Friday, August 30, 2013

Elections, representative democracy and popular opinion

As the Australian Federal election campaign enters its last week, both sides are attempting to appeal to what they perceive as popular topics with particular slices of the Australian population. Meantime, there appears to be a common view that this has been an uninspiring election.  Most people shrug and say that they are voting against or for the least disliked. Of course there are enthusiasts, true believers. Still, they appear to be a smaller group than usual.

Looking back over my writing on previous campaigns, I have railed against what I see as the supermarket approach to politics, the idea that parties put forward a series of specific offerings that voters then chose between; I have criticised the idea of mandate, that Governments must do just what they have promised to do at an election; and I have suggested that the idea that a popular vote at some point in time can somehow bind Parliament or Parliamentarians to either fixed agendas or specific leaders was a fundamental breach of representative parliamentary democracy.

Back in June 2012, Possum Comitatus had a rather interesting piece, What Australians Believe, that looks at certain sets of Australian views as measured by the polls. It may be over twelve years old, but it is still worth a read for the patterns and contradictions revealed actually frame aspects of the current election campaign rather well. For example, the conflict between the popular view that Government should do more and the equally popular view that Government is too large.

Now consider the following table. Even after all these years, the privatisation of icon Government enterprises is seen in negative terms. By contrast, the five following items including the GST are seen in positive terms. They each met with sometimes very strong opposition at the time, but are now seen in positive terms. Further comments follow the table.govdecisions

The things I criticised  in my second paragraph have the effect of locking Government into a straight jacket set by popular view at a particular time. The role of Government is to govern, taking changing circumstances into account. This includes taking unpopular decisions, not implementing blind promises made at a point in time regardless, With time, some of those decisions will prove to be right if still unpopular, others will gain net approval but in fact be questionable. 

That's all part of our system. In the end, we give Governments power and expect them to exercise that power if with restraint. We do so, knowing that we can kick them out.      


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

That Possum article makes interesting reading, but there are a few quibbles I'd like to note:

- the various surveys were not all conducted at the same point in time, and presumably not with the same group of respondents, so it is a bit naive to suggest there is a necessary 'discord' between the views upon the various issues.

- again, re the differing dates for surveys, there is no indication of the surrounding 'hot issues' at any particular time. I'd suggest you'd get a far different response upon 'size of government' if a survey were taken immediately after some revelation of government waste or incompetence, than if taken at a point where attention was not so focussed.

- the sub-analysis between party affiliations assumes/presumes those issues canvassed are necessarily affected by one's political preference. I don't necessarily agree this is always a valid approach.

And a final quibble: there's a table buried in there about perception of interest rates being higher or lower since the Labor government came to power. The 'lower' analysis line shows: total-35 ALP-44 LNP-36 GRN-42.

My question is how can the 'total lower' percentage be lower than the three constituent percentages?


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. I will have a look at the Possum post again before responding. That will be later. I am off to watch school boy football in a little while.

Anonymous said...

Have a nice day Jim!

I did not mean to carp, but I find these "do you want smaller govt"/"should the govt do more" contradictions frustrating. It would have been far more interesting (and pertinent) to get the responses of the same group of people on the same day, once the basic contradiction in their positions was pointed out to them.


Evan said...

Given your view Jim, that pollies shouldn't be held to actually doing what they promise, do you think pollies should just not bother saying what they will do in government?

In that case how are we to decide who to vote for? Our assessment of their personality?

Jim Belshaw said...

This is my assessment process, Evan.
1. Have they explained clearly to me the main challenges the country faces and what they plan to do about them (national party). Or region for a regional party.
2. Am I happy with their values?
3. Do I think that they are likely to be competent in government? Will they be prepared to do what's best for the country in their judgement at the time regardless of previous undertakings or immediate popularity?
4. Given my values and own assessment of what's important, what's the mesh like?
5. Given 4, what are my choices?

In making an assessment, I place very little weight on the multiplicity of promises made. Each party has some that I agree with, some that I disagree with. I just hope that they will be prepared to ditch the sillier ones.

My assessment is affected by the weight that I place on particular issues in a personal sense. For example, I can't and won't vote for the coalition number one because I happen to disagree quite violently with Tony Abbott on refugees. This has become a vote deciding issue for me.

kvd, the idea of the role of polls as an education device is a little unusual outside push polling!