Nielsen poll – wakeup call for protest voters, not Gillard

This morning Australian voters woke to read that the tide has turned on Prime Minister Gillard, with the Herald/Nielsen poll showing the Coalition now leading on a two-party-preferred basis.

The commentariat are saying that the bell is tolling for Gillard. This interpretation may sell papers, but it is wrong. We are still three whole weeks out from polling day. Previous contemporary elections have shown that around 5-10% voters do not firmly make up their minds until the last week. 2-3% do not decide until THE DAY. This percentage is still enough to decide the election.

Today’s poll shows nothing more than an expression of protest by those voters not happy with this week’s ALP campaign. It costs voters nothing to shift their “vote” around during the weeks of the campaign. What they tell pollsters they will do, and how they actually DO vote are two different things.

A more interesting result from the poll is that 69% expect Labor will win the election, while only 21% believe the coalition will. Another is that 21% of voters have not yet firmly made up their minds.

This reflects the wormers’ views after Sunday night’s Leaders’ Debate – when asked to finally choose between Gillard and Abbott, the vast majority chose the PM.

Today’s poll is nothing more than a wakeup call for protest voters. Expect Labor to press the point – do voters unhappy with Julia Gillard REALLY want Tony Abbott to be their next Prime Minister?

If votes swing back, then the superficial protest will be confirmed. If the trend remains, then we can start to toll the bell for Julia.

Julia’s tenet – no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry

Zombies vote often, vote late

John Howard was pilloried during his time as Prime Minister for saying he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. It was, said the commentariat, evidence of Howard’s singular lack of vision, particularly when compared to his predecessor the vaudevillian Paul Keating.

No doubt Howard saw himself more in the mold of political warhorse than political visionary. He knew that an electorate generally satisfied with its lot would unlikely countenance the risk of changing its government.

It appears that Julia Gillard is deploying a version of Howard’s strategy, which is to keep the electorate bored, somnolent and disengaged. In the same way that Howard felt secure with a comfortable electorate, Gillard is depending on the tenet that no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry.

Consider the limited number of times that federal governments have been thrown out in recent decades. Fraser, Keating and Howard all incited considerable wrath within the community before they were ousted at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is observable in her public demeanour and utterances. While some have likened her new cadence to PM Thatcher, it strikes others as more a cross between our current Queen Betty and a pre-school teacher; soothing but protective, reassuring but authoritative. At times during the Leaders’ debate I recalled late-night horror movies where people were hypnotised through their crystal sets and wondered if this time it was for real.

It may well be that this strategy will pay dividends for the PM, but I suspect it will backfire because Tony Abbott is also trying to bore the electorate. Clearly he is not doing it for the same reason as Gillard. Abbott is using the small target strategy that worked so well for Rudd and Howard when they were both opposition leaders. It is the “I am a safe pair of hands and I don’t have the other lot’s nasty policies” strategy. Abbott too is trying to be reassuring but authoritative, so as not to alarm the electorate into reverting to the incumbent government.

So how will this play out on polling day? Taxi drivers all over Australia will tell you that their fares think this is the most boring election in memory. Will voters shuffle to their polling station like zombies or somnambulists and vote for the status quo because it is the path of least resistance?

Or will they rebel, mutter a pox on both houses, and vote green or not at all?

Symbolism or substance: Will a decarbonised Australian economy fix climate change?

As an old campaigner, I implicitly understand the need to condense complex matters into sound bites or slogans.  The problem with stripping the details out of an issue and reducing it to a memorable phrase is that people tend to defer to their own interpretation of what that phrase actually means.

This can be dangerous territory for a politician or party if the sound bite or slogan implies an undertaking.  While the nature of the undertaking may be clear in the mind of the spruiker, it might have an entirely different meaning to the audience.

Rudd’s lesson

Kevin Rudd learned this lesson the hard way.  During the 2007 federal election campaign, Rudd differentiated himself from John Howard on two points: he would scrap Work Choices and ratify Kyoto.  Neither Rudd nor the ALP made any effort to explain what ratification of the Kyoto protocol meant in practical terms.  They were content with the electorate inferring from this undertaking that Australia’s ratification would fix climate change.

But of course, it did not.  In reality, ratification of Kyoto granted access to a number of climate mitigation activities including a future global emissions trading scheme amongst parties to the protocol and emission credits for businesses investing in greenhouse gas reducing projects in developing countries.

After formally ratifying the Kyoto protocol, Rudd subtly shifted his language to the need for Australia to adopt an emissions trading scheme to fix climate change.  Having trusted the Prime Minister on ratification, and feeling no adverse effects, Australians were comfortable in the belief that adopting an ETS would be equally painless.

Green words not green deeds

It is important to understand that while people say they want environmental action, and that they are prepared to pay for it, their actions disprove their words.  Australian green energy schemes continue to languish in the single-digit percentages because people do not want to pay a premium for a product that has no discernable difference.  Surveys of grocery shoppers have found that the actual contents of their trolleys undermine their previously- stated preference for green products.

Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?
Why penalise Australians for their quality of life?

In reality, most people don’t want to pay more to be environmentally friendly – unless the expense can be expressed in a way that can be seen such as having a water tank or driving a hybrid car or carrying a green canvas shopping bag.

This is where Rudd came unstuck.

The point of an ETS is to wean an economy off fossil fuels.  This is done by putting a price on carbon so that fossil fuel based products become more expensive and the renewable based products start to look competitive in comparison.  That’s the economic theory.

Problems with decarbonising Australia’s economy

There are several problems with this theory for Australia.  Firstly, 80% of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal and we have coal reserves that could last for several hundred years more.   Our plentiful coal has allowed electricity prices to remain consistently low, and as a result we currently have the third lowest electricity prices in the world.

Not only have these low electricity prices brought energy intensive industries to Australia, they have contributed directly to the Australian community’s quality of life.  Around 11.5% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from households and another 14% from transport (most of which is cars, trucks and planes).  An ETS would place cost pressure on the households to move them away from the activities and products that use fossil fuels.

Once voters began to realise this, they felt conned and unhappy.  This unhappiness has clearly been picked up by party polling, evidenced by both major parties moving to distance themselves from an ETS before the impending election.

While the ETS is now on the backburner, we will nevertheless continue to hear the latest slogan promoting the need to decarbonise the Australian economy if we are to fix climate change.

As point of substance, this contention is patently absurd.  Australia contributes less than 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  No amount of reduction in Australia will make a material difference to the phenomenon.  Even if every Australian house had solar panels, and every family drove a hybrid car and grew their own vegetables, there would hardly be a perceptible dip in global emissions.

So, as a point of symbolism, should Australia decarbonise its economy to show leadership and coax other developed nations into doing their fare share to mitigate the problem that they originally created?

If leadership leading to deep cuts in global emissions is the real objective of Australian action on climate change, then penalising Australians for their quality of life will not achieve that objective.

An unconventional solution

There is no way to stop the developing world from using coal in the foreseeable future.  These nations are rightly focused on bringing their people out of poverty and will use the most reliable, affordable and safe means of electricity generation available to them.

The International Energy Agency has projected that from the year 2000 to 2030 around $16 trillion dollars will be spent on developing and providing energy to the global population.  Over that same period, the number of people with no access at all to a reliable/commercial supply of energy will reduce from two billion to one billion.  Those of us sitting in our air-conditioned homes and offices need to bear this in mind when we nod sagely about the need to decarbonise the economy.  In 2030 there will still be people on this planet burning cow dung to heat their homes and cook their dinner.

Where does that leave Australia?  I believe we can take credible climate action that has both substance and symbolism.  Firstly we need to take the economists out of the equation – they have no interest in the human cost of their proposals.  Stop focusing on the business case too – there are too many vested business interests on either side of the climate change debate for the market to sort this out.

My solution lets all Australians feel involved, with minimal financial pain, and with greenhouse gas reductions being deployed where they are needed most.

Firstly, impose a greenhouse levy on all taxpayers in the same manner as the Medicare levy, which currently raises around $8 billion each year.  Attaching the levy to income ensures that those who earn more will pay more, and those who are disadvantaged or unemployed will not pay at all.

Secondly, use the funds to develop and deploy clean energy projects in the developed world – particularly those countries that have the potential to contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions in future.  In doing so, the Australian people would be getting more global greenhouse action for their dollar than they could ever hope to achieve at home.

Does this proposal make economic sense? No.  Does it make business sense? No.  Does it make sense in terms of Australia being a leader and making deep cuts in greenhouse emissions? Yes.

Maybe its time we changed the way we looked at climate change in Australia, and even the world.

Time to throw out the astroturf and step forward

Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

Wikipedia.com

At any given point in time activists, political parties or business interests are at the forefront of techniques carefully honed to influence public opinion.  We never really know for sure which of these has the ascendancy until one of the combatants blows another’s cover.

The nature of the “disguise” has changed over the years.  Decades ago, when a vested interest provided a public rationalisation for their actions, they would automatically be met with a variation of the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “well you would say that, wouldn’t you”.

It was clear at this time that those who sought to influence opinion could not credibly do so in their own right.  Alternative methods were identified and explored.

As the art of influence became more sophisticated, the players took note of market research that indicated people were most likely to believe what scientists and esteemed scientific institutions such as the CSIRO had to say about contemporary and controversial public policy issues.  This finding heralded the “battle of the boffins” era.

This era saw governments and corporates mobilise behind the scenes to identify, solicit and enlist scientifically credentialed third parties to “endorse” their preferred position.  Activist and pressure groups refined this dark art even further by strategically placing a number of their field-savvy campaigners into scientific roles in academic institutions, as well as establishing their own think-tanks and creating their own “independent panels of concerned scientists”.

This approach proved to be counter-productive for all concerned.  Faced with scientific boffins squabbling over what were generally seen to be esoteric issues, ordinary people turned their backs on the divided scientific community and looked inwards to their core values for guidance.

Arising from this introspective mood is the phenomenon we now know as astroturfing.  At its heart, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign.

Once the vested interests realised that they had lost the community’s hearts and minds with their battling boffins, they undertook more market research and found that people had reverted to focusing on the mitigation of tangible issues at the local level.   Those seeking to influence public opinion studied and learned from the successes of Landcare and Rotary and then established faux local interest groups to support and promote their own interests.

Activist and interest groups followed swiftly with the establishment of similar entities.  Some did not make much effort to hide this sleight of hand, with some “local interest” groups publicly sharing fax numbers and postal addresses with high profile activist groups.

Today, the casually interested observer in political and public policy issues is confronted with an array of information sources, some of who may or may not be who they say they are.  No wonder there is little confidence in the credibility of most public information sources.

The huge irony in all this, is that people are now demanding that vested interests step forward and publicly defend their own positions. Many people have moved on from the Rice-Davies form of skepticism to a new variation that says “if you are not prepared to publicly defend your own position, product or party then there must be something indefensible about it”.

Activists, political parties and business interests should take note of this change in community expectations.  Throw away the Astroturf and step forward.  Being prepared to publicly defend your position is the first step in winning new hearts, minds and supporters.

In defence of Tony Burke’s tweets

It’s not that the Member for Watson, Tony Burke, isn’t big enough or tough enough to defend himself.  In fact I suspect he’s more than capable, being a member of the NSW Right.  But after watching the (not so) lighthearted journo jabs at his tweets in my Twitter-stream today, I feel compelled to jump to his defence.

It’s not easy for a politician to hit the right note on Twitter.  Some think its just another megaphone with which to blast criticisms at their opponents.  Others use it to mouth their own party’s meaningless pap and propaganda.

But Burke has got the balance right.  He uses it to make real connections with real people.  How do I know this?  Because I talked to him about it.

I first started to take notice of Burke’s Twitter-style when he began to tweet about his road trips to Canberra each Sunday before a parliamentary sitting.  The old political campaigner in me thought “How clever, to send such an innocuous tweet with such a powerful subliminal message.”  In my mind’s eye I could see those of Burke’s constituents on Twitter nodding with approval that their MP drove himself to Canberra rather than take the easier limosine-plane-limosine option.

When I commended Burke on this cunning strategy he demurred.  He claimed that he tweets his movements for more modest reasons (1) to let his constituents know where he is and what he is doing, (2) to let journalists know when he is on a plane so they know when he is uncontactable and (3) to let his staff, friends and colleagues know when it is a good time to call him.

Whether he does it for political or practical reasons, I think Burke tweets well.

And I’m surprised that the journos making fun of him today (@BernardKeane “I’ve grabbed a coffee on my way to the study) didn’t think to look a little further into Burke’s objectives before making fun of him.