When should we listen to public opinion?

All the survey research into what the public knows about politics and policy comes up with the same conclusion: very little. I added an Australian pebble to the mountain of international evidence back in April. Not only do people lack factual information, but they freely express ‘non-attitudes’, opinions they don’t really hold, just to answer pollsters’ questions (one way non-attitudes are detected is by asking the same question again with different wording; if the replies are inconsistent the respondent probably doesn’t have a clear position on the issue).

For a democracy, this research raises important questions. For a start, should we be guided by majority preferences if the majority clearly has no idea what it is talking about? One way that I think governments can be democratically responsive and still be guided by expert opinion is to pay far more attention to the general goals the public wants achieved and the problems it wants solved than to any of the public’s specific views about how to achieve those goals and solve those problems. Goals and problems place much lower cognitive demands on poll respondents and voters; you don’t need to know anything about economics to know that you would rather have more money, or that it is better if unemployment and inflation are low. You don’t need to know anything about teaching or medicine to know that good schools and hospitals are preferable to the alternatives.

This morning’s Age/ACNielsen poll on global warming highlights the issues. 91% of respondents think that global warming is a serious problem. 62% are not satisfied with the Howard government’s response to it. As a guard against non-attitudes, a recent Lowy Institute poll found only 7% of resondents thinking global warming was not a problem, and 68% agreeing that we should take significant steps to reduce it even if costs are significant, and an April Roy Morgan Poll found that just 12% thought that concerns about global warming were exaggerated and 71% thought that if we don’t act now it will be too late. With broadly similar results from three different sets of questions we can be confident that people believe that global warming is real, and that something should be done about it. This is the kind of poll result that governments need to take into account.

The Age/ACNielsen poll also asked about solutions, and here I think we can see the limits of public opinion as a guide to specific action. One question asked ‘would you be prepared to pay more in taxes and more for goods and services to reduce greenhouse emissions?’. Despite more than 90% thinking greenhouse gases are a serious problem, less than two-thirds are even hypothetically prepared to sacrifice anything to get them down. And when asked about specific policies to reduce greenhouse gases, by far the most popular was ‘solar power’ on 49%, more than double ‘a carbon tax to discourage use of fossil fuels’ on 19%, and 17% favouring ‘nuclear power’. Solar power – quite aside from the fact that it costs a lot more than other forms of energy generation, and therefore would require higher taxes and/or charges – is at most a very small element of the remedy to excess emission of greenhouse gases. What happens at night??

Herein lies the democratic dilemma for governments. The public has clearly sanctioned a general policy direction, but its actual policy ideas won’t solve the problem and a very significant minority are not prepared to incur any significant cost. Australian governments have been here before, during the economic reform period starting in the mid-1980s. In the various surveys of the most important issues, the economic problems the electorate wanted solved were clear. But most of the specific policies for turning around Australia’s economic fortunes were in themselves unpopular. Luckily, governments pushed ahead anyway, and survived. There has been only one change of government federally in the 23 years since economic reform began. If governments stay focused on the goals and problems, the electorate may grumble but forgive.

19 thoughts on “When should we listen to public opinion?

  1. Don’t you think the responses in relation to specific action say something about the responses to the general questions? I query how sincere one’s opinion is that something is “a serious problem” if that person isn’t willing to do or sacrifice anything to solve it. Its easy just to agree with a motherhood statement but then not do anything further.

    It might stem from how people understand the words in the questions. Perhaps, for example, they understand the term “a serious problem” to mean something more like “a real issue” and they feel they can’t say ‘no’ to the question. Then, while they feel it is a real issue, they nevertheless take the view that it is not so significant that they need to sacrifice anything to solve it and are prepared to simply bear the consequences, which is probably the case with many things that are real issues, but not serious problems.


  2. It might be time to hold the pollsters to some kind of account. Polling of the popular variety is replete with examples of leading or just plain misleading questions. Simple examples can be found all the time on (say) Sky News.

    What I would like to see is a formal disclosure of (a) who is paying to have the polling done and (b) some decent assessments of the structure of the questions. First year psychology courses generally cover a lot of the issues with constructing polls and questions in order to weed out bias. The trouble is, marketing firms use the techniques to build polls that are deliberately constructed with the aim of providing a particular result rather than sincerely trying to work out a democratic opinion that might be useful to policy makers i.e. marketing driven polls are hard to trust.

    As for this elitist idea that the populace has no idea what it is talking about, when presented with a prescient issue like climate change, one poorly constructed poll does not a decent snapshot of opinion make. Aren’t elitists all left-wing? You’re obviously batting for the wrong side!

    I think the publics response to this issue (despite being lead by the nose with tales of armageddon, or on the other side by head-in-sand antics) has been far more intelligent than either major political party, especially in Australia. Nobody has panicked, there have been little or no public demonstrations (compare with the Iraq war or workplace relations). Australians have merely expressed the opinion that the prevailing Liberal party policies favouring corporations over climate is wrong. In the total absence of any real policies from either side, your “idiot man in the street” has done the only rational thing and become ambivalent about supporting half-baked ideas. That makes us all pretty damn smart, whatever you think.


  3. David;

    I don’t think that Andrew’s argument is that some elite should rule, I think his argument is that whereas voters might understand problems and have goals, they might not understand the costs and benefits of particular solutions. Therefore politicians should focus on expressed problems rather than expressed solutions.

    I don’t even know if this is wise. We know that on average people incorrectly assess risks and problems in all sorts of ways. For example, “intentional” risks are weighted much higher than “accidental” risks. Anthrax attacks tend to be ranked higher than flu, even though flu is much more likely to kill you in any given span of time.

    I think that the same applies to global warming. There’s a lot of noise and fury about it, but in practical terms there are much bigger problems facing Australians. Likewise you are far more likely to die slipping on a bath tile, being struck by lightning or kicked by a donkey than by terrorist action. But where are the Wars on Slippery Tiles, Electricity and Grumpy Animals?

    So I guess you could say that I don’t agree with Andrew’s position either: public opinion is important because one cannot get far without its approval, but no government should rank its priorities purely on that basis.


  4. I think 2/3 of people saying that they would be prepared to pay to do something is quite high — I bet, like all other similar questions, it would be less in reality.

    I still think there is question bias, however. If you asked a more Stalinesc type solution,”do you think the government should do something about it, even though it might cost everyone more” then I think the results would be much higher.

    In this respect, people would get a nice Authoritarian sense of fairness, in that the people that are paying wouldn’t feel cheated by the people that are not. I think this is a bit different to just “government should do something” which I doubt registers that it costs anything to the average Australia. You could bias the question again by asking something like “should countries not reducing their emissions be prepared to pay a carbon tax” in which case you could look at trade-offs.

    Better yet, you could spend 15 minutes with each person after constructing a nice little survey to look at these sorts of factors, but then, I don’t think you would get much publicity. C’est la vie I guess.


  5. Jacques,

    Andrew not elitist? One of the first sentences in this appalling and offensive blog entry is this:

    “For a start, should we be guided by majority preferences if the majority clearly has no idea what it is talking about?”

    Yes we should. It’s a democracy (or it’s supposed to be). If you can’t explain your policies to the general population, you have failed. People are reasonable and intelligent and they will listen to decent arguments most of the time. Australians tend to take a long time to change their minds on a particular subject, but that’s no reason to ignore them.


  6. David;

    Your reply presupposes a couple of problematic things, in particular:

    A. That Australians are equally informed on all issues.
    B. That Australians have the time and mental energy to devote to having issues X, Y and Z explained to them.

    A is easily dispensed with. There’s a good chance I know more about programming than you do. There’s a good chance Andrew knows more about social science research and higher education policy than I do. And so on.

    B is also easy to dispense. Economics suggests that all persons at all times must choose among competing alternatives. Having issues explained to you is a demand on your time, and you might quite legitimately decide you don’t give a shit. At which point you may reasonably stick with the first thing you heard, or what you saw on the telly, or what everyone else is saying.

    Australians are not mystical guardians of knowledge and wisdom, waiting only to receive data before dispensing judgement: they are ordinary human beings. And they are not universally alike.

    You said “it’s a democracy”. This is not quite right. It is a representative democracy. We elect representatives to tackle these issues on our behalf on a professional, fulltime basis. They in turn hire and rely on experts in the various fields into which they pour our treasure and legal assent.

    In short, it is a division of labour. We hire politicians to specialise in this sort of thing. They pay attention to our needs, but sometimes we get it wrong and they may have the superior understanding of the topic. Saying that the democratic public is always right is not a matter of fact, it is a matter of doctrine.

    One might as well expect doctors to hand out surveys asking if patients want to hear bad news about cancer, or whether they really want to give up tasty deserts to lose weight.


  7. Jacques wrote:
    “Your reply presupposes a couple of problematic things, in particular:

    A. That Australians are equally informed on all issues.
    B. That Australians have the time and mental energy to devote to having issues X, Y and Z explained to them.”

    I didn’t pre-suppose either of these things. I’m sure that for the optimum result to occur, it would be nice if both of these things occurred. That is not what a (representative) democracy is supposed to guarantee.

    I am taking issue with the offensive idea that “For a start, should we be guided by majority preferences if the majority clearly has no idea what it is talking about?”.

    I put forward the opinion that ordinary people (like me for instance) have not been presented with sufficient information to make an informed decision, so we make the excellent choice of none (i.e. ambivalent results about climate policy on surveys).

    Andrew takes one particular, poorly written poll and decides that peons are ignorant fools and need to be lead around by the nose. The opposite is true, the ignorant peons are our politicians and policy makers and they need a kick up the rear to properly lay out our options. The poll result is reflecting that in spades.

    Like I said, explain things properly or the general population will act with a pragmatic disdain. Nobody suggested anything about a “mystical guardianship of knowledge”. Exactly the opposite is occurring (i.e. a natural inclination to distrust things we don’t have enough information about).


  8. David;

    I think your reply reasonably answers my point in A., in that you say Australians could, were they so inclined, make the decisions themselves.

    But you did not really deal with B., which is that they might have more pressing interests.


  9. David – I think you missed my question mark. For the reasons Jacques outlines, the public are rationally ignorant. Even as someone who spends most of his life thinking about politics and policy, I am too ignorant in most policy areas to offer advice that anyone should take. The issue therefore is given rational ignorance how are we to be responsive to the broad wishes of the public, in line with a commitment to democracy. The post was intended to offer some ideas as to which polls were most meaningful in this regard. I am a democrat, but I am not a populist. So I would reject both authoritarianism and the main current anti-democratic agenda, the push mainly from the left to put more decisions in the hands of courts. But I don’t think governments should simply be poll driven, and ignore expert advice.


  10. “Andrew takes one particular, poorly written poll and decides that peons are ignorant fools and need to be lead around by the nose.”

    This isn’t Andrew’s position at all, he didn’t state any conclusion about the intelligence or otherwise of the populace.

    The post related to whether policy makers ought to rely on the results of public opinion polling in forming policy. Andrew seems to take the view that they should not when it comes to specific matters because respondents will happily give answers to pollsters, even when they don’t know much about the specifics, haven’t thought about it much and haven’t formed a solid opinion:

    “Not only do people lack factual information, but they freely express


  11. Jacques, you’re right, I didn’t address point (b)

    “B. That Australians have the time and mental energy to devote to having issues X, Y and Z explained to them.


  12. Andrew,

    To what extent do you think that governments, once elected, should take account of the preferences of their citizens in making decisions?

    Is this required for the form of government to constitute a democracy? Or is it merely sufficient that the citizens elect the government for a given period of time?


  13. Greg – The second question I think I can answer reasonably confidently; I would define democracy broadly to include any system in which the citzens have the opportunity to pressure government to change policies, persuade others to adopt their views, and periodically have an opportunity to change the government; all by peaceful means.

    The first question is harder. Given regular elections, governments need to take public opinion into some account, but clearly they can and do ignore public opinion on some issues, and get away with it. But I think you are asking a normative rather than an institutional or empirical question. In line with the original post, if I was in government I would give fairly low normative weight to public opinion that was clearly based on factual error, was likely to be a ‘non-attitude’, was real but not deeply held, or contradicted other clearly held views (eg want less tax and more spending). But I do think that where there are clear and persistent majority views that suffer from none of these weaknesess the fact that it is a majority view would count in its favour, and this should not be lightly ignored.

    But I hesitate to make this any kind of iron rule. There is something to be said for the analogy with entrepreneurs in markets, that you can persuade people by showing them that it works, even if they would not have believed it before. In his Age article the other day, Fraser noted that some now-popular immigrant groups probably would not have been allowed to settle in Australia if it had been put a referendum, and this is probably true of other social reforms that were ‘ahead’ of public opinion.


  14. Thanks Andrew – I don’t have a fixed view on the question.

    It seems to me that there is a tension between the notion that taking into account citizens’ preferences when making decisions is unnecessary, since the government may simply be voted out at the next election if its decisions don’t sufficiently reflect these preferences, and the reality that elections are a very poor means of ensuring that governments decisions do reflect citizens’ preferences – voters must assess a government’s performance overall and relative to other parties, even if they strongly disagree with particular decisions it has made.

    And then there is the separate question: even if there are “clear and persistent majority views that suffer from none of these weaknesess”, why should these views be given any weight at all if they are quite independent of what is in fact the best decision to make, on a consequentialist account of the merits of decisions? The fact that most people believe that moral proposition X is true does not imply that it is in fact true.


  15. Greg – I agree with your first point, though I am less keen on the usually suggested solution of citizen-initiated referendums, partly because they tend to reintroduce the problems of opinion polls.

    On your second point, the issue is not just the rightness of the decision, it is the nature of the authority a government possesses. I think democratic government places some hard-to-define limits on the use of power, irrespective of how right a leader is convinced that he or she is. It’s a check against hubris, as the PM noted was necessary when the government won control of the Senate. We’ll see about this time next year whether they overstepped the mark with unpopular policies like IR reform and privatising Telstra.


  16. Andrew Norton wrote:
    “There is something to be said for the analogy with entrepreneurs in markets, that you can persuade people by showing them that it works, even if they would not have believed it before.”

    It sounds very attractive when you word it like that, but entrepeneurs are in the business of risk, not governing. I’m not sure I’d like to live in a society that based policies on speculation. It might be exciting, I suppose, but judging by the number of failed entrepeneurial products vs. successful ones, not very productive. Time for a new analogy.

    There is something to be said for taking leadership on a policy position in the hope that the same thing that convinced you will be rational enough for others to understand (or at least to tolerate, which in practice is how much of the eighties reforms were accepted by the ACTU for example).

    If your policy is based on speculation, or some fundamental belief that others don’t share, you are going to have to work harder (and rightly so).


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