No fewer than four federal opinion polls have emerged over the past few days, and while the waters have been muddied a little by essentially stable results from Newspoll and Essential Research, the collective impression is that the Abbott government has taken its first step backwards since the February leadership crisis.

The Ipsos series for the Fairfax papers has distinguished itself as the most Coalition-leaning poll since it opened for business late last year, so its finding that Labor held a two-party lead of 53-47 — or 54-46, if we take respondents at their word as to how they would allocate preferences — was rather an eye-opener.

A big lead for Labor in a Roy Morgan poll comes as less of a surprise, but this one showed the gap between the two parties at its highest level since February.

Three events of last week suggest themselves as possible catalysts for such a change.

First and least are the allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers to turn their boats back to Indonesia. This continues to generate highly unflattering headlines for the government, but absent any evidence to the contrary — and with the “children overboard” affair standing out as an instructive precedent — it seems safest to assume that no story concerning boat arrivals can ever do Labor much good vis-a-vis the Coalition, regardless of its substance.

More obviously damaging was Treasurer Joe Hockey’s tone-deaf assertion that those struggling to buy a home should avail themselves of better employment, an observation that really did stop barbecues and water coolers around the country.

The potency of this issue was illustrated by Essential Research’s finding that 75% of respondents thought housing had become less affordable over the past few years, and Ipsos’ finding that this view was held particularly strongly by those living in Sydney.

As well as being consistent with all that’s been said about the city’s housing bubble, the latter finding suggests that Hockey’s comment hit the government in a delicate spot, since strong polling in New South Wales had hitherto been the foundation of the Abbott government’s broader recovery.

The comments themselves will probably fade from memory soon enough, with the real concern for the government being that fresh unforced errors might emerge from the Treasurer’s mouth to take their place.

The wild card in our deck of three is the Prime Minister’s assertion that wind farms are “ugly” and “noisy”, and the accompanying indication that the bipartisan support offered for the Renewable Energy Target before the 2013 election had been less than sincere.

Taken at face value, this would seem a rather brave proposition for a prime minister to advance. When Essential Research inquired about favoured energy sources in September last year, 60% said they wished to see a greater emphasis on wind power, with only 8% sharing the Prime Minister’s apparent preference for less emphasis. In this, it was only slightly behind solar power and massively ahead of coal, on which only 9% wanted more emphasis, compared with 53% for less emphasis.

More broadly, there can be little doubt that environmental issues have assumed increasing significance in voters’ calculations over the past few decades.

At the time the Australian National University began its post-election Australian Election Study survey series in 1987, only 31% of respondents identified the environment as an “extremely important” election issue. By the time of the 2007 election, at which time the Howard government’s refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol played heavily to the advantage of Labor, that had nearly doubled to 59%.

It must be conceded that these heights were not again reached at the next two elections. Whether as a result of the global financial crisis or the failure of the Copenhagen summit in December 2009, many appeared to have decided they had other fish to fry by the time of the 2010 election, when only 42% nominated the environment as extremely important. The politics surrounding the carbon tax then seemed to stifle any subsequent recovery, with the result from the 2013 survey coming in at 43%.

However, polling released yesterday by the Lowy Institute offers a strong indication that this trend has since reversed, with concern about global warming recorded at its highest level since 2008.

There is a popular view that Tony Abbott’s readiness to advance a view so flatly in contradiction with public opinion represents a miscalculation born of a weakness for telling Alan Jones and his demographically narrow cohort of listeners what they want to hear.

However, a more flattering interpretation is that Abbott was exhibiting a carefully nuanced appreciation of how his time as Prime Minister might most efficiently be used to serve the causes he entered politics to advance.

This is consistent with further findings from the Australian Election Study series suggesting that environmental attitudes have become increasingly polarised along party lines.

From 1987 to 2013, the proportion of Labor voters nominating the environment as an “extremely important” election issue went from 34% to 54%, while the result for “not very important” shrank from 25% to 7%.

By contrast, the “extremely important” response among Coalition voters hardly budged, going from 27% in 1987 to 28% in 2013, although a substantial shift from “not very important” to the intermediate “quite important” option saw the former halve from 32% to 16%.

This polarisation partly reflects a weakening identification with Labor among white working-class voters, which is most sharply evident among those with direct stakes in forestry and coal mining.

Abbott may well have satisfied himself that a posture of hostility towards wind farms will, if anything, be to his advantage in keeping such voters on board, so that they may form part of an ongoing election-winning coalition together with his party’s more traditional conservative base. As the experience of 2007 makes clear, the real danger for a breach with this constituency lies with bread-and-butter issues such as industrial relations.

If Abbott’s culture-warrior muscles require a workout, as they surely must since the chastening experience of last year’s budget, the more abstract concerns of the environment and energy policy might well present the safest available option.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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