New paper – Public opinion and policy responsiveness: the case of same-sex marriage in Australia

Research undertaken with my colleagues Andrea Carson and Yannick Dufresne has been accepted by the Australian Journal of Political Science, and will be published in a future issue sometime soon (you can read it here)*, we examined whether Australian federal legislators’ policy positions are congruent with public opinion.

This paper examines the congruence between the policy positions taken by members of the Australian parliament, and the preferences of their voters. We used same-sex marriage as a case study. We outline a theoretical framework that argues we expect to see representative behaviour (that is, congruence), with error. This error is, we believe, largely the result of two factors.

First, we believe Australia’s major political parties are interest aggregators, representing the policy interests of candidates, party activists and donors, as well as their constituents (discussed in another paper of mine published in the AusJPS).

Second, because we expect to see a form of status quo bias, with groups (lobby, interest and party factions) use their political influence to veto change in political parties’ policy formation; with opposition being easier than advocacy for large-scale policy change (see for instance Gilens 2012)

Using a unique dataset (n = 601,550) of voter preferences collected during the 2013 federal election, and collated Hansard and media data, we compare public opinion on same-sex marriage with politicians’ public positions. We find support for our hypothesis that there may be status quo bias at work, suggesting the influence of special interest groups in this policy area. Yet, we also find parliamentarians are responsive to public opinion once it reaches a critical level, and that very low opposition to same-sex marriage in an electorate predicts policy support from its MP, which varies by party and over time.

*If you cannot access this paper, email me at shaun dot ratcliff at sydney.edu.au

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