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.

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