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.