Why is Labor the preferred party on water resources?

Today’s ACNielsen poll in the Fairfax broadsheets has a ‘best party to handle’ issues question I don’t think I have seen before, and which could be just as worrying to the Coalition as the 58%-42% two-party preferred result. This was which party is best to handle water resources, which Labor led 48% to 34%. That’s well under the 40% who said in 2004 that they tend to identify with the Liberals, and close to the Coalition’s core support of around one-third of voters.

Purely on an issue basis, it’s hard to see why Labor has a strong lead on this. Water has little history as a federal issue, and not much more (at least in recent times) as a state issue, so there are not strong party stereotypes to fall back on, as there are on issues such as health, education, and tax. But if you had to think about it in the context of the governments who have been responsible for water, ie the state Labor governments, you’d have to say that their long-term performance (except perhaps in WA) is in the poor to mediocre range. In Victoria, the Bracks government’s strategy seems to be limited to killing off gardens and shorter showers. When Newspoll asked Victorians during last year’s election which party would better handle water management, Labor was nevertheless ahead, but only 38% to 32%.

As Malcolm Turnbull theatrically told Parliament last week, thanks to severe domestic water restrictions bucket back is afflicting pensioners as they carry water from their showers to their gardens. You don’t have to be raving right-winger to think we can do much better than this policywise (some ideas today from Professor Q). And whatever the merits of the PM’s $10 billion plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, it had been more prominently in the news than any suggestions from the Labor side.

It’s hard to tell without repeat polling, but this result could just be the flow on from the enthusiasm surrounding Kevin Rudd – that voters don’t actually have real views on which party federally would best handle water, but they are feeling positive toward Labor at the moment and so when asked they say ‘Labor’ rather than say nothing. Another possibility is that this is a case of issue association – that because water seems related to the environment, and Labor is way ahead on that (60% to 26%), Labor seems the more obvious answer to this question. Unless the drought breaks between now and the election, the Coalition had better hope this poll does not reflect solid opinion.