The idea contentious political issues can be solved with common sense…

… ignores the reality of politics.

Last week, current Reserve Bank board member and former Australian Industry Group CEO Heather Ridout announced ($) she would like to form a ‘Normal People’s Party’.

I’m not entirely sure what a normal person is, but Ms Ridout claimed her party would be able to support such a person. She provided some clues as to what this would mean: the party would advocate for commonsense across a range of policy areas, it would attempt to take a centrist position and it would not be run for the benfits of vested interests.

Now this all sounds laudable, but misses the whole point of democratic politics.

As I discussed the other week, the idea that there us a sensible common sense solution to policy problems, or that we can somehow get everyone to agree on important issues, completely misunderstands why we have a democratic system.

Values can never be taken out of politics, and politics can never be taken out of policy. What we believe makes good policy is ultimately defined by our politics. Who decides what a good outcome is? It could be economic growth, it could be environmental protection, it could be greater income equality, it could be greater opportunities for the disadvantaged, or it could be greater reads for effort.

These are all reasonable goals to emphasise. If you talk to 20 people, though, you will find at least one in that group that will pick one of those, or several other options, making consensus difficult. Luckily, our democracy allows for these kinds of disagreements, which are worked out through our state and federal parliaments.

For instance, looking at how Australian voters respond if they are asked whether the government should cut taxes of increase spending on social services, you get a range of opinions. For instance, in 2010 approximately 36% thought there should be more spending on social services, whilst an almost exactly equal number, 37%, thought taxes should be cut instead. Not only do voters hold a range of opinions at any one time, these graphs also show that opinions change significantly over time (no doubt due to the actions of governments and other external effects). This shows how difficult it can be to find a ‘common sense’ solution to policy problems: quite often people will see entirely different outcomes as being ‘common sense’ answer to the question.

 

Attitudes towards taxes social service spending by occupation. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents who gave as their response to the question “Do If the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do, reduce tax, spend more on social services, or it depends?”
Attitudes towards taxes social service spending by occupation. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents who gave as their response to the question “Do If the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do, reduce tax, spend more on social services, or it depends?” Responses were divided by occupation. Data were taken from the Australian National Political Attitudes Survey (ANPAS) and Australian Election Study (AES).

 

The view of Heather Ridout and others like her may be shaped by their exposure to a limited socioeconomic slice of Australia’s population. I suspect that exectuves like Ms Ridout, as well as many journalists (particularly business writers), and many politicians and other business people, probably tend to mix with a similar group of people: high income, well educated managerial types. Among this group they may meet many like-minded individuals who tend to have similar ‘common sense’ views. Unfortunately, the world is more complex than this.

Whilst among the general public only 37%, thought taxes should be cut in 2010, among managers it was as high as 50% whilst among those without a job it was 32%.

Looking at the alternative, 36% of the electorate and 41% of which without jobs thought social spending should increase. In comparison, only 24% of managers agreed.

 

The relationship between attitudes towards taxation and spending on social services, and major-party voting.
The relationship between attitudes towards taxation and spending on social services, and major-party voting, 1967-2010. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents who provided their first preference vote for the Coalition rather than the Labor Party conditional on their response to the question “If the government had a choice between reducing taxes or spending more on social services, which do you think it should do, reduce tax, spend more on social services, or it depends?” Data were taken from the ANPAS and AES surveys.

 

There are many different views on what makes good public policy. Our life experiences, our level of education and our material well-being all shape what we think politically. As the second graph shows, these views are related to how we vote. The idea of a ‘Normal People’s Party’ ignores this simple fact.

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