5 incomes and you are actually struggling with the cost of living without having some genuinely rare set of extenuating circumstances – it’s entirely your own fault.

The politics of personal responsibility with middle income earners is difficult not only because they make up a significant proportion of true swing voters that happen to live in generally marginal seats, but also because their self-perceived problems are often much larger than the reality of those problems and they simply don’t want to hear about being told otherwise. It works this way for both parties though – for instance, in the lead up to the 2007 election, the fear of Workchoices among this group was often much larger than the actual situation they’d likely ever face under Workchoices, because they believed their household financial circumstances were much more problematic and delicate than they, in fact, were.

Convincing this group that (a) compensation will mostly match expenditure and that (b) they can afford to pay any residual however small, is a hiding looking for a bare arse to happen on.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to see some hit on the Labor vote, particularly over the short term but perhaps significantly longer – that will depend on Gillard and her ability to organise some relatively authoritative coalition of business and community interests to back the policy loudly and act as a counterweight to the forces that will be rallied against it, while making the Coalition look shrill and nonsensical.

Also worth noting is that NSW has been the state that has been most hostile to carbon pricing and global warming over the last 12 months. NSW has generally been the state most against any given policy over the last 12 months, so there may well be some generic grumpiness at play in the state that might be partially cleansed from the system when they get to take it out on the NSW state government in a few weeks time. It will be interesting to see if/how the dynamics of NSW voters changes after the State election.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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