Category Archives: Public opinion

An electorate than thinks government does too much, except for all the areas in which it does too little

Today’s Essential Research poll highlights the perils of trying to draw any specific policy conclusions from public opinion on high-level questions.

First, its respondents were asked about the size of government, and the answer suggested that perhaps a large number of voters had suddenly converted to classical liberalism:

But more specific questions suggest that the vague feeling that governments are too big does not translate into wanting government to do less in key areas of activity. In every proposition put to the Essential respondents, a plurality wanted the government to do more, and in most clear majorities wanted the government to do more. The 44% of respondents who earlier in the survey had thought government did too much shrank to a constituency of between 1% and 10%.

This is why governments have so much trouble cutting spending, and why genuine ‘tough budgets’ are very rare.

Why is there no liberal party?

Last weekend, Don Arthur asked ‘why is there no liberal party?’ By which he meant, why is there no significant political party supporting social and economic freedom?

I’ll leave the deep reasons to one side. But the proximate reason is that the constituency for such a party is very small. So small that I probably know a large proportion of them personally.

The 2010 Australian Election Survey isn’t quite designed to explore the electoral realities. But it has a number of questions that are reasonably open to classifying the answers as ‘liberal’ or ‘not liberal’.

1. Size of government
I deemed agreeing with the proposition that ‘there are more things the government should be doing’ as non-liberal and ‘the less government the better’ as liberal. Liberals=25%.

2. Tax and spend
In 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?’ I deemed a liberal response as agreeing or strongly agreeing with lower tax. Liberals=37%.

3. Censorship
I deemed the liberal answer to the statement ‘the right to show nudity and sex in films and magazines’ as ‘not gone far enough’ or ‘not gone nearly far enough’. Liberals=9%. Though in this case ‘about right’ is probably a defensible response from a liberal perspective, on about 45%.

4. Drugs
For the proposition, ‘the smoking of marijuana should NOT be a criminal offence’ I deemed the liberal answers as agree or strongly agree. Liberals=28%.

5. Immigration
This is more difficult to classify. I took the liberal answers to ‘Do you think the number of immigrants allowed into Australia nowadays should be reduced or increased?’ as increased a lot or a little. Liberals=11%.

6. Income redistribution
The AES question ‘income and wealth should be redistributed towards ordinary working people’ is not ideal; someone could agree with it in general terms but still think there should be less redistribution than now. But with this caveat I took disagreeing with it as a liberal – or at least classical liberal – response. Liberals=19%.

But the test of a social-economic liberal constituency is not just whether there are some liberal propositions that can win significant public support. It is whether there are enough people with liberal views across a range of issues.

The table below shows the proportion of liberal responses to the six issues. The one person who gave six out of six and the nine people who gave five out of six were rounded down to 0%. Saying three or more liberal answers makes a liberal gets us to 13%, with rounding. That’s half the proportion who gave liberal answers to zero of the six questions. Australians say they don’t like politicians much, but they have a strong belief in government shaping the social and economic structures of Australian society.

Trade hypocrisy

Source: Essential Research

Source: ABS

Federalism gaining in popularity

The recent ANU poll shows some turnaround in views on federalism:


Question: Some people think that in order to deal with Australia’s problems the state governments should
hand over some of their powers to the federal government in Canberra. Others think that the federal
government has enough power already. What is your own feeling on this? Do you think the state
governments should give some powers to the federal government, or do you think it has enough
powers already? If you have no opinion, just say so.

However I doubt there is any philosophical shift behind this opinion change. Rather, the apparent shambles in Canberra has undermined the federal alternative. The implicit lesson is unlikely to leave a permanent mark on public opinion.

What drives tax and spend opinion?

The latest ANU Poll finds, like all such polls in recent years, that given a choice between reduced taxes and increased spending on services, most people would go for the latter. Report author Professor Ian McAllister observes:

Public opinion on government spending tends to be both secular – in that it is largely unrelated to
partisan debates and changes in government – and cyclical – in that it is responsive to broader
economic conditions. For example, on the latter point, it has often been observed that national
electorates are more likely to favour spending on social services and welfare when economic conditions
are benign, and to favour reduced taxes when economic conditions become harsh.

I agree, having argued for this interpretation in a 2004 paper. But a few years ago Professor McAllister thought that other factors were at work. In a newspaper report on the 2007 version of the tax and spend question, he was reported as saying that: Read more »

According to the polls, the public both supports and opposes offshore refugee processing

The Australian public don’t want refugee boats to keep coming, but other than that it’s pretty hard to work out what they think. Earlier this week, new polling from both Nielsen and Essential Research was published on what to do with boat arrivals.

The questions were slightly different, but the results were opposite: Nielsen find a majority for onshore ‘assessment’, while Essential find a majority for offshore ‘processing’. I would have thought the questions were getting at the same thing, but perhaps respondents did not think so, or there was some other issue with the polls.

But to me this looks like at least a very significant minority of people have no clear opinion on the policy details.


Essential question: Thinking about the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat – do you think they should be processed in Australia or should they be sent to another country for processing?
Nielsen question (inferred from table in Age print edition): Asylum seekers arriving by boat should be … allowed to land in Australia to be assessed/sent to another country to be assessed/sent back out to sea/other or don’t know.

Does the public support sending refugees to third countries?

If asked whether asylum seekers arriving by boat should be turned away, most Australians have always said yes (Murray Goot and Ian Watson have a useful summary of the polling here, from p.28). But in another example of the hard to follow public opinion on the issue, if the choice is between processing asylum seekers in Australia and sending them to another country, their choice seems to be processing in Australia.

A Nielsen poll published in the Fairfax papers yesterday found a small majority in favour of processing here, and only 28% in favour of sending refugees to a third country.



Earlier polls
found a similar pattern of opinion, if the costs of the Malaysia deal were explained.

I can’t recall any polling directly on the Howard government’s ‘Pacific solution’, but politically it was generally seen as a success. Or maybe questions about the means of stopping the boats don’t matter much. If the goal is achieved, discomfort at the means will be overlooked.