Political will comes before change

80% of Australians care about climate action but it does not change their vote. We know from this climate change example that support is not enough. The way people vote is not only about what is important but also what is most important. What does this tell us about cycling in the ACT?

One way to achieve change is through a groundswell. The other is through political leadership. The last federal election provides an interesting case study of a groundswell: the example of climate change. After that, we will return to cycling with lessons learned.

Important does not mean most important

The outcome of the 2019 Federal Election was close but decisive.

Poll after poll suggests a large majority of Australians cares about climate change. Yet in recent federal elections, this hasn’t translated into wins for parties with stronger policy platforms on climate change.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

Both Labor and Liberal had a “climate policy “:

with the Labor Party campaigning on ambitious mitigation targets and the incumbent Coalition maintaining the status quo of very limited climate policy.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

Labor’s loss and the Liberal win is not because Australians are not interested in climate change.

In research published today, we studied 2,033 Australian voters’ attitudes across the political spectrum in the context of the 2019 federal election. And we found over 80% said they think it’s important Australia reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This includes close to 70% of conservative voters (those voting for Coalition parties).

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

It would seem that peoples attitudes and priorities do not change quickly so that their vote can be for the same party in consecutive elections. The Labor and Liberal position on climate change did not change much so that any shift in the vote would be an indication of the priority of climate change in the voters’ decision-making, otherwise known as the voter swing.

We found about half of Australian voters (52%) said climate change was important when deciding their vote in the 2019 Australian federal election. However, climate was the most important issue for only 14% of voters. Even among those who said they felt it was extremely important for Australia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most (58%) said climate change was important, but not the most important issue, when deciding their vote.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

Few disregarded climate change when voting, but some did even when voting for Australian Greens.

31% of Queensland LNP voters did not consider climate change when deciding their vote. Under 15% of Labor and Greens voters did the same.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

Those that rank climate change as most important, are more likely to go with voting for the ALP or the Greens.

And when we looked at how much voters cared about climate action, the differences become more potent. Three quarters (73%) of progressive voters (those voting for the ALP or the Greens) see Australian action to reduce emissions as “extremely important”. Only one quarter (26%) of conservative voters say the same thing.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

Change may impose on us some inconvenience. We may need to change our habits and do things differently. There may even be some personal cost.

Major differences emerge when it comes to “significant personal cost”. While 26% of progressive voters are willing to incur a significant personal cost, only 5% of conservative voters feel similarly. At the other end of the spectrum, 40% of conservative voters are unwilling to incur any personal cost, but only 14% of progressive voters feel the same.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

In politics, it is also possible to see an intergenerational shift. Generation Z sees the world differently from the baby boomers.

Interestingly, age was a consistent predictor of responses. Younger people were more likely than older people to consider it important that Australia reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Younger people were more willing to incur a personal cost to support climate action, and to consider climate change when deciding their vote.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

All political parties wish to maintain power or gain it. For this reason they are likely to campaign on issues that have general support.

The key implication is simple. If Australian political leaders pursued stronger climate action, they could rest assured most of the voting population will broadly support them, along with most of their own voter base — regardless of which party is in power.

If 80% of Australians care about climate action, why don’t they vote like it? The Conversation, 25 March 2021

2019 Federal Election analysis

The 2019 Australian Election Study (Parliament of Australia, 2019) shows that environment and global warming are not all that important for Liberal (Coalition) voters compared to Labor. The second graph would indicate that parties that prioritised environment and global warming are more attractive to younger voters. It would confirm the opinion expressed in The Conversation, should voters opinions not shift, environment and global warming will become more important as the Australian population ages.

Active travel in the ACT

Cycling in the ACT is often discussed in the context of active travel. By changing the way we move around the city and use a variety of transport modes – walk, ride, light rail, bus, and car – there are benefits to our health and wellbeing and the city becomes sustainable, which it is currently not. The government openly endorses active travel. Many people support it too in that they walk, ride, or travel by light rail and bus. There is support, and recent studies have shown peoples willingness to consider it. Very few reject it outright.

We know from the climate change example that support is not enough. The way people vote is not only about what is important but also what is most important. Political parties react to people concerns with policies that do something but may not do much. Further, voters may accept some change but again if it involves little cost. Large changes are likely to find less support in the community.

There is little indication in the last ACT Election that the groundswell supporting active travel and cycling has reached a level that would have much impact on people decisions. The Canberra Liberals lost a little of the vote and ACT Labor held, but neither was likely to have much to do with peoples attitudes to cycling. The ACT Greens were successful on preferences and had the best cycling policy. To date, there has been little to see in their work in the ACT Legislative Assembly or ACT Budget.

In conclusion, for most people, active travel and cycling are not most important, but for some it is important but the social support is insufficient to nudge policy beyond the status quo of very limited policy. Unfortunate.

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