One thing I’ve learned in more than a decade of political polling is that public consensus is an incredibly rare commodity. We may not have the theatre of US supreme court confrontations to bring these differences to a head outside the election cycle but our adversarial two-party system has the same tendency to hone in on and amplify our disagreements.
What seems a logical, self-evident, moral imperative to one person can seem like the embodiment of reckless turpitude to another. Our representative democracy may be the forum where these differences are supposed to be mediated but right now it is managing a divided nation.
A few questions in this week’s Essential Report place this proposition in stark relief. Exhibit A: our new prime minister. For every two of us who dismisses Scott Morrison as a shrill huckster, there are three voters who see him as the straight-taking everyman.
While the carefully curated images of Morrison fondling coal and fanging it at Bathurst strike may strike some as bumptious, the new leader is finding favour across the spectrum. In contrast to his more understated opponent, Morrison is drawing significant support across the partisan divide for his personal style. Go figure.
There is a similar divide when it comes to where we get our news about the world. As the media fragments and people latch on to their own trusted media source, the tendency to exaggerate differences in opinion only increases.
Indeed, for every voter who sees the Guardian as a trusted voice, there is another who sees the Australian as a paragon of truth – even a few who trust both outlets.
These results are part of a series of questions we put to the public to test the attitudes to the independence of the ABC following the recent boardroom shenanigans that saw the chairman of the board and the managing director both dispatched.
While the public debate was dominated by increasingly frenzied claims and counterclaims of political interference, there is no clear consensus on the national broadcaster either. For everyone who sees the ABC as independent and unbiased, there’s nearly as many who reject the proposition and see it as a plaything of some illuminati of the political correct.
Even when it comes to the emotionally charged issue of detaining woman and children seeking political asylum, we are incapable of consensus. For every voter who sees the ongoing presence of children on Nauru as a national shame, there’s another voter who sits comfortably with the current policy.
My point? There are few givens in Australia politics, issues where people naturally reach a consensus and the political class gets a clear read on the public will. Instead we fall into the pattern of polarising our views and dismissing those who disagree with us.
But there is once issue where the consensus is stronger, the partisan divide less pronounced, though you would never guess it from the policy failures of the past decade. That issue is climate change.
As the IPCC challenges the world to phase out fossil fuels by 2050, Australians have already formed a consensus that action is required. Sadly, we didn’t have a round of questions about climate change in the field this week to coincide with the report but we do know that the long-running response from voters is that (a) climate change is real and caused by human activity and (b) we don’t think the government is doing enough to address it.
On nearly every question we ask around climate change and renewables, support for government action sits around two-thirds of all voters. Take this from September, 69% believe it’s important for the government to agree to a policy to reduce climate change, and 74% approve of government incentives for renewables.
Despite our mixed views on the prime minister and the veracity of the News Corp empire, and even the morality of locking children indefinitely on Nauru, there is a consensus when it comes to addressing human-induced climate change. The support is deep and broad, across partisan divides, weighted to the young, who have a greater stake in the outcome, but not exclusively their province.
The fact that consensus has not led to political action bears testament to the powerful interests who have the most lose from the transition to a renewable energy base. With coal zealots such as Tony Abbott and Craig Kelly blocking anything that smacks of reform, the new prime minister is still locked in the untenable position that proved his predecessor’s downfall.
Even as the warnings of climate inaction intensify, the new prime minister is leading a team that cannot even agree among themselves on doing the one thing the Australian public has managed to unite on.
It is now up to the opposition to tap this consensus and build a proposition that taking action on climate can unite the nation rather than divide it.
• Peter Lewis is the executive director of Essential and a Guardian Australia columnist