Category Archives: ideology

Problems with claims of party convergence in Australia

(Some of the graphs in this piece came out a little odd – mostly too larger. apologies, I can’t quite get them to look right).

Last week, Ben Reilly wrote a compelling piece on party convergence in Australia, arguing many of the problems identified with contemporary politics in this country could be explained by describing our parties as election-motivated. In this view, the parties exist to win government, with policy considerations coming a distant second (if they matter at all).

However, evidence for systematic convergence is largely absent. Instead, it may exist for particular issues which are perhaps noticed more by those whose favoured issue is not on the agenda of the major parties. There is however plenty of evidence for party difference on issues, voters also appear to think the parties are different and there is a stronger theoretical basis for believing parties would pursue different rather than convergent policies.

Why do some commentators believe there is no difference? There are a few possible reasons. One might be the parties do move towards the centre on some issues. Perhaps commentators pay more attention to these issues than those the parties have held more extreme positions on. Commentators may do so because this convergence is interesting, or that commentators care about these issues themselves, or movements to the centre by the parties disappoints party activists who express frustration to commentators, who then overestimate the actual level of convergence.

Problems with claims of party convergence

Voters appear to recognise these differences. As political scientist Murray Goot explains, survey data indicates most Australian voters distinguish between political parties at the national level and care about the outcomes of elections. The proportion of voters perceiving a difference between the major parties has actually grown in recent decades, rather than declined. For instance, the 1967 Australian National Political Attitudes Survey found 30% of respondents believed there was a good deal of difference between the parties, compared with 21% who said there was some differences, and 38% not much difference. The 2010 Australian Election Study found 27% of respondents said there was a good deal of difference between the parties, 45% said there was some difference and 27% not much or no difference.


Percentage of voters with an opinion who recognise difference between the major parties, 1946-2010. Each point represents the percentage of survey respondents who said yes to (variations on) the question “do you think there is a difference between the Coalition and Labor Party?” Trends are smoothed using LOESS curves. Data for the years 1946-2001 taken from (Goot 2004: 65). Data for 2004-10 sourced from the Australian Election Study by the author.


This perception of party difference may be grounded in real variation in the policy positions and agendas of the parties. Examinations of the issue preferences of Coalition and Labor Party candidates by Ian McAllister and Simon Jackman found significant differences between the two; indicating parties may not only be run by election-motivated individuals, but by those concerned about policy outcomes.

Examinations of party election policies also show that in almost every federal election since 1946 the Coalition and Labor Party have made very different promises during the campaigns, with Coalition promises to the right of the political centre and Labor promises to the left. Another study that looked at Governor-Generals’ speeches also showed ongoing differences between the agendas the parties outlined at the beginning of their terms in office.




Left-right position of party policy promises during Australian federal elections, 1946-2013. Each curve represents the left-right score of Coalition and Labor election promises (from -100 to the left to +100 to the right) for each Australian federal election. Party scores were sourced from the Manifesto Data Collection. Coalition positions were calculated by the author from constituent party scores weighted by their proportion of the first preference vote.




Evidence of real differences in Coalition and Labor governments

Parties don’t just promise different policy outcomes, either. Looking at public policy developments that have occurred in Australia over the past six and half decades, it would appear they tend to deliver, at least on economic matters.

Coalition governments in office from 1949 to 1972 rejected the concept of an expanded welfare state, with overall federal social expenditure declining as a percentage of GDP over this period; as Australia enjoyed the debatable distinction of being one of only two OECD countries in which public income support expenditure as a percentage of GDP declined during the 1950s. The Whitlam Labor government, in office from the end of 1972 to 1975, introduced an ambitious agenda that rapidly expanded government and involved large spending commitments; whilst the following Fraser Coalition government (1975-1983) proceeded to attack big government and public sector spending, although its efforts did not satisfy all of its supporters.

These differences have continued into the current political period. The Accord between the Labor Party and the union movement — which linked a reduction in wage increases with the introduction of a new social wage, including universal health insurance —can be seen as a classic Labor policy which sought to plan the economy for the benefit of the working-class: aiming for full employment, increased welfare provision, and industrial revitalisation. Klingemann, Hofferbert, and Budge  observed that in particular, between the 1940s and 1980s Coalition governments de-emphasised spending on welfare compared with the Labor Party. Differences in the taxation policies of the Howard led Coalition governments from 1996-2007 and the Labor opposition of the time were also identified by journalist George Megalogenis.

Policy differences in recent years have included views on using a carbon price to reduce emissions (although like most complex issues, party positions have varied), on industrial relations, and the use of countercyclical public spending to reduce the impacts of recessions. The first budget of the Abbott Coalition government was also acknowledged as being ideological in nature by at least one journalist, with its overriding goal identified as being to reduce the size of the Commonwealth government, and its impact falling hardest or low and middle income households.

Why might parties converge?

The idea of convergence, as Ben Reilly described it, relies on a number of possible theories. Downsian spatial models assume there is an electoral benefit by moving to the political centre. This can lead to catch-all parties that try and win broad based support, or cartel parties that embed themselves in the state and use public funding to stave off challengers. An alternative view is the end of ideology theory. This assumes growing affluence has resulted in economic class and issues of redistribution have become less meaningful in a modern (post)industrial society. The latter views the increasingly affluence of modern society as reducing the salience of economic cleavages. The former sees party competition and the desire to hold office largely for the sake of the benefits that can be accrued from being in government as the primary motivation of parties; and is the primary theoretical basis for Ben Reilly’s claims.

Why parties might differ

Even in circumstances where the primary assumption of the median voter theorem is correct and electoral benefits may be obtained by parties moving towards the political centre, there may be equally important reasons for parties not to fully exploit these gains. We might expect parties to not be made up of only election-motivated individuals, either; but also issue-driven candidates and officials who care (at least in part) about winning office not simply for the sake of obtaining the spoils of government and incumbency, but also to achieve certain public policy outcomes.

We know the types of people that represent the Coalition and Labor Party in parliament come from different occupational backgrounds, even if the gap has declined in recent decades. We also know the parties represent different types of voters: the Coalition’s supports being more likely to be older with higher incomes; and Labor’s with a higher probability of being younger, lower income union members. This is reflected in the sources of party donations. The Labor Party relies heavily on the support of trade unions for financial support. According to Ramsay and McMenamin The Coalition’s support base is more heavily reliant on corporate interests for donations.

However, we also know most voters have issue preferences clustered near the political centre (as shown below). As a result, the median voter theorem is probably correct that there might be some electoral benefit to be gained from moving towards the middle on at least some issues.  However, in the years and months before the next election, when parties make policy decisions, the position of voters on issues and how they will react to party announcements, is only known with uncertainty. Voters’ will also be able to locate the positions parties take on the issues with uncertainty (sometimes mistaking what a party’s actual position is). This limits the benefits a party can gain from moving towards the centre.



Left-right position of Australian voters on economic and social issues, 2010. Each point represents the issue preferences of a voter (with a negative score reflecting a left-of-centre preference and a positive right-of-centre, and zero a position at the electorate mean). Scores were calculated by the author from Australian Election Study data.


We can therefore understand the behaviour of parties who are composed to some degree by policy-motivated actors by assuming parties, their officials, supporters and candidates care about obtaining their preferred policy outcomes, but not at the exclusion of winning elections. Instead, the two are complimentary: elections must be won for policy platforms to be implemented; but if a party compromises its policy position too much to win (by moving too close to the centre), it gains very little from winning in terms of policy outcomes. As a result, we can view Australia’s political parties as constantly attempting to find the policy position between their ideal policy point and the preferences of the median voter; providing the optimal trade off between winning elections and having the opportunity to enact their policy agenda (see for instance Wittman 1983).

This movement by the parties towards the centre on some issues may help convince some voters and commentators that they are more centrist then they actually are. By signalling their centrist positions on some issues they believe it is important to move towards the centre on, the parties may over-emphasise their convergence. This may make an over-estimate of party moderation understandable. However, to focus on these issues in isolation ignores the large number of issues they may have held an ideological position on to maintain the utility of an election win.

What this means for the present situation in Australian politics

How can we view the Abbott Coalition government’s actions in light of these ideas? It does appear to be true that the recently announced federal budget for the 2015-16 financial year was a move to the political center, dropping some contention and perceptually ideologically extreme positions (such as the GP co-payment). However, this needs to be acknowledged as a move away from the previous budget, which was generally acknowledged as being ideologically extreme and unpopular. The move to the right in the first budget and to the centre in the second actually fits with the model presented above: once it won office the Coalition attempted to obtain policies close to their preferred positions (reducing the public subsidy for industry, medical care and higher education). However, realising (belatedly) that these policies were a long way from the preferences of most voters, the government has moved back towards the centre (but not on all issues – for instance higher education); trying to find the equilibrium between their preferred position and that of the median voter.

As parties represent different groups of voters, parliamentarians and financial contributors, we should expect they will represent different policy constituencies. However, to obtain the public policies they want, we should also expect (and hope to see) the parties compromise on some issues. They cannot achieve anything if they do not win government. As a result, we will continue to see the parties move towards and away from the political centre as they search for the sweet spot between what they want and what the public (on average) wants from government. In particular they will sacrifice issues that do not necessarily matter to their core constituencies (asylum seekers for the Labor Party, anti-discrimination law for the Coalition) that may matter to some of their supporters. This does not mean the parties are the same. It just means they (like all of us) are sometimes forced to sacrifice and compromise to get what ultimately matters to them the most.


Did Malcolm Fraser briefly shift the divisions of Australian politics?

Today we lost Malcolm Fraser, Australia’s fourth longest serving prime minister (1975-83) and a man truly dedicated to public service. He may have also (briefly) changed the divisions of Australian politics in ways consistent with his later socially progressive activities.

Much has been written about his time in office, as well as his contribution to public life since he left parliament. One of the more common statements made upon his time as prime minister, and his activities since, has been that he cannot be easily pidgeon-holed in ideological terms.

Although he was pretty much the Cold-warrior personified during the 1960s and 1970s (including being a key supporter of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War), it has been noted he was a strong supporter of Australia accepting large numbers of Cambodian refugees in the late 1970s (more so than the centre-left Labor Party at the time) and a major supporter of a multicultural Australia. He also campaigned for human rights abroad; in particular championing a boycott of apartheid South Africa (and similar actions against white rule in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)).

He continued his advocacy for multiculturalism and humanitarian policies once he left office (which earned him the enmity of many of his former partisans in his later years).

A good overview was provided by The Age this morning. Robert Gottleibsen has a different (but equally interesting) take in The Australian (although he is wrong about Fraser not cutting public spending – he did in a number of areas as would be expected of any Coalition Prime Minister – but I suspect he was closer to the mark with his assessment, that Fraser was always a progressive on some issues at least, than many others who claim Fraser moved to the left post-public life). [edit -Paula Matthewson actually covered this really well on The Drum]

Another way to look at the Fraser government is to see how voters reacted to his (arguably) economically conservative but socially moderate or liberal policies when in government.

Luckily, we have some data with which we can do this. As I discussed in this post, we can fit an Item Response Theory (IRT) model to data from the 12 Australian National Political Attitudes Survey (ANPAS) and Australia Election Study AES) surveys covering the 44 years from 1967 to 2010. Doing this provides us with a consistent estimate of voters underlying issue preferences on one or more dimensions over this period, allowing us to measure different kinds of political trends.

These surveys provide information on the policy preferences, voting behaviour and demographic backgrounds of 24,393 Australian voters. The IRT model is fit to 34 issue items using the mirt package (Chalmers 2012) in R (R Core Team 2013) and provides estimates for voters’ positions on two dimensions: one I label economic issues (mostly structured around attitudes towards trade unions, redistribution, taxation and government spending), and the other I call social issues (mostly relating to immigration, law and order and indigenous issues).

I then fit 12 separate logistic regression models to these data to predict the probability of a voter choosing to provide their first preference vote to the Coalition over the Labor Party (minor party and independent voters excluded) based on their economic and social issue preferences, after controlling for their age, birthplace, education and gender.

As can be seen in figure below, voters’ issue preferences – as measured by this IRT model – voters on the economic right are much more likely to vote for the Coalition over Labor (generally 80% or more doing so at each election compared to 20% or less for those on the left), whilst there has generally been little difference in voting behaviour between the social left and right (once we control for everything else, at least).

Predicted probabilities of voting for the Coalition over the Labor Party by issue preferences, 1967-2010. Estimated from the models described above fit to the ANPAS and AES data, each plot shows the probability a voter would vote for the Coalition over the Labor Party, ordered by their preferences from the left to right (with the categories representing voters, from left to right, 2 and 1 standard deviations left of centre, at the electorate mean, and 1 and 2 standard deviations right of centre, respectively). Demographic variables are held at their baseline categories (female, born in Australia, 18-24 years of age, who did not complete high school) and the other issue dimension at its mean value.

In particular, something really interesting appears to have been going on with the relationship between social issue preferences and major-party voting in the 1970s and 1980s. These results suggest that in the late 1970s, after we control for voters’ demographic backgrounds and their economic issue preferences, socially-left voters were more likely to vote for the Coalition than those on the right. This is possibly an impact of Fraser’s socially progressive views and policy positions (on refugees, SBS etc at any rate).

Besides being a true public servant, it appears Fraser may have (briefly) changed the divisions of Australian politics, making the political divide a little more complicated (but also perhaps compassionate).

He will be missed.

The only way to save the democracy is to destroy it

Or so says this guy in the Herald Sun…

Now I don’t know who he is or what his deal in, but  (big surprise) I disagree.

The problem? For starters, who decides what a good outcome is? It could be economic growth, it could be environmental protection, or greater income equality, or more opportunities for the disadvantaged, or it could be more substantial rewards for personal effort.

These are all reasonable debates. Disagreements our democracy allows, and that are be worked out right now through our state and federal parliaments. The committee whatshisname is suggesting would stifle that debate and attempt (unsuccessfully I believe) to find some kind of pseudo-objective consensus where none exists.

Would the committee (lets call it the Committee of Public Safety,* for arguments sake) be rewarded for building a new freeway, or punished for not reducing car dependency and increasing public transport patronage?

Would our Comité de salut public (I’ve made it French for extra flair**), which increases the use of renewable energy, be lauded, or punished, if this meant slightly higher power prices? And if they are to be given incentives for good decisions (how we objectively decide these good decisions, I do not know) who decides how they get the incentives? And how do we ensure these incentives encourage better decision making of currently Parliamentarians?

Now, I know I’m banging on about the same issue about (two of the last seven posts have been on some derivation of this issue). However, one upside is it gives me a chance to make some sweet graphs. For instance, the figure below shows voters attitudes towards immigration (as measured in the Australian Election Study) conditional on their occupation.

Why might we care about this? Because how people view policy outcomes (for instance, whether more immigration is good or bad) will depend on their life experience. As we can see below, voters with professional and managerial occupations are more likely to have positive views on immigration. From 1990 to 2010, 20% of professionals  and 15% of managers said the number of migrant arrivals had not gone far enough, compared with 11% of voters in general, 10% of those without employment and 8% of those in manual occupations. Conversely, 34% of professionals and 41% of managers said immigration to Australia had gone too far over this period, compared with 49% of the electorate in general, 54% of those without employment and 62% of those in manual occupations.


The relationship between attitudes towards immigration and occupation, 1990-2010. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents in six occupational categories who responded to the question “The statements below indicate some of the changes that have been happening in Australia over the years. For each one, please say whether you think the change has gone too far, not gone far enough, or is it about right? The number of migrants allowed into Australia at the present time”.

The relationship between attitudes towards immigration and occupation, 1990-2010. Each plot shows the proportion of survey respondents in six occupational categories who responded to the question “The statements below indicate some of the changes that have been happening in Australia over the years. For each one, please say whether you think the change has gone too far, not gone far enough, or is it about right? The number of migrants allowed into Australia at the present time”.


Why might this be? There is some evidence the benefits of immigration may flow disproportionately to the owners of capital and higher income households. This potential distribution of the benefits of immigration reveals itself in public opinion, with voters in professional and managerial occupations (generally higher income jobs) tending to hold more positive attitudes towards immigration.

A technocrat could look at the objective evidence, but on many policy issues we deal with in politics – from immigration to redistribution to something else – the data is open to interpretation and objectivity is thin on the ground. So while immigration may boost GDP growth, for instance, that boost in growth may mostly accrue to the immigrants themselves, and certain segments of the population, and have more limited benefits for other groups. The research is not conclusive on that, but that’s the whole point: you’re not necessarily going to find some sweet spot in the middle everyone agrees on. That’s why we have politics and parliament and elections; so the contentious issues that divide us can be thrashed out. We might not all like the outcomes of this contest all the time, but it’s better than someone deciding outcomes without the accountability that comes with elections.

*Prize for the person who gets the reference.

** A second hint. Come on, it’s easy.

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.

The Liberal Party a broad church? Maybe not.

Last Friday, in an article in the Australian Financial Review, journalist Andrew Clark described the centre-right Liberal Party as a broad church. He is not the first to do so. Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard used the phrase many times to describe the party he led,*and a number of commentators have also used it (for instance, here and here) and other politicians (such as current Attorney-General George Brandis in his 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture**).

However, looking at the issue preferences of the Coalition’s candidates compared to those of the Labor Party indicates there’s not a lot of evidence for the claim.

Using an item response theory model (the same type of model described here) fit to surveys conducted on federal election candidates in eight of the nine elections held between 1987 and 2010, we can examine the issue preferences of Coalition and Labor candidates.



Each plot shows the distribution of economic (horizontal axis) and social (vertical axis) issue preferences of both parties’ candidates in each of the eight surveys.  Each point represents a seperate surveyed candidate. Issue preferences are measured on a left-right spectrum standardised to have a mean of 0 and variance of 1. The higher the scored preference, the further to the right the candidate is (so a candidate with a score of +1 is 1 standard deviation to the right of centre).

Examining these plots, we can see that Coalition candidates are overwhelming located to the right of centre on both social and economic issues. Labor candidates are also generally to the left of centre, but their preferences are no less distributed than the Coalition candidates on economic issues and far more diverse on social issues. This suggests the Labor Party attracts candidates with a wider variety of views on social issues than the Coalition, and similarly constrained views on economic issues.

To be more specific, in the surveys in which Coalition preferences diverged the most on economic issues (2004) and the least (1987), the variance of their preferences were .78 and .49 respectively  (with the electorate as a whole having a variance of 1), compared to Labor’s highs and lows of .71 and .5 each. On social issues the difference is even larger, with the higher and low variance for the Coalition being .63 (1987) and .5 (2001) compared with .73 (1993) and .59 (2010) for Labor.

That is, the Coalition is no more the home of representatives with a diverse range of views than is the Labor Party (at least according to these data). In fact, it appears to be a more constrained ideological movement than its opponents. The Liberal Party a broad church? Maybe not.

*Without a hint of self-interest, I am sure.

** I was going to link to this, as it was previously hosted by The Australia, but for some reason they’ve pulled it in the last few months.

Measuring Australian voters’ ideology over 44 years

What do we want to do if we wish to measure voters’ ideology (or issue preferences, for those who don’t like that word)?

Unfortunately, here in Australia the we don’t really have survey data available which asks a large number of consistent questions over time, which would allow us to compare voters of, say, the 1960s, with the voters of today.

Additionally, there’s also the question of how useful is survey data for measuring voter attitudes? Based on his analysis of survey repsonses, Philip Converse didn’t think most voters’ had a comprehensive ideological framework within which they organised their political preferences; although later research has indicated he might have been a little harsh, with measurement error obscuring the real political preferences of the voters he was examining.

One way of dealing with the lack of consistent questions over time and issues of measurement error, is to model the latent ideological traits using graded Item Response Theory (IRT) models.

Although much of the original work on IRT estimation was conducted by education scholars to measure latent traits such as intelligence or personality, more recently these methods have been developed to measure the latent ideological attitudes of political actors, such as justices of the United States Supreme Court (Bafumi et al. 2005) and voters (Treier and Jackman 2002, Treier and Hillygus 2009). The model I look at here was fit to 34 issue items from a combined file of all 12 Australian National Political Attitudes Survey (ANPAS( and Australia Election Study AES) surveys using the mirt package (Chalmers 2012) in R (R Core Team 2013). These surveys provide information on the policy preferences, voting behaviour and demographic backgrounds of 24,393 respondents sampled from 1967 to 2010.

I measure the latent issue preferences of voters on a left-right spectrum (standardised to have a mean of 0 and variance of 1) and two dimensions (effectively an economic and social issue dimension), with the results for the economic dimension shown below.


The first preference vote choice of ANPAS and AES survey respondents and their economic issue preferences, 1967-2010. Each party is measured by the difference between the issue preference of their median voter, and the electorate’s median voter.


Each plot shows the economic issue preferences of the median voter of  five of the more significant parties to contest Australian federal elections over the 44 years from 1967-2010, compared to the actual median voter for each survey. The higher scored preference, the further to the right each party’s median voter is. I’ve plotted a linear trend line for each party to make patterns clear.

The results are not particularly surprising. Greens and Labor voters are left of centre. Coalition voters are right of centre, with One Nation slightly more centrist on economic issues. What is interesting is that the Democrats start at the centre (not surprising) and then shift well to the left over a 20 year period. Also interesting, the median Coalition and Labor voter has moved to the right compared to the electorate median over this time (likely as both lost their more leftwing voters to the Democrats and then Greens).




Why Andrew Robb should replace his speech writer(s)

Or, on how the Coalition sucks at communicating its philosophy.

I teach on Wednesdays, and it has become a tradition to do something after classes finish. Last night (I started this post late 2014) we decided to attend a talk by Andrew Robb at the State Library of Victoria (do you have a better way to spend a Wednesday night?).

One of the thoughts I came away with was that Mr Robb, and the current Coalition government in general (and perhaps pretty much all Australian politicians) are terrible communicators. Now, before anyone (in my readership of three people) comes back and says “but Abbott demolished the previous Labor government with his 3 word slogan skillz”, I mean talking about complex ideas (which are an inherent part of governing) and not reciting talking points, which are the debating/communications equivalent of training wheels. I think more recent event help prove the point that a successful government needs to retain the ability to communicate in ways more complex than three word slogans.

From listening to Mr Robb (and my other observations), I do believe there’s a coherent philosophy behind a lot of the Coalition’s policies. Robb mostly spoke about trade policy, but also touched on wider economic matters. Their governing philosophy was there, under the surface, but he was largely incapable of pulling it together and making it clear. And I think that is the main problem with this government (and perhaps Australian politicians in general): they are largely incapable of discussing complex policy and political philosophy. If it comes to more than three word slogans and talking points, or a laundry list of policies, they really struggle. That doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t there (I think they mostly are), but they can’t or won’t talk about them. What I write below is not necessarily an endorsement of these policy positions, but how the Coalition could explain them to make (what I believe is) their underlying philosophy clearer. At present their underlying philosophy is largely opaque.

The deficit

For instance, early in his speech the Minister mentioned Australia was currently spending more than $1 billion each month on interest payments. And left it at that. I think for most listeners this figure would be largely meaningless, and the comment would have little effect.

If he had wanted to make that statement to mean something, he needed to say something along the lines of “Currently Australians are spending $1 billion each month on federal government interest payments. This is $1 billion each month we don’t have to spend on schools, or hospitals, universities, nursing homes, or infrastructure like new roads, railways  and bridges. This is $1 billion that could be used to invest in the future, instead at the moment it is $1 billion we’re spending on interest. We need to pay off the debt so in the longer term we have the money to spend on our country’s future.

Did he say any of this? Nope. Provided the $1 billion per month figure and left it hanging. Opportunity missed.

Cars, tariffs and all that 

Another topic Robb touched on that he flubbed (in my opinion) was saving the automotive industry. He pointed out (correctly) that if they had provided the car makers with a bailout, or raised tariffs to reduce their competition, it would have ultimately been paid for by other Australians.

However, once again he failed to connect this policy position clear with the lived experience of most Australians. He left it abstract and difficult for most people to grasp.

The smart thing to talk about would have been that cutting tariffs on imported cars would make the new car needed by a single mother to drive her children more expensive to purchase (and eventually the higher prices would flow through to second hand cars, too). That if they had subsidised the car makers, it would have been thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars spent on each job saved (probably temporarily). That this money would have come from other tax payers, or from money that could have otherwise been spent on schools, hospitals, universities etc. That, unfortunately due to a range of factors (high costs, small markets) Australia doesn’t seem to be able to make it’s own cars at an affordable price.

Basically, the opportunity cost involved in propping up the car makers could have been better explained.

Free trade

The biggest missed opportunity was on free trade, though. Mr Robb was asked at the end whether Australia should pursue free trade with countries like Bangladesh, where working conditions are often quite poor. Although this was possibly his strongest performance, it was still not good enough.

The obvious answer, to me at least, is that if we stop trading with Bangladesh, the workers there won’t have better working conditions, they’ll have higher unemployment. The alternatives to crappy jobs in crappy sweatshops for many Bangladeshi’s aren’t better jobs, but (even worse) poverty. As has been shown again and again, through examples like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and now China, the way to improve working conditions is to improve the affluence of a country. The wealthier a country gets through trade, the more options workers have, and the less likely they are to accept sub-standard conditions. If we want to improve the lives of Bangladeshis, we need to trade with them more, not less. Sure, shame those companies that take cost savings too far, but don’t lobby for them to close their operations in Bangladesh down completely. That will do more harm than good.  

My final points

What I wrote above is not an endorsement for any of these policies. I’m not saying there are not alternative arguments to the points above. All I am saying is that they were stronger than the arguments Andrew Robb made last night (several months ago), and than the government has generally been making about their policy positions since being elected in 2013. I personally believe there are real philosophical arguments being made by our political parties. Unfortunately, neither the Coalition nor the Labor Party are very good at making them, or appear willing to really communicate those differences to the electorate in a strong way.

Our democracy is poorer as a result.