Why do politicians continue to ignore issues that have voters’ support?
In Washington, guns is the big issue in question. In Canberra it was gay marriage until the battle was won last year. In Hobart, pokies. And in all three, climate.
I refer to matters of public debate which politicians persist in ignoring, despite years of opinion polls consistently showing a clear majority of people favouring just one side.
Most Americans believe there are far too many firearms in general circulation in their country. Yet not even the mass killing of infants at Sandy Hook school in 2012 could persuade politicians to defy the National Rifle Association and pass laws to restrict gun sales.
The NRA, focused and well-resourced, controls state and federal legislators by undermining opponents in party primaries so that they lose the party’s endorsement. Angry, fearless high school students are a current challenge, but the odds still favour this formidable organisation.
Tasmanians may once have found poker machines alluring, but that faded long ago. A comfortable majority of us now believes the economic and psychological harm they inflict on people and communities far outweighs any benefit.
In 2015-16 Tasmanian gamblers lost $191 million in pubs and clubs. A 2017 study of new spending patterns if pokies were removed found that while some of that money would go into other forms of gambling, there would be enough left over to boost the economy and employment.
Historian James Boyce has shown nearly all the poker machine venues outside the two casinos are owned by big companies including Woolworths. Economists Fabrizio Carmignani and Saul Eslake have found that supporting their machines occupies just 370 full-time-equivalent positions.
Yet the massive “love your local” campaign by Federal Hotels and other poker machine companies characterised those venues as family businesses supporting local needs. It also claimed that their pokies support around 5000 jobs – over 13 times the Carmignani-Eslake estimate.
The aim was to make us think that removing poker machines would be a disaster. It was focused, well-resourced, supported by compliant legislators, and very careless with the truth. It could have come straight from an NRA campaign handbook. And it worked.
Limiting the availability of guns in the US and poker machines in Tasmania has long had broad public support. So too does action on climate change.
The last Lowy Institute annual climate change poll found that the proportion of Australians who see global warming as a serious and pressing problem justifying urgent action has steadily risen for five consecutive years. At the time of the poll, in mid-2017, it stood at 54 per cent.
The same poll found that 81 per cent of Australians believe the government’s energy focus should be on investment in renewables and infrastructure to make the system more reliable.
That’s no surprise to me, but it may be to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, who for the past couple of years have pilloried South Australia’s effort to boost renewable generation by supporting wind, solar and battery storage.
Like other states, Tasmania has always struggled with the climate issue, but the Hodgman government has brought disengagement to a new low. Contrary to initial promises and despite some commendable bureaucratic effort, it has barely lifted a finger to mitigate emissions.
The Liberals’ “Building your future” plan which they took to the election lists 100-odd policies for managing all manner of things, but climate does not rate a single mention. Now they have been re-elected, which might lead them to believe that voters don’t rate climate as all that important.
Never mind that scientific institutions everywhere, including our own Academy of Sciences, CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, continue to warn about an increasingly destabilised climate.
Never mind that in the last week of the election campaign, in the depths of a northern winter, ice at the North Pole was melting. Never mind rising seas or heatwaves or irregular rainfall. This is Tasmania, where nothing bad will happen so long as you keep us in government.
For the record, Labor’s climate stance was markedly stronger, while the Greens’ was the most comprehensive and considered. That alone justifies their continued existence as a third force in Tasmanian politics.
Tasmanians must make the most of what they’ve got. The world’s troubles aside, they have practical issues around housing, health, education and employment to worry about. I don’t blame them for letting government shortcomings on pokies and climate go through to the keeper.
But we have put these people into office to do more than just keep things moving as they are. We expect them to keep vested interests out of government, to ensure that money doesn’t buy favoured treatment, and to keep a lookout for hazards ahead. This is not good enough.