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So what is the impact of the two by-elections on the ETS? As my last few posts indicated, I do not think this was a pure referendum on the ETS. It was basically an experiment under as near perfect laboratory conditions as one gets in politics, of how far a Green candidate can get. Susie Gemmell, a very nice woman who I’ve met, did fantastically. She won over a conservative electorate and will prove a model for those after her. All headwinds were in her favour and she captured them as well as any Green candidate could have. Her problem is the other baggage that voting Green carries with it. They are basically unelectable outside the inner city.

I think this was a partial referendum on the ETS, and the Greens fared much better than they otherwise would have. It’s hard to separate the Green effect from the ETS effect – in fact, I suspect near impossible for anyone except Stephen Levitt. But let me lay down some guidelines. The Australian reanalysed a September Newspoll (ie before Liberal meltdown) that suggested:

According to the Newspoll analysis, support for the government’s emissions trading scheme legislation is overwhelming among Coalition voters in metropolitan areas. Newspoll shows that 63 per cent of Coalition voters in the cities believe the government’s bill should be passed, while only 28 per cent think it should be opposed.

If one in 10 of those voters changed sides because of a Coalition decision to block action on climate change, it would cost the Liberal Party the 20 metropolitan seats that it holds with margins of less than 6.5 per cent.

These findings are consistent with the Liberal Party’s internal research in marginal seats, which shows that between 75 and 80 per cent of swinging voters favour action on climate change.

The 1/10 switching votes is significant, for two reasons. Firstly, any statistical analyst knows that humans are inherently selfish beasts who like to think of themselves as selfless and want other people (even strangers) to think of them as selfless. So when talking to another person (such as a pollster) they will support ETSs and other feel-good initiatives. When actually voting, when confronted by the fear of an economic slowdown from a supposed carbon tax, they do not vote so altruisitically. Secondly, an ETS is just one issue amongst many. Its a poll taken before Abbott has had the chance to persuade these coalition voters to his point of view. They are coalition voters, they are receptive to listening to him.

But to truly understand the implication of this, you have to understand more about the selfishness v altruism argument. Can supposed acts of altruism actually be selfish? We know that nature is utterly selfish. Birds are not intelligent enough to sacrifice their lives for their children’s lives for moral altruistic reasons. And yet they do. Why? Richard Dawkins eloquently argues that is it because it is in the self-interest of their genes (not the birds) to do so. Humans, as much creature of evolution as birds, are also governed by our genes. But there is no gene that simply controls whether you will act selfishly in the workplace, but selflessly in the polling booth. Genes don’t act so simply, but through a complicated mental psychology. Altruism can always be explained away by selfishness (for example the idea of self-image – you act altruistically because you want to view yourself as a moral person, which makes sense genetically because if you have a self-conscious need to act altruistically in front of others, they are more likely to trust you and help you). But in my view, humans prefer to act altruistically where given a choice. You won’t sacrifice your core income, but you will toss a dollar to a beggar even when noone is watching.

The same thing applies to people. People will be altruistic until backed into a corner. In the polling booth, no one can see if you voted altruistically to stop global warming, or selfishly to protect the Australian economy and your job. What’s more, your need to have a good self-image of yourself can subconsciously affect your opinions. If the selfish part of your brain tells you that this will hurt you then that has flow-on effects to the rest of your opinions. It will hurt the economy, your brain will tell you. You are not selfish for doing this, you are protecting Australia.

The polling data in Bradfield and Higgins confirm my suspicions. Will at Poll Bludger notices that the richer polling booths seem to be voting against the Liberal party and for the Greens. This can only be explained as an ETS effect and not a Green effect. (I notice that the greener areas tend to be more pro-ETS – notice how Chatswood central is 7% for Lib, but Chatswood North and Chatswood East both swing against the Liberals). Those more comfortably off can safely sacrifice their lifestyles without cutting into their core income. To adopt my earlier language, they have yet to be backed into a corner. Or alternatively, their selfish interests are not so hurt that their subconsciousness compels them to change their opinions.

What is the implication of this? If Abbott can convince people that an ETS will hurt them, they will flock to him in droves unless Rudd can counter-convince them that no ETS will hurt more. He must personalise it. He can’t talk about things as  far away as rising sea levels killing off Pacific Islanders. I don’t think he can talk about things as abstract as rising sea levels in general – he needs to talk about extreme weather destroying crops and driving food prices through the roof. He needs to talk about even higher electricity prices if our domestic electric industries don’t have a slow transition period into a carbon trading system, rather than having a Copenhagen agreement rammed down our throats without their input.

I think Rudd and other pro-ETS politicians have always known this, which is why they’ve all been so cautious. They intuitively understand that people are selfish. They don’t have a good selfish argument to sell to people. People will half-believe what Rudd says, but if they even half believe Abbott, they will vote with him. They’ve always known that if someone comes with a strong political argument against an ETS then support will crumple.


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