In the 1992 US election, Bill Clinton’s Chief Strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”. The phrase morphed into a form of conventional wisdom; the idea that the economy is the only thing really matters to voters.

But in 2015, this conventional wisdom is myopic. Just as the economy wasn’t the only thing that mattered to voters in 1992, last week’s Queensland election suggests that in 2015, voters are still thinking about wider than simply their hip pocket

And in this era where all our leading scientific bodies including NASA and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology are warning us of the tangible and atmosphere altering impacts of climate change – the environment is looming larger than Federal politicians seem able or willing to acknowledge.

Campbell Newman spent a fair deal both of the campaign and his time in office trying to make a virtue out of environmentally damaging mining projects. The former Queensland Government sought to set the issue of jobs and development against the environment. Implicit in the argument, it seemed, is a belief that voters can’t have both – they must choose between jobs or the environment.

In what seemed like a fairly unprecedented development in Australian elections, the former premier was joined on the campaign trail by a mining magnate who had been promised hundreds of millions in public money for a financially questionable project. And as premier, Newman dismissed concerns from President Obama about the danger facing the reef, referring to a “campaign of misinformation from green groups.”

The Galilee Basin coal reserves, the Great Barrier Reef and climate change are all bound up in a vicious cycle of short term and long term threats to the Reef. That’s because the Great Barrier Reef won’t be saved simply by not dumping of a few million tonnes of dredge spoil into it, or refraining by expanding a huge coal port at Abbot Point. While killing off these plans might spare the Reef a sudden death, as President Obama made clear in Brisbane last November, the long term threat to the Reef is climate change.

At the same time, the projected annual coal output from Galilee, if burned, would roughly equate to Australia’s total annual amount of carbon pollution, which will make climate change worse. Ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and warmer waters – all symptoms of climate change – are combining to put the Reef in danger. 

Labor and the Greens ran hard on the Reef, while environmental groups have been campaigning on the Galilee Basin, the Reef and coal and gas projects for years. And the election was marked by the intervention of Alan Jones, whose opposition to the expansion of the Acland coal mine demonstrated that environmental concerns cut across political lines.

If Queensland shows that voters are both willing and able to look at issues that go further than simply the “economy” – such as the environment, or health, or education – it also must be pointed out that the environment and the economy aren’t some zero-sum calculation

A recent OECD publication has thrown cold water over this canard though. It found – contrary to a lot of spin you hear elsewhere – “there is no lasting harm to productivity levels at the economy wide level or industry level when environmental policies are tightened.” In fact, the OECD found, there is often a temporary increase in productivity growth as firms innovate to fit in with Government policy.

The Abbott Government would be wise to take note of the Newman Government’s fate. Queensland shows that voters, increasingly, realise there isn’t an automatic trade-off between the environment and jobs. People of course want a strong economy. But they probably realise we shouldn’t destroy the environment to achieve it.

Politicians need to realise that it was never just the economy, stupid. The environment matters to Australians, and they’re prepared to make it known at the ballot box.


Paul Sinclair

Campaigns Director at the Australian Conservation Foundation.