I’ve moved

In the off chance you know me, have stumbled across my blog, and we haven’t spoken lately, I’ve moved. I am now a lecturer in Political science at the United States Studies Centre, at the University of Sydney.

My details are here (also FYI – they jumped the gun on the Dr, officially it’s almost Dr*).



*My thesis passed with very minor edits. Graduating later in the year.

Papers presented at the 2016 APSA conference

I’m just finishing up at the 2016 Australian Political Studies Association annual conference in Sydney, and thought I’d post the slides of the papers I presented with colleagues Andrea Carson, Marija Taflaga and Yannick Dufresne.

The first paper looked at the demographic and environmental predictors of concern about immigration in Australia. Immigration policy has been a divisive political issue in many developed economies in recent decades. Australia is no exception, with immigration being a much debated topic, notwithstanding what can be considered its highly successful national immigration program.

In this paper we map the demographic backgrounds of voters who were more concerned about new arrivals to Australia at this time, and the environmental circumstance that are associated with opposition to further large scale immigration, including the size of the existing migrant population and the level of unemployment. Here we tried to provide new insights in to what might contribute to negative and positive perceptions about immigration (eventually we also hope to identify potential political and policy implications).

The slides can be viewed here.

The second paper, also with Marija and Andrea, was almost a sequel to the first, examining the relationship between attitudes towards immigration and vote choice at the 2013 Australian federal election. The salience of immigration in Australian politics, at least in recent decades, has been well documented.  In particular, a narrative has developed that suggests immigration has been used by the centre-right Coalition parties to detach working class voters from the centre-left Labor Party. However, the empirical evidence for this is limited. An alternative perspective is that it is middle class voters — who are theoretically economically secure and able to vote on issues other than their economic self-interest, such as cultural matters —  decide their vote based on concerns about immigration.

In this paper we tested these propositions by modelling data on public opinion collected during the 2013 federal campaign to identify the relationship between Australian voters’ attitudes towards immigration and partisan choice. We explore whether those voters more concerned about immigration vote differently to those who are less concerned, and if there are demographic patterns in this association. This helps us understand what drives the relationship between attitudes towards immigration and vote choice, if any such relationship exists at all. 

The slides for this paper can be found here.

The third paper, with Andrea and Yannick (also presented at the American Political Science Association conference in Philadelphia this year), is concerned with the congruence between public opinion and the positions taken by the legislators belonging to the major parties in Australia’s federal parliament. To do this we focus on a signicant social transformation of our time, changes to the institution of marriage that has led to legalisation of same-sex marriage in 20 countries in less than two decades.

Contrary to Downs’ (1957) median voter theorem and other office-motivated frameworks, federal politicians in Australia have largely ignored majority opinion on this matter, which is supportive of same-sex marriage (with most surveys showing approximately 60 per cent support and 30 per cent opposition). The (current) incumbent in particular, the Liberal-National Coalition, does not support same-sex marriage. We examine a number of possible reasons why parties may not be fully responsive, and explore the relationship between public opinion in each of Australia’s 150 federal electoral divisions and the position of its elected representative.

To do this we use a unique data set to ascertain differences between politicians’ positions on the issue with that of Australian voters. Using a very large dataset (n > 601,550) collected by Vox Pop Labs (2016) during the 2013 Australian federal election, this paper provides the first fine-grained analysis of attitudes about same-sex marriage from every federal electorate. We match these public opinion data with data on the public positions of members of the federal house of representatives since 2012. This enables us to compare the aggregates of citizens’ policy preferences in each electoral district with the public positions of their elected representatives.

We found that although there appears to be a status quo bias, with voter opposition well below 50 per cent required to tip legislators towards opposition as well as some evidence that parties are (in part) policy-seeking organisations interested in more than maximising their vote, our results also suggest that parliamentarians are responsive to public opinion. Lower levels of opposition to same-sex marriage in an electorate was found to predict a lower probability of opposition from its MP. Further, originally oppositional parliamentarians representing electorates with less opposition to same-sex marriage were more likely to shift to a supportive position between 2012 and 2016.

A copy of the slides can be found here.

Public opinion and policy responsiveness in Australia

The case of same-sex marriage


Last week I presented a paper at the US Political Science Association annual meeting in Philadelphia with some colleagues. In it, we look at the congruence between public opinion and the positions of parliamentarians on same-sex marriage.

Our findings indicate that parliamentarians are generally representative of their constituents, giving some hope for the representational model of democracy. Although there is also some evidence that legislators are also attempting to aggregate other policy interests besides those of voters, and there is a status quo bias weighting outcomes away from policy change.

The presentation can be found here.

Some initial thoughts on the election

Since the Australian federal election, held last Saturday, I’ve had a few thoughts. These are only half-formed, so bear with me.

First, Coalition leader (and current prime minister) Malcolm Turnbull is getting a lot of heat for the relatively poor performance of the Liberal Party (and its various state-based permutations). Some of this is reasonable. The double dissolution was probably a mistake, as is now being reported. It has possibly made the senate more difficult for a future Coalition government to work with, not easier. However, blaming Turnbull for the overall poor showing of the Coalition parties is probably a little unfair. To do so requires forgetting just how unpopular the government was before Turnbull replaced Abbott, and assumes the latter could have pulled the the Coalition two-party vote back to 50 per cent by the election, when all evidence indicated that his government was unable to find a circuit breaker and stop the death spiral they were in.

Second, I think the rise in minor party support is overdone. First, it ignores history. We’ve had higher (1931) and similar (1943, 1998) levels minor party support in the past. Second, it ignores context. The GFC and resulting (and cascading) recessions and national public debt problems have created economic turmoil. This has had a political effect, including the rise of far (or populist) right parties in Europe, Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US. Although we missed the worst of the global recession, real disposable incomes have been declining for 17 straight quarters (four years and three months). The political impact here has been to create instability, and dissatisfaction with public policy and governing parties, hence the rapid turnover of state and federal leaders and governments since 2010 after more than decade of stability up to 2007. In other periods of economic turmoil we’ve seen a three-way split of the Labor Party (early 1930s), the collapse of the centre-right (early 1940s), the rise of the Democrats (1970s), and One Nation (1990s). I fail to see how the present is substantially different, and that if we saw the return to the economic tranquility of the early 2000s, we would see some kind of political stability also return.

Of course, I could also be wrong about both of these things.

I also wrote up some quick pieces on outcomes in 10 individual electorates for the University of Melbourne Election Watch blog. These can be found here.


Over the weekend I was asked by the Election Watch team at the University of Melbourne to comment on the polling conducted for the Brexit referendum.

The article that came out of this can be found somewhere on their blog, I’m sure. Here are the comments I provided in full (questions are bolded):

1. What do the Brexit polls tell us about the accuracy of polling generally?

Not a lot (about polling for elections in Australia, at least).

There were two complications pollsters trying to understand public attitudes towards Brexit that are generally not faced by those trying to understand vote intention in Australia.

First, voting in Britain is not compulsory, as it is in Australia. Therefore, not only do organisations conducting public opinion surveys have to try and get a representative sample of voters, they need to work out what a representative sample is. This can be quite difficult to do, as turnout can be quite volatile.

In Australia, the Australian Electoral Commission collects data on the age and gender breakdown of everyone on the electoral rolls of each division. Since approximately 95 per cent of voters actually vote, pollsters in Australia just need to make sure their sample of respondents matches the electoral roll and they can be fairly confident it will be close to the makeup of the electorate that actually turns out to vote (this is harder than it sounds, but much easier than the context faced by those operating in Britain).

The difficulties encountered by pollsters in a country with voluntary voting are compounded in a referendum. With elections we have a number of reference points to work from (past elections). Pollsters know which groups of voters are more likely to turn out and vote in a generic election, and even roughly how those groups tend to vote.

Britain has never conducted a referendum on leaving the EU before, so knowing which groups — rural or urban, university graduates or those that had not finished high school, or the young and the old — would turn out and vote, is difficult. Nor have they had a chance to check their result with actual outcomes, as is the case with elections.

2. What do they tell us about voter volatility?

Public opinion on Brexit, at least as it was measured by surveys, appeared to move around a lot, with a fair amount of volatility. This may be the result of a lack of fixed opinion on the question. Topics like health and education spending, and taxes, for instance, tend to be real and immediate concerns for people. As a result they tend to have pretty fixed opinions on these kinds of policy areas, and their opinions are more difficult to change. Brexit was probably a little more abstract, and as a result a strong argument either way could have probably changed some voters’ position

3. Do the Brexit polls, or voting patterns, tell us anything useful about how voters in Australia can be expected to behave?

Close to the vote the polls indicated the result would be roughly 50 per cent for both leave and stay, with a slightly larger number voting stay than leave. However, several per cent were undecided, and it appears most of these voters broke towards leave at the last minute. This to me suggests the polls did reasonably well under difficult conditions, but in a close race where we have little relevant comparisons with which to calibrate our data, it can be difficult to know what the eventual outcome will be. We could expect that polling on similar issues here would be comparably difficult (with the benefit of compulsory voting though).

4. Any other observations about what it could mean for Australia?

We saw a similar process at work during the republican referendum in 1999. For years surveys had said a majority of Australians were in favour of a republic, but then they voted to stick with the monarchy. A possible reason may have been the issue was relatively abstract for most people, so they could be swayed either way. The pro-monarchy campaign in that case was able to argue the republican model being voted on (with a president elected by the parliament) was not a good outcome. They were successful. We could imagine similar tactics could be used in future referenda here, for instance the same-sex marriage plebiscite, or for Indigenous recognition, with those without strong opinions either way swayed by a convincing argument for one side or the other.

As a follow up I was also asked The vote was 48-52. If I it had been that result in favour of Stay, it would be accurate to say it was close. However, referenda (in Australia anyway) almost always fail – that is, voters decide to stick with the status quo. Do you therefore think it’s fair to say that actually the Stay vote suffered a huge defeat, and that in that sense, since the polls predicted a win for Stay, they’ve really got it wrong.

I would characterise the outcome as reasonably close. If two per cent of voters who chose leave had chosen stay instead, the latter would have won. The polls in aggregate generally had leave and stay neck and neck all month (with leave ahead for most of June). Right before the vote the polling aggregators generally had leave at 44 per cent and stay at 46 per cent, and around 10 per cent undecided. While many commentators may have concluded this meant stay was ahead, I would never have characterised the polls as saying this. The polls suggested it was too close to call (with perhaps a slightly higher chance of stay winning).

An interesting anecdote to help make my case. Apparently there were quite severe storms and flooding across much of the south, the Midlands and the east, with London and some other pro-stay areas hit at peak voting times. Some polling stations were flooded and closed for hours as a result. This may have hampered turnout in these areas and, with two percentage points in the result, changed the outcome. I’m not saying it did change the outcome (I don’t know who chose not to vote as a result, but it may have been young people living in urban areas without a car who were more likely to vote stay and may have been more likely not to brave the storm as a result) but it was close enough that it could have.

Additionally, after I commented to Election Watch I found this blog post on the same topic by Andrew Gelman. He probably did a better job on this than I did (no surprise).

Are there political differences between Sydney and Melbourne?


Even a casual observer of Australian politics will likely know that the Coalition tends to do better in some areas, and Labor in others. However, some important patterns are missed, either because geographic variation is often examined at the electorate level (sometimes obscuring important variation within divisions, which can be relatively large sptial areas) or because the mapping is not done as well as it could be.

For instance, this Australian Electoral Commission map leaves something to be desired. In particular, I don’t like how they divide up the Coalition parties by different colours (making the patterns between Coalition and Labor areas harder to identify), and that these are not shaded by the level of support, so a safe Labor seat looks the same as a marginal one. Combined with the focus on the division rather then smaller units, these decisions reduce the amount of information we can gain from the map.

Interested in how vote choice maps across different parts of Australia at a finer-grained level than the electoral division, I grabbed the two-candidate (Coalition v Labor) results from every polling place in the country from the 2013 federal election. These polling places were then spatially placed at the local neighbourhood level,* and mapped used ggmap() in R.

Here, for instance, are the results for the Sydney (left) and Melbourne (right) metropolitan areas. They are shaded so that an area shaded blue had a Coalition majority (the darker the blue the higher the Coalition vote) and red a Labor majority.



Two-party vote by neighbourhood in the Sydney (left) and Melbourne (right) metropolitan areas. A blue area is one in which the Coalition won a majority. The darker blue a neighbourhood is shaded, the higher the Coalition vote. A red area is a Labor-majority area. Neighbourhoods are defined here as ABS Statistical Area 2 regions.

These maps make it clear there are important differences within and between the two cities. In particular, the Coalition appears to do better in Sydney and Labor in Melbourne.

In Sydney, the Coalition enjoys large majorities across much of the north, the inner-east, and the fringes of the south and south-west. The Labor vote is largely confined to concentrated regions in the inner west around Newtown and outer west around Liverpool, Cabramatta and (to a lesser extent) Mt Druitt. It’s not as bad as it looks for Labor, though, as their strongest areas of support tend to have higher population densities than many of the Coalition–supporting neighbourhoods.

Labor appears to be more successful in Melbourne, winning large majorities throughout much of the north, west and outer-east. There are Coalition majorities throughout large parts of the east, but these majorities are much slimmer than those enjoyed by Labor.

What drives these differences in vote choice? I suspect it’s likely a mix of economic and social differences. For instance, as the plots below show, neighbourhoods with older average residents and higher income households tend to have higher Coalition votes. This is particularly the case in suburban and urban areas, where neighbourhoods with median ages closer to 50 tend to have ~20 per cent higher Coalition votes than those closer to 30; and those with median incomes around $150,000 per year tend to have Coalition votes 30-40 per cent higher than those with median incomes around $50,000.

Of course, you cannot be certain that these are the causes of different electoral outcomes (we might be making an ecological fallacy), but a quick check of the Australia Election Study data makes it pretty clear these socioeconomic differences are fairly important to vote choice (maybe more on this is another post).



Coalition two-party vote by neighbourhood location and median age of residents. Each open circle representative a neighbourhoods, defined here as state suburbs/localities. These are scaled by the resident population. The curve is a LOESS regression showing trends in the relationship between median age and party support.



Coalition two-party vote by neighbourhood location and median household income. Each open circle representative a neighbourhoods, defined here as state suburbs/localities. These are scaled by the resident population. The curve is a LOESS regression showing trends in the relationship between median income and party support.


*More specifically, the ABS Statistically Area 2 level, which are areas of approximately 10,000 people. There are several thousand of these neighbourhood areas across the country.