Category Archives: Public policy


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).

Reform is easy (when you have a responsible opposition)

On Tuesday Paul Keating once again popped his head above the trenches to take a shot at another political player from the 1980s. The crime was the usual one: they had dared try and hog some of the limelight from “his” reforms.

In the past, Keating’s energies on this front have been largely directed at Bob Hawke. This time, it was John Howard. In his most recent dialogue, he argued support from the centre-right Coalition opposition was largely immaterial for the success of the reforms of the Hawke-Keating Labor governments. It would have happened regardless of Coalition support. Or so goes the story.

Keating remains an amazing communicator, and it’s easy to be convinced by what he says. But he’s wrong.

Keating underestimates the impact an opportunistic opposition can have on the ability of the government to enact difficult reforms that may not be entirely popular with the public. Even popular reforms can be made hard by an opposition willing to burn any bridge in an attempt to score a point.

All (significant) reform has losers. On average they will care more about what they’re going to lose then what the winners of reform might gain (it’s called loss-aversion).

An excellent example of this process at work is how Tony Abbott behaved as opposition leader. All of a sudden, the popular Rudd government and its relatively popular policies (a carbon price, the NBN) were in the firing line. While the Howard government scrambled to mimic these policies in its death throes — and the Nelson and Turnbull oppositions largely cooperated to implement them (or played dead) in 2008 and ’09 — all of a sudden they became ammunition for an opposition hell-bent on demonising an over-reaching leftist Labor government. This tactic was successfully repeated in the next term of parliament against the Gillard government.

This opportunistic behaviour — where the strategy was to not pass up a chance to score a point — made it difficult for the Rudd and Gillard governments to undertake important, but hard, policy reforms. It was not impossible to get anything done (the NBN still got underway), but it was harder. Errors were used as evidence of incompetence (for instance, the Pink Batts policy). For others, scare campaigns were run out of all proportion to the plausible impact of the policy (“Whyalla will be wiped off the map by Julia Gillard’s carbon tax”).

The fact remains that under the Coalition leaders of the 1980s and ’90s — Peacock, Howard, (then Peacock again) and Hewson — Bob Hawke and Paul Keating faced fairly reasonable, responsible opponents. These men would not burn down the house to drive out the Labor Party, as Abbott was willing to do from 2010 to ’13. While at times they would play hard, and aim to score political points, they always had an eye on the prize: that they might one day be Prime Minister, and anything they dished out they would get back in return.

Tony Abbott did not take this path. He is now reaping the whirlwind created by his combative behaviour, with the opposition and cross-benchers hostile to contentious legislation and the government facing an uphill battle to pass legislation through parliament.

This is because being an opportunistic opposition may be a shortcut to government. You will win, but everyone remembers how you did it.

If Hawke or Keating had been forced to face Tony Abbott during their time in office, their reforms would have been more difficult, and may have been less successful. Howard and his fellow Coalition leaders of the era should receive some credit. At certain points they held back when they could have been more opportunistic. Occasionally they chose to give up short-term point scoring because they saw value in the policies being pursued and let them through without too much pain for the government. However, this behaviour may have also better positioned Howard to lead a successful government once the Coalition finally returned to office.

This does not mean we should mythologise these past leaders (they were probably as flawed as the current generation).  But at times they showed themselves to have character, and they deserve some credit for the Hawke-Keating reforms, even if just a small amount.


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.

Albrechtsen misses part of the story on the difficulties of reform

In a recent article in the Australian ($),*  columnist Janet Albrechtsen claims the primary reason the current federal government is having trouble getting it’s economic reforms through Parliament is that people are not willing to make the needed sacrifices required to balance the budget and make government spending sustainable.

Although I don’t disagree with everything in her article, I think this is being a little harsh on the Australian people.

Bernard Keane had a much more balanced piece on the difficulty government’s face implementing a reform agenda in Crikey.  He made the very good point that one factor that can make reforms difficult to pass is the perception of fairness. Will this reform help the majority of the population, or will most be forced to pay for the benefit of a few?

And this is one of the main problems the federal government faces in having its reform agenda passed. It is viewed as unfair by many, and an objective analysis of the outcomes of the (largely unpassed) 2014-15 federal budget indicate its impact would fall hardest or low and middle income households (hard to sell that as fair).**

At a time when inequality of wealth, income and opportunities is increasingly a public concern, a government budget that gives all appearances of increasing these inequalities was going to be a difficult sell, even if it also provided greater budget sustainability.

I didn’t see any of this mentioned in Albrechtsen’s piece. It would have been far more well-rounded if it had discussed the difficulties of getting hard reforms through parliament (and elections), balanced with the need for those reforms to be balanced and of benefit to the majority of the population.

* Although paywalled, if you google ‘We, the people, are the threat to fiscal reform’ you may be able to access it.

** Phillips, B. 2014. National and Regional Analysis of the 2014-15 Federal Budget. NATSEM, University of Canberra.

^ An earlier version of this post listed the last federal budget as the 2015-16 Budget. This was incorrect and has been amended.

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.

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.