"There’s no doubt that the election was a referendum on the carbon tax."
Julie Bishop on Sunday, September 8, 2013 in an interview with Leigh Sales on an ABC election special
A referendum on the carbon tax? The myth of mandates
The campaign battle is over. The mandate war is just beginning.
Both parties use and abuse the idea of a mandate at their convenience. In the absence of a single-issue campaign (for example the 1998 GST election), it can be very difficult to pinpoint exactly what motivated the electorate’s decision.
But the Coalition is claiming a strong mandate to abolish the carbon tax in favour of its Direct Action plan for tackling climate change. Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop said on Sunday that the election had been "a referendum on the carbon tax" and therefore Labor should consent to its removal.
Some in Labor, such as Richard Marles and Nick Champion, concede that mandate, but others do not. Putting aside that debate, is it fair for Bishop to claim the election as a proxy referendum? Is there evidence the carbon tax was foremost in the public’s mind?
We asked Bishop’s office whether her pronouncement reflected a personal view or actual research. We were hoping to see the Coalition’s internal research but got no response, so we looked at the public polling.
All the data we sourced indicates that Bishop is very wide of the mark. Media analyst iSentia provided PolitiFact with a list of the most mentioned issues during the campaign period. The carbon tax (or emissions trading scheme) registered within the top five only in the week of July 13-19, before the campaign began, when Kevin Rudd announced he would change the fixed price to a floating one.
In no week of the campaign did the carbon tax or ETS rank as a top five issue. Asylum seekers, paid parental leave and Syria were all included in multiple weeks, while the National Broadband Network ranked fifth in the final week. In terms of media mentions, the carbon tax barely figured.
What about voter sentiment? The Sky News/Newspoll exit poll from September 7 asked respondents about the main issue deciding their vote. A list of eight options were provided, in randomised order, based on terms used during the campaign or which had come up in earlier freeform polling. Respondents could say "none of the above" and uncommitted responses (3 per cent) were excluded.
The full table has not yet been released, but the top three were economic management (nominated by 34 per cent), cost of living (nominated by 17 per cent) and education (11 per cent). The carbon tax was nominated by 5 per cent of respondents, as was the national broadband network.
Galaxy’s exit poll registered a similar result. It gave 3220 respondents a list of eight options, and the carbon tax was named as most important by 8 per cent, ranking behind leadership, budget, the "it’s time" factor and asylum seekers.
Another exit poll conducted by JWS Research, commissioned by the Climate Institute, echoed those findings. The automated telephone poll of 1591 voters used interactive voice response (IVR) technology. As seen below, it found that "repealing the carbon tax" was the most important priority for just 3 per cent of respondents.
Furthermore, Essential Media polling on September 5 asked respondents to pick the three main reasons they were voting for their party. Those voting for the Coalition nominated "better at handling the economy" (69%), "need a change of government" (28%) and "more capable of governing effectively" (26%). Only 1% nominated "better policies on things like environment and climate change".
Similarly for those voting Labor, just 13% selected environment and climate change in their top three issues.
On the other hand, it’s possible some voters were thinking about the carbon tax when they picked "better at handling the economy". It could also play into concerns about effective governance, given Labor’s numerous changes of heart on the subject.
The Coalition would argue cost of living is synonymous with the carbon tax, but it’s very difficult to say for sure what people mean when they talk about cost of living. We’ve previously found that the "cost of living pressures" that politicians love to empathise with are more imagined than real.
Managing Director of Galaxy, David Briggs, told PolitiFact it was likely that some voters do equate cost of living and the carbon tax, so the above polls probably underplay the importance of the carbon tax to a small extent.
And AC Nielsen pollster John Stirton makes two salient points: voters were under no doubt where Tony Abbott stood on the carbon tax; and opposition to the tax in the electorate was consistent from day one of its introduction.
"It has always been opposed by voters and that did correlate with the drop in Labor support," he said. "It is fair to say that it was a vote shifter."
Stirton notes Nielsen did not poll a question about support for the carbon tax.
"But I would be very surprised if we didn't find that 90 per cent of voters knew Tony Abbott would repeal it," he said. "It's the old trick: have a simple message and keep repeating it."
The basic point is this: the introduction of the carbon tax swung a lot of votes away from Labor that never came back, even if it wasn't a top-of-mind issue on election day.
But Stirton adds that it's difficult to calculate what percentage of the swing to the Coalition could be put down to this factor.
"You couldn't say that it was all about the carbon tax."
Does that all add up to a mandate? Stirton says the answer depends on what is meant by the word.
"It was a mandate to the extent that voters knew what would happen if they voted for Tony Abbott."
Of course, oppositions can have mandates too: to represent the views and decisions of the voters who elected them to parliament.
That point was argued succinctly by Tony Abbott himself, after the Coalition’s election loss in 2007.
"The elected Opposition is no less entitled than the elected Government to exercise its political judgment and to try to keep its election commitments," he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
He said "mandates" (in inverted commas) amounted to "intellectual bullying".
How things change.
Nobody who dipped their toes in the water of Australian politics over the past three years could doubt that the carbon tax, or emissions trading scheme, has been a seminal issue.
But it would be equally fair to say that by polling day, it was no longer a lightning rod for the public. In each exit poll, a small minority named it as the most important issue in casting their vote.
The claim is not entirely baseless. There's no doubt the carbon tax was a huge reason for Labor's initial poll dive, and it played into all sorts of other concerns about cost of living and government honesty.
But for Julie Bishop to say the election was "a referendum on the carbon tax", and therefore the single biggest issue in the campaign, does not square with the facts.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
Published: Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 12:17 p.m.
Phone interview with Martin O'Shannessy on September 12, 2013
Phone interview with David Briggs on September 12, 2013
Exit Polling: Economy dominates, stronger support for targets than repeal, The Climate Institute/JWS Research, September 8, 2013
Exit poll shows a Coalition landslide, Sky News, September 7, 2013
Galaxy exit poll tables, September 7, 2013
Data on media mentions during campaign period supplied by iSentia on September 9, 2013
Phone interview with John Stirton on September 11, 2013
Opposition, too, has promises to keep, Tony Abbott, The Sydney Morning Herald, December 5, 2007
Julie Bishop interview on ABC election special hosted by Leigh Sales, September 8, 2013
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