Westpoll highlights ETS communications dilemma for Rudd

On Monday The West reported that according to their polling, only 5% of Western Australian’s understood the Government’s ETS. How has there been such a spectacular failure in communicating one of the most important pieces of legislation ever to reach Australia’s Parliament?

It is true that the Government has done an appalling job of managing the politics of the ETS, and of selling the legislation to the Australian public, particularly by choosing to negotiate with Liberal climate sceptics in senate, thus isolating their supporters – including Garnaut, the Greens, and most of the environment movement – but the case also highlights some other entrenched problems in communicating policy to the public.

As the print media where analysis of policy might most likely appear, has become more business and profit focussed, and competition has increased from TV and Internet, the workload of a smaller number of journalists has dramatically increased. Journalists for the most part are rushed to communicate news fast and in a form palatable to an information overloaded public increasingly impatient with detail. All media trainers will tell you people want a story, not an analysis, so that is what they get. The result is that, for example, a two-page spread outlining the ETS is an unlikely outcome of a major policy proposal.

Instead, we get a stream of opinions from experts and politicians that does little to help us make an informed choice, it simply means we can choose between the sound bites or extended opinions that appear to best align with our preconceived values. That is why far more people would agree or disagree with an ETS than actually understand it. That is why the Government putting its natural supporters offside was such a huge political error.

One could argue that it is Government, not the media, that should sell their legislation, and this is true. The Government and their civil society allies should be the leaders that campaign for it, that convince the public. But if we want more from our politicians than shallow spin formed in focus groups made up of swinging voters, then how can they communicate policy detail to us? If the media won’t cover the detail, and we haven’t got time to digest the green, white and whatever other colour papers, then the only alternative left is to create expensive web and TV campaigns.

One story that opposition parties love, and that sells papers, is over inflated Government spending of taxpayer’s money on advertising. And lets face it; it is high risk that the result won’t be very good anyway.

It is a dilemma for a Government trying to sell a complex policy like the ETS. The situation much better suits an Opposition trying to tear it down one popularist sound bite at a time. It is no wonder that Tony Abbott’s poorly thought out simple direct action plan is beating Kevin Rudds necessarily complex emissions trading scheme in the polls. No one gets the ETS, and no one has really tried to explain it. Simple direct action sounds snappy and practical. It is great sound bite Vs a complex policy, and the sound bite is winning.

Kevin will now have to come up with a better sound bite than Tony (lets face it he should have anyway), and we can all pick a side. But at the end of the day, none of us will still have much of a clue what we are voting for.

If the result is run away climate change, mass extinctions and massive disruption to human civilisation, you’d have to think we could all be doing a lot better.

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