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Next election test of leadership on climate and the environment

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2 days ago Gabrielle Chan
Social researcher Rebecca Huntley says her work shows voters broadly connect environmental issues with capacity for leadership. © Getty Images/RooM RF Social researcher Rebecca Huntley says her work shows voters broadly connect environmental issues with capacity for leadership.

The next election could shape up as an important contest for centrist voters who consider climate and environmental concerns as a test of leadership according to leading social researcher Rebecca Huntley.

Huntley says her work increasingly shows voters broadly connect environmental issues such as climate change, energy, clean air and water, food security and waste with capacity for leadership.

“Voters have looked at both parties falling apart on climate change and now it’s as if the leader who can decide on climate change and environment policy and get their party to stick and still walk out the door intact is the real leader,” Huntley said.

“Environment has almost become a proxy for leadership capability at a federal level in the same way capacity to deal with infrastructure has been a proxy for leadership at a state level, as we just saw in Victoria.”

In conjunction with the Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia (CIRCA), Huntley of Vox Populi Research, carried out qualitative research for the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.

It was aimed at understanding voter perceptions of the current federal government on environmental issues and the issues that are cutting through and concerning voters.

The research deliberately targeted swinging voters who lived in outer suburban areas while excluding Greens voters. CIRCA also excluded anyone who were solely focused on environmental issues as well as those who strongly agreed that there was too much government regulation related to environmental protection.

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The report said environmental issues were important to participants generally and were placed in the top three or top five depending on other concerns, such as whether they saw environment issues as connected to issues such as health and future economic prosperity.

“The first thing is people have assumed that the recent plateau in the Greens vote, given the intense dislike of the two major parties and range of issues, means the environment is not an important issue,” Huntley said.

“However it’s more that environment now encapsulates a broader suite of issues and it kicks in for people as to whether government is future focused, whether government can confront issues that are not straightforward and whether government can face the people [and companies] who give them money [political donors] at election times.”

Her comments come after independent Kerryn Phelps campaigned hard on climate change before winning Malcolm Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth. Daniel Andrews Labor government was returned with an increased majority – a result which Liberal Senate president Scott Ryan said was a result of the Liberal party straying too far from its moderate “electoral base” in a clear nod to centrist voters.

Tony Abbott also faces a tough campaign in his blue ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah from a range of community groups and activists, who rank environmental issues as high on their agenda.

At the same time, the opposition is under pressure from the Labor Environment Action Network (Lean), which has warned the ALP ahead of its December conference that it will not give up on securing a significant overhaul of federal environment laws in the first term of a Shorten government.

Unprompted, voters mentioned water health, waste and recycling and rapid urbanisation as their top environmental concerns in Huntley’s research. Groups were also asked to rank their top concerns from a list and they nominated climate change and “weak or ineffective laws” over forest logging, threatened species, coal seam gas mining, coal mining and deforestation/tree clearing.

Topics raised in a general environmental discussion included “climate change, rubbish in parks and national parks, decreasing wild life, and the impact of both rampant consumerism and rapid urbanisation on the environment”.

“Participants reflected on the deterioration of natural areas of personal importance to them over time,” Huntley’s report says.

Participants believed “while all levels of government needed to play a role (ideally in a collaborative way) the federal government could provide the framework and was best placed to provide incentives for good environmental behaviour”.

Asked who were the worst environmental offenders, unprompted, participants listed fracking and logging industries, oil and fuel companies, “big business”, manufacturing, transport and consumerism in general.

The CIRCA research found overall, participants believed federal governments had the the ultimate responsibility for protecting the environment.

Participants nominated trusted sources of information on the environment as high profile science communicators like David Attenborough, Brian Cox, David Suzuki, Karl Kruszelnicki, Steve and Bindi Irwin and Craig Reucassel’s ABC program, War on Waste. The CSIRO remains the most trusted government body on environmental issues.

Separate analysis by the Wilderness Society of the 2016 Australian Electoral Study data by the Australian National University found 23.8% who identified the environment as “extremely important” in how they voted were not always loyal to one party. This equates to around 3.2 million non-loyal environmentally-concerned (NLEC) voters.

At the 2016 election, 22% of NLEC voters voted for the Liberal party; 33% for Labor, 2% for the National Party, 23% for the Greens and 19% for other parties or independents.

The NLEC 2016 Liberal voters self-identify as centrists in the AES data. When asked to locate the parties on the same left to right spectrum, these voters self-identify as sitting between the Liberal party and the Labor party, well to the right of the Greens.

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The Wilderness Society’s federal policy director Tim Beshara said the AES data showed Australians across the political spectrum were concerned about both climate change and the natural environment. But there are cohorts of swinging voters who were environmentally concerned and up for grabs.

“There are some voters who self-identify as left-leaning and environmentally-concerned, and yet there are also another cohort who self-identify as centrist and environmentally concerned,” Beshara said.

“The former cohort is up for grabs over environment issues between Labor and the Greens, but the latter cohort is largely a competition between Labor and the Liberal party.

“So, given the shift to the right by the government, this cohort has found themselves more ideologically distant from them and potentially up for grabs over environmental issues. The problem for Labor though is that, rightly or wrongly, most of these voters don’t rate Labor highly on this issue, in the same way that say, they’d rate them on Medicare.”

Huntley said the AES data analysis by the Wilderness Society reflects the same messages that come up in her focus groups.

She said one of the issues that was raised by voters in 2018 was the concern over relying on China to take recycling waste and relying on Tesla founder Elon Musk to solve the power storage problem in South Australia.

“There is a weirdly patriotic vein to the views i.e. why are we relying on China?” Huntley said.

“There is a satellite of concerns around the environment that tap into a broad level of concerns for everything, which means there is an up-for-grabs voter. A Labor voter might go Green or it may push a conservative to say screw it, I’ll go for an independent.”

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