Possums Pollytics

Politics, elections and piffle plinking

Climate change rocks and hard places.

Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 7, 2008

This was me in Crikey today. It’s a spin-off of the Coalition demographic trends we looked at earlier.

Voter support for the Coalition has been undergoing a long term demographic shift over the last 21 years, and not a particularly fortuitous one at that. At every election since 1987, those aged under 40 have voted less for the Coalition as an age group than has the country as a whole.

That’s to be expected. That older groups in the country hold up the Coalition vote is hardly rocket science. The problem comes in how that combines with the changing voting patterns of the over 40 age groups during the last 21 years.

The Coalition has dominance in the pre-Baby Boomer age cohort, this group overwhelmingly votes for the Coalition, usually in the high 40’s to mid 50’s on the primary vote, and shores up the total Coalition primary vote as a consequence. However, as this group is ageing and reducing in size through attrition, the Coalition has failed to find new demographics of support to completely replace the votes they are losing, and will continue to lose, as this group of pre-Boomers reduces in total size.

Ordinarily we might expect that people will vote more conservative as they get older, and while this is partially true, these younger groups are coming off a much lower level of base support for the Coalition than the pre-Boomers did. If we play with the Newspoll data provided in Ian Watson’s excellent paper “Is demography moving against the Coalition?” published at Australian Policy Online, we can track how certain age groups have changed their voting behaviour over time.

So while it’s true that these groups are slowly moving towards the Coalition, in raw number terms it doesn’t account for the number of votes being lost in the pre-Boomer generation through the continual reduction in size of that group. We can see this by taking the difference from a number of age cohorts, from the average of the Coalition vote.

Groups with negative numbers are that many percentage points below the Coalition primary, those with positive numbers are that many percentage points above the Coalition primary.

As we can see, only the 55-59 and 60+ age groups are pulling the Coalition primary vote upward, with all other groups over 40 having slowly moved from supporting the Coalition vote to reducing it. The 2007 election may well be the last election that the 55-59 age group drags the Coalition average primary vote upward. Also noteworthy is how the distance between the pre-Boomers level of support and the rest of the community is growing.

For age groups below 40 years of age, they all vote below, often far below the Coalition average.

So we have the Coalition facing a long term demographic trainwreck on their primary vote if they don’t start generating far higher levels of support among younger demographics. And it really is a trainwreck — if the long term trends of the last 21 years continue for the next 10, the Coalition will become mathematically unelectable.

And this brings us right into the politics of climate change and any emissions trading system. Newspoll has undertaken two important qualitative surveys this year, one on demographic concern about climate change in February, and another on the support of an emissions trading system in June.

We can summarise the results in a spiffy chart.

The two groups that have the most concern about climate change generally are the two youngest demographics that the Coalition must improve their standing with if they are ever again to become a government. Similarly the youngest demographic has the highest level of support when it comes to their willingness to pay more to address climate change.

But the big kicker here is the survey results from the emissions trading poll, where the younger the demographic, the more they believe that an ETS will combat climate change, and the more committed they are to having an opinion in the first place.

If the Coalition starts trying to make political mileage out of any proposed emissions trading system, they risk alienating the very demographic groups that their standing must, absolutely must improve dramatically in if they are ever to become a government again.

The Opposition have so far tested a few political lines, trying to angle some partisan benefit out the ETS, but their target here is already the least likely to believe climate change is an issue, are the least willing to pay for it and are the least likely to believe that an ETS will combat climate change.

Partisan preaching to the converted will continue to deliver the Coalition nothing in return, as the converted have nothing to give.

Workchoices will already hang around the necks of the Coalition like a piece of smelly roadkill for the under 40s for years to come — partisan games over climate change risks kissing that demographic goodbye, and with it any chance of government for a considerable period.

The Coalition might believe that their base is important, but pandering to that base is simply an exercise in palliative care for their primary vote over the long term.


36 Responses to “Climate change rocks and hard places.”

  1. Rx said

    It is hard to see they have much of anything at all that might appeal to younger voters.

    They have a radical stance on IR, which directly hurt tens of thousands of workers, disproportionately young people. Whatever their age, young or older, people do not forget a party that attacks pay and conditions. Hard to see them living that down for years, as Possum said.

    They have a bigoted, xenophobic approach which, theoretically, grates on a younger more tolerant set.

    When their spokesmen appear in the media, they are either old: Andrew Robb; out of touch: Malcolm Turnbull .. or both: Tony Abbott.

    Let them play stupid scare games with ETS. They can’t help it! Their habit of running scare campaigns goes lifelong – right back through the life of the ‘Liberal’ Party to Menzies and “reds under the beds”. It is a habit too hard to break.

    These people are conservatives, many of them way over on the far-right reactionary edge of the spectrum. Not for them the breaking of a lifetime habit of running scares. And not for them to endorse something new like an ETS to counter something (GW) that they’re not quite convinced of … and don’t probably care much about anyway.

    The Coalition will go the way of other dinosaurs, trapped in their own shrinking niche … as the political situation evolves without and ahead of them.

  2. smokey said

    WorkChoices will be hanging around for years to come politically, if for no other reason than that Rudd has decided to take years to dismantle the thing. Come next election, there will still be people on AWA’s waiting for them to run out. Smart politics; Rudd is making damn sure people won’t forget.

    WorkChoices, as many failed to see it being a defining issue of the last election, through all the hoopla and puffery of the coming one will still be a major player if not the deciding factor. My daughter was too young to vote last one, but she’ll remember the AWA form that she had to sign to start that was supposed to be an “individual” agreement with a fast food outlet…

  3. charles said

    So does this mean that we might get decent journalism from the Australian when the old fogies move on?

  4. Labor Outsider said


    Those graphs are quite interesting, but I wonder if your inferences are too strong.

    Here are some points:

    – what proportion of the population, including 18-34 year olds could actually explain how an ETS works, nevermind what its implications for the distribution of economic activitity might be?

    – what does it mean to say in a poll that you are prepared to pay to mitigate climate change? Do you think that if the question was framed differently you would get a different answer? For example: how much are you prepared to pay to mitigate climate change? Would you be prepared to pay more to combat climate change than US, Indian or Chinese citizens? Would you be prepared to pay to combat climate change if it increased the chances that you would lose your job?

    – that is not to say that my questions are fair, just to suggest that the way the questions are framed may affect the answers that are given. How quickly might support for the government’s policy fall away when people actually have to internalise the costs of the scheme? Especially if those costs were underestimated?

    – I don’t think there is much doubt that young people in Australia have a deeper committment to environmental issues than older people. However, it is also the case that unless you are aged over 40 in Australia, you have little direct experience of hard economic times, of finding it difficult to get work, of healthy annual real wage increases. Perhaps it is easy for those aged 18-34 to say that they support a policy with consequences that they haven’t really thought about yet.

    – do you not think it is possible that if the government introduces the ETS, but fouls it up in some way, or it has transitional effects that the electorate didn’t forsee, that the coalition’s more sceptical position on early commencement of an ETS outsid of a broader international agreeement may begin to make sense to some people, even young people?

    – anyway, all this is to say that while it may be reasonable to think that the Coalition’s short-term political prospects look dim, the medium-term pessimism seems a little misplaced.

  5. josh lyman said

    Why is the ALP not jumping on Nelson for opposing the ETS? Every MP in the land should be fronting a TV camera today to say the Coalition is sending our grandkids a hospital pass from hell.

  6. john cramer said

    Wait for the pending recession
    plus an education system like England’s (Nulabor you know)
    = and small business won’t /dare not employ all those young ‘I know my rights’.
    Not to forget pending diversity training when white go to the back of the queue.
    Can’t happen – see England after 10 years of Labour.

  7. steve_e said

    To Labour Outsider

    Rather than have younger voters to explain ETS, can we get our elected politicians (of any colour you select) to explain it without resorting to a fear response.

    Voters get to vote. Politicians get to talk and possibly pass legislation. Hopefully Leaders lead. Retired leaders should just retire.

  8. John Cramer,

    You clearly want to say something. Thing is I can’t understand what you’re talking about! Maybe it’s just me, but can you please try to explain what your point is?


  9. David said

    Julian, I think Mr Cramer is a racist prick who’s too gutless to own up to it.

    I may be misjudging him, of course.

  10. Sir Ian Upton said

    I think John Cramer might be departing from the Panglossian view of things.

  11. David,

    Thanks for clearing that up.

    If there’s one thing worse than racist prick, it’s an illiterate racist prick.


  12. Possum Comitatus said


    Call me a cynic (go on, call me a cynic!), but I dont think that the overwhelming majority of 18-34 year olds would need to be able to explain how an ETS works for them to think that it’s an inherently “Good Idea”.

    How many of them thought that signing the Kyoto Protocol was an inherently “Good Idea” even though they didnt have much of a clue about the mechanics of it, let alone it’s actual impact (or lack thereof) except that it was about reducing emissions and therefore it must be a “Good Idea”!

    The survey questions really just tell us that this group is the most open to supporting an ETS if it means shouldering costs, and probably provide the least amount of fat of the three groups when it comes to being shifted in any scare campaign against an ETS.

    You’ve nailed an interesting little bit here – that group only having lived in affluent times will seriously depreciate the power of “We’ll all be rooned” as a warning. It’s the same way as the scary factor of unions has reduced over time as more and more people have grown up only in an environment where the nasty side to the old union movement has never been experienced.

    Unfortunately , on the fallout of any unforseen effects (or any basic buggering the ETS up) on the 18-34 year group partisan support levels, I think that will be more up to the PR capabilities of each side than anything grounded in reality.

    The medium term pessimism is really all about one group. The (now) over 65s that have voted for their entire life with a 10 point Coalition primary vote premium (sometimes higher) compared to any other age group. As that group becomes smaller in number, that benefit for the Coalition becomes reduced, a benefit that delivered them the 98 and 01 elections, and would have made the 04 election a 50/50 tossup if they voted like the rest of the community.

    So the Coalition have to get people to vote for them that have never done so if they want to win government – and the further in the future, the larger number of people like that they’ll need. And they dont have the luxury that the ALP does where because young people tend to be a bit leftish, it bolsters up their younger voting cohorts.

    The Coalition has to change that inclination of younger people to vote to the left if they want them.

    Tough ask.

  13. Nigel said

    The current situation is such that it is screaming out for a new party, something that will appeal to younger people without the baggage of the coalition;(which must be destined to to fail as they are increasingly at opposing ends) nor the stigma being created around Labor, particularly in NSW. The Democrats self implosion is extemely poorly timed, as they may have been the only ones capable of presenting a rounded argument, the Greens are to one platform, and ….well that is it really isn’t it? What other options are there? I used to be a true believer, but now I tend towards Labor because there is no other option…

  14. fred said

    This might be way off topic, or drawing a long bow, but I actually think its relevant.
    We spent last week at a state wide primary school hockey competition with 42 teams of kids running after a white ball in cold windy weather. One of the kids was my grandson.
    Now back in the good old days there would have been a noticeably different ethic at such a tournament, or at least if the sport was footy [the real kind, not thugby or that played with a round ball].
    “Win” was the aim, put the best team on the ground, inspire the troops at halftime with rousing speeches, hiss boo the umpires, give ‘sportsman-[sic]ship’ a cursory nod and get down to the bottom line of winning.
    None of which was evident at the comp we went to. Not a skerrick.
    All players, the champs and the chumps, got an equal run in a variety of possies, nobody yelled at the umps [I mean NOBODY!], enjoy, have fun was the aim.

    Now having coached various school sports for too many decades a decade or two ago, I reckon this constitutes a major cultural change in ethics and attitudes to junior competitive team sport. I also reckon its not confined to this one tournament or sport and has been a change that has been growing over the last [few ?] decade[s ?].
    Has this been the experience of others?
    Does this have an implication for political values and voting?

  15. David said

    Nigel, the Greens aren’t a single-issue party. If you looked at the website (http://greens.org.au/), you’d notice we have quite a broad range of policies.

    Admittedly, the policies are all pretty bolshie, but that’s what makes us an actual alternative.

  16. Ronin8317 said

    Don’t worry, bad sportmanship is not only alive but thriving.. mostly in the parents of the young competitors.

    The new generation are more adaptable to changing jobs and careers, and the economic structure in 2008 is vastly different from 1992. Job security on longer exist unless you work for the State Government. Social norm tend to have a huge role in people’s consumption pattern. Moving them away from SUV to hybrids will deliver the same level of satisfaction, while reducing the dependency on oil. Here is the clincher : Australians tends to be very conservative, given a choice of action and inaction, they will often choose the later. Regardless of the cause, climate change is coming, and we’ll eventually run out of oil. This will puts pressure on the fundamental elements of society : water, food and energy.

    Under the mantle of ‘Climate Change’, the Government is trying to change our consumption patterns : use less energy, or use clean, renewable energy. Whatever happens in China or India does not matter, if we become more efficient, then we’ll be ahead in 10-20 years time when China and India is still dependent on oil. It’s a case of “paying more now so you can pay less later”. Unfortunately, the average Australian will ALWAYS choose ‘pay less now and pay much more later”. This is why politicians need to make a solid case for action.

    After the Howard defeat, the Coalition no longer has any sense of direction. Nelson has tried everything, and has settled down on “irresponsible popularism”. For example, the petrol excise cut. While it pleases the ordinary punters, it totally decimate their economic credentials with the Coalition base. It’s a classic case of taking short term gain, but making long term loses. Backing away from ‘Climate Change’ and telling Australia “it’s ok to do nothing” is another dab at long term self-destruction. (or it may be a ploy to destroy Malcolm Turnball at the next election by making the seat of Wentworth ‘unelectable’).

  17. Nigel said

    What I don’t understand about the whole climate change thing (I am a sceptic- BUT I am all for reducing the amoount of crap we pump into the atmosphere)is if, it is true, Australia has the most to lose, so therefore believe or not, we should act. It is hard to tell China, U.S etc to do something, and then say, well we are waiting for you to act before we do! Given how much money has been pumped into climate science in the past few years, believe or not, here is a great opportunity for Australia to develop new technologies and lead the world and improve our terms of trade by exporting more than dirt… And surely that is not a difficult sell to the public.

  18. Will be fascinating to see if, in the new Senate, the Greens get their hands dirty and actually bargain, compromise a bit. They will become irrelevant if not.

  19. Labor Outsider said


    I agree that:

    a) 18-34s don’t need to understand cap and trade to support it
    b) will be relatively impervious to a scare campaign from the opposition PRIOR to the introduction of the policy

    However, I’m not sure that will help the government after the policy is introduced and it goes wrong (IF the policy goes wrong). Indeed, because few people understand the policy, and many will accept the word of the government or various interest groups that the transitional costs will be small, there could be an even greater eventual backlash. Voters don’t like to feel as though they were misled.

    On the effect on the coalition of changing demographics, in essence you are arguing that the electorate is shifting left because conservative cohorts are not being replaced by equally conservative cohorts. If that is in effect what happens it will be interesting because if anything the electorate has shifted to the right (on the role of government in the economy) over the post-war period. The ALP shed its socialist baggage for a reason!! If you are correct, it won’t just be climate change policy that is effected, but other areas too – taxation, foreign policy, republic, etc.

    On the face of it, this would force the coalition to become more of a small-l-liberal party, or lose primary support.

    However, there is another possibility. Individuals’ views on government are not immutable; many people’s views on the role of the goverment in the economy changed after the negative shocks of the mid-70s and early 80s that were in part attributable to the over-regulation of the Australian economy. Globalisation and deregulation have fundamentally altered the structure of the economy and how governments can affect it. That is why the ALP’s economic platform is unrecognisable from what it was only 30 years ago.

    I suspect that what will happen is that initially there may be a drift left in the electorate. That will alter which policies receive electoral support. Beyone that, what will matter is the success of those policies. Should more interventionist policies again be discredited in the eyes of the marginal voter, then the times will once again favour the right.

    The more things change….

    By the way, do you think that demographic change will have a similar impact on voting patterns in other countries?

  20. Is it an apparent contradiction that, while conservative voters are getting older, their leaders are getting younger? Food for thought: http://tasmanianpolitics.blogspot.com/2008/07/fair-bit-has-been-made-of-just-how.html

  21. David Richards said

    Outsider – the downsides of deregulation (viz the banks going it alone on interest rates and charges, the failure of privatisation to deliver the touted cheaper electricity and other utilities, the demise of effective public housing allowing rents to rise unreasonably and so on), and globalisation is pushing a move to the left.

  22. Peter,

    I don’t think its a contradiction at all. Most of the Liberal voters are now basically too old to lead a party in opposition. They could be the leader in government, but opposition leaders are not credible if they are expected to retire in the next few years, so anyone over about 62 will struggle.

    Meanwhile, the Liberals produced very few talented baby boomer politicians, particularly from the early baby boomers. They’ve quickly burned through most of the ones who seemed worth a go, and now they are onto a mix of late boomers and Gen Xs. Part of the reason they look so useless is that some of these people have been promoted more quickly than they should have because of the shortage of talent amongst the ones half a generation above them.

    Probably the clearest case was Brogden – could have been one of the best leaders they had, but in the absence of talent above him got promoted too fast and it all ended in tears.

  23. For a bit of the science and the politics, I suggest reading the Draft Report on Climate Change by the Garnaut Review in Australia and watching some highlights of a briefing on A Taste of Garnaut: the Climate Challenge. Both can be accessed through my Australian blog: Labor
    View from Bayside
    I wonder if Brendan has read it yet.

  24. Rod said

    “nobody yelled at the umps [I mean NOBODY], this constitutes a major cultural change”

    In the old days it was hyped up kids and mum and dad swigging on a stubby.

    Now it’s kiddies on Ritalin and mum and dad on Prozac, the Soma society.

  25. Possum Comitatus said

    LO at 19,

    I dont think it’s so much a case of the electorate shifting to the left, that older group of conservative voters with high party identification have always been pretty keen on spending other peoples money and having the government tell people what they ought and ought not to be doing. If anything, that group is probably to the left of the country economically (but with a hostility to organised labour as a chaser). I think it might actually lead to policy opportunities in the future that have been impossible to implement while that group have been an important demographic – stricter asset tests on government pensions being the obvious one.

    As for a small L liberal “Liberal Party” – it’s probably something that they’ll need to move towards over the medium term to pick up younger voters. How they do that of course is the big question – their twin support bases of smaller L liberal metro voters and capital C conservative populations in the regions are already starting to become an unmanageable alliance. If the Libs ever try to get off the fence and court a younger demographic, their vote in the regions will start to bleed to independents. Any party merger with the Nats will just exacerbate the problem.

    No doubt the wheel will eventually turn – but how quickly that happens is, I think, largely dependent on the Coalitions capability to deal with the demographic substitution issue.

    I dont know much about how it’s playing out in other countries. By us having compulsory voting in Australia, we seem to have entirely different dynamics to most places. Not needing to mobilise the vote seems to change, well, everything!

    PT at 20,
    Nicely spotted!

  26. Labor Outsider said


    On reflection, the left-right divide probably isn’t a useful way of describing the ideological rifts within and across generations. I guess I was using the term “right” to refer to the authoritarian strand that is more likely to run through that generation’s views on social policy.

    But I’m a little puzzled by why you think a stricter asset test on pensions will be more likely as that group is phased out. The baby-boom generation will represent the largest cohort of retired people in the country’s history. As they age, and begin voting on issues that immediately relate to their retired status (health, pensions, etc) I think they will have a GREATER ability to influence governments to redistribute public money in their direction, not less. Grey power will have real meaning when they represent 20 per cent of the electorate!!

    Almost any political economy model I could think of would be consistent with my view, unless you thought that the boomers will prove comparatively altruistic. If I had to take a guess, that the coming aging related fiscal gap will be closed by increased income taxes, not less generous benefits for the aged….

  27. Classified said

    Hey poss, is pollbludger down or did billbowe finally crack it and bugger off with his bat and ball?

  28. Possum Comitatus said

    It looks down from this end Classified.

  29. Possum Comitatus said


    It does sound a little weird saying that pension reform should be easier when there are a hell of a lot more people on it! But if we go vack to the 80’s and early 90’s, the demographic group that most supported economic reform were the Boomers, and perversely they were also the ones that had both the most to lose and the most to gain from those reforms.

    They gained better access to higher paying jobs as money flowed through to it’s highest value use, they gained access to easier credit etc etc (and yes, I do feel a little weird preaching to the converted here on this!), but that demographic also had the most to lose.

    Their job security went out the window, multiple careers became the norm, their education costs increased dramatically if they wanted or had to reskill – and not that I’m an enormous believer in the totality of the existence of the dual labour market hypothesis, but for those places and people where it did exist, a lot of boomers got the raw end of that particular pineapple.

    But despite the costs and benefits, that age group were consistently the biggest supporters of economic reform.

    Once that group start monopolising the membership of bowling clubs, I think it’s more likely that a consensus for a trade-off between asset tests on pensions and greater expenditure on aged related health care (for instance) will get the support it needs to be implemented.

    As long as cheap options for turning assets into income streams are made available (be they reverse mortgages or more sophisticated arrangements), the relatively asset rich generation of the boomers has a larger capability to be financially independent from government transfer payments (at least more of them than any previous generation anyway). I think that is quite a sellable option if the money saved by that approach was churned into other areas where they were still the beneficiaries, but not the sole beneficiaries. Health services springs to mind as an obvious candidate, but I’m sure theres plenty more.

  30. Labor Outsider said


    Interesting theory but I don’t buy it….some boomers may have lost in a relative sense from the reforms of the 80s and early 1990s but I think the average boomer gained considerably. The massive increase in Australian households’ net worth, closely related to those reforms, has largely accrued to boomers. I think you also exaggerate the impact of the labour market reforms. The average length of time an individual spends with each employer has barely changed over the past two decades, and given that it was the boomers that got screwed by the trend increase in unemployment from 75-93, the subsequent fall in unemployment has benefited them significantly. Also, boomers generally benefited from cheap higher education in the 1970s, whereas the large HECS debts have largely accrued to the boomers’ children.

    Indeed, if any group was screwed in a relative sense by those changes it was the children of the boomers – they face much higher future housing costs as a result of the boom that few of them shared in…

    Also, while you could argue that economic reform helped some boomers and disadvantaged others…reducing the generosity of susbsidies to the retired will make them unambiguously worse off….

    I hope I’m proved wrong though!!!

  31. Biggles said

    Hi Possum
    As a 58 year old baby boomer, your discussion of economic consequences and voting preferences is a bit dry and academic. It ignores history and politics.
    Baby boomers participated in conscription ballots that changed attitudes towards the Liberal party for ever. A whole generation became “radical” or at least anti-Lib. When I went to UNSW in 1969 it was a hotbed of anti-conservative politics because of the draft and Vietnam. This was despite the campus having a very conservative clientele (more engineers per square inch etc). Where previously there might be a natural constituency for the Libs at Uni, the draft and Vietnam undermined this. Uni students (baby boomers)realised that politics was important and affected their lives. They still understand this. All of the high profile folk on campus were anti-Liberal. This explains the paucity of Liberal baby boomer political talent.
    John Howard was older and pre-dated conscription and Vietnam. Alexander Downer is a third generation Tory who represents what the Libs formerly stood for.
    He represents what the baby boomers have rejected

  32. […] reading of the Climate Change Polls boils down to: If the Coalition starts trying to make political mileage out of any proposed emissions trading […]

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