Unclear public opinion on refugees

There is a difficult-to-interpret Newspoll on asylum seekers in this morning’s Australian.

If we are to believe earlier polling, the public wants the government to take a firm line on boat arrivals and illegal migration. Yet according to this Newspoll, only 36% believe that applying tighter immigration laws to asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia would make a difference to their numbers.

With the public almost evenly divided between the government doing a good job managing the asylum seeker issue (37%) and a bad job (40%) this gives neither government nor opposition a clear idea of what the public believes should be done.

With refugee advocates dusting off their rhetoric about the ‘demonising’ of refugees, it’s a pity Newspoll did not fill the big gap in our knowledge: no pollster I am aware of has ever asked what the Australian public thinks of refugee migrants as such, rather than their methods of arrival.

At one level, this is not surprising. The annual number of refugee/humanitarian migrants each year has never attracted much controversy, and has been fairly stable over a prolonged period. All the debate surrounding this issue has just been over whether they self-select or not.

But in understanding public opinion, it is important to know whether voters are concerned about the refugees themselves, in which case the whole refugee/huminatarian program is an issue, or just the method of selection. The racists-under-the-bed left assume it is the former. That’s possible, but hard to fully reconcile with other evidence. For example, support for keeping Muslims out of the country is much lower than previously recorded support for a tough line on boat arrivals.

Should welfare recipients be able to claim tax deductions to make them welfare eligible?

The Age this morning reports on a Federal Court judgment that opens the way for welfare recipients to claim as tax deductions expenses incurred in maintaining their eligibility for welfare.

The case was brought by Symone Antsis, a former Australian Catholic University teaching student. In the tax year in dispute, she earned about $15,000 working for the Katies retail chain and about $3,600 from Youth Allowance. In her tax return, she claimed work-related self-education expenses which included depreciation on her computer and spending on university textbooks.

The rule on self-education expenses is that the deductible expenses have to be related to your current employment. Her expenses were clearly unrelated to selling women’s clothes. But she argued that they were necessary to undertake the studies necessary to maintain her YA eligiblity, and therefore she ought to be able to deduct them.

Amazingly, Justice Ryan of the Federal Court accepted this argument:

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Why don’t social democrats read work by their think-tanks?

Over the last few years, the left has boosted its think-tank operations through Per Capita and the Centre for Policy Development, joining the more established Australia Institute.

But if the results of the Australian political identity survey are a guide, the left-wing think-tanks are yet to make a big impact among those identifying with the left labels in the survey, social democrat and green.

As the chart below shows, none of the three left-leaning think-tanks attract more than a quarter of social democrat or green identifiers as regular readers. Indeed, in the case of social democrats more read work from the classical liberal Centre for Independent Studies than by any of the left-leaning think-tanks. By contrast, around half of classical liberals, conservatives and libertarians regularly read work by the CIS, and about 40% read work by the Institute of Public Affairs.

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Was WorkChoices good for union membership?

As the ABS reported yesterday, trade union membership experienced a rare increase in absolute numbers in 2008, up by more than 3%. While growth in public sector numbers, as The Age notes, explains a good proportion of this, many industries which have low public sector involvement also enjoyed strong increases (though union membership continued to decline in many industries as well).

Though WorkChoices made it harder for unions to access workplaces to recruit, the overall policy framework of WorkChoices should have been a positive for unions. As Michael Warby has long argued (most recently in the Autumn 2009 issue of Policy; available in newsagents) government setting of wages and conditions is bad for unions, because it delivers improvements to workers without them having to employ unions to bargain on their behalf. A policy that reduces the power of tribunals and increases the rights of employers should therefore be good for unions, because it gives workers a reason to employ them to negotiate better wages and conditions.

Labor’s partial resurrection of a regulation-based approach to industrial relations should therefore be a net negative for union membership, even though the system overall is good for union officials in giving them more rights and powers than they had under WorkChoices.

Whether this will translate into a reversal in union membership next year is hard to say. There are at least two factors working in favour of union membership increasing, in improved access by unions to workplace and a business cycle shift in power away from employees towards employers. For employees, this makes union membership a more attractive investment. On the other hand, the sheer scale of job loss will make an absolute increase in union membership unlikely, even if the % of workers who are union members increases.

Is ‘neoliberalism’ a Latin American export?

In 2001 I wrote an article for Quadrant tracking the changing terminology used to describe the Australian Right, in which I noted that ‘neoliberalism’ was starting to replace ‘economic rationalism’ as the favourite term of the left for the free-market right (with ‘economic rationalism’ having itself largely displaced ‘New Right’.)

I’d tracked down uses of ‘neoliberalism’ to 1989 and 1990 in Australia, but beyond noting its global academic use not worked out where it started internationally. I now think that this incarnation of ‘neoliberalism’ (there are other earlier ‘neoliberalisms’ that I doubt are connected) probably started in Latin America, and came to Australia via US academia.
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On what do classical liberals and conservatives agree?

Early last year I wrote a post on common ground between classical liberals and conservatives. The Australian political identity survey helps me test my argument, though given the relatively low conservative response rate I have combined the answers of those who described themselves as ‘conservatives’ (69 respondents) and those who described themselves as ‘social conservatives and economic liberals’ (94 respondents). Because of this, I have not analysed responses to economic questions, as the economic liberal responses would dominate. The comparison charts can be found here.

As I thought, conservatives and classical liberals hold similar views on schools – neither gives majority support to monopoly curriculum, and larger numbers agree rather than disagree that while the government should help fund school education, it should not deliver it. Both groups disagree that the trend away from federalism is a positive development (both groups, though much more so conservatives, are Coalition voters – the Howard government was way out of line with its ideological supporters on national curriculum and other forms of centralisation).

I thought conservatives and classical liberals would hold similar views on anti-discrimination law. Conservatives are considerably more likely to think that it should be repealed altogether. However, on the current debate – whether or not the exceptions to anti-discrimination law should be preserved – conservatives and classical liberals are both firmly on the side of exceptions.

I thought both groups were welfare sceptics, and this is certainly true. Both very much oppose further redistribution of income and tax-funded maternity leave. Conservatives are also more sceptical of family benefits than I would have thought, though not as sceptical as classical liberals.

Inevitably, however, there are differences, particularly on some social issues – though these are not as large as expected.
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Do classical liberals and social democrats agree on anything?

As with classical liberals and libertarians, general knowledge of the worldview associated with a political label – in the case of social democrats, that state power should be used to alter the outcomes of voluntary exchange to favour groups deemed as lacking power or material resources – was confirmed in the Australian political identity survey as being highly predictive of the views of people identifying as ‘social democrats’.

Indeed, more so than for classical liberals the social democratic results (more detail and analysis here) contain few surprises. The pattern observed in the classical liberal responses of on some issues significant minorities holding views apparently at odds with their philosophy is largely absent among social democrats. The main diversity of view among social democrats is not on which side of the debate they line up, but on how strongly they back the social democratic perspective.

For example, only a tiny minority of social democrats opposed unfair dismissal laws, with the ‘dissidents’ being people who wanted to exempt small business. Only a tiny minority opposed minimum wage laws, with the division being between those prepared to concede that the laws may cost some jobs and those who – despite apparently thinking prices are important, judging by their response to price control questions – believe that the laws of supply and demand do not apply to low-wage workers. Only a tiny minority would let schools choose their own curriculum, with the dissidents being those who favour state-based curriculum.
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Are classical liberals and libertarians the same?

A few years ago I tried to explain why I felt more comfortable with the label ‘classical liberal’ than ‘libertarian’. The Australian political identity survey can help see if the distinctions I was trying to make hold up.

One of my claims was that libertarians tend towards a rights-based view of politics. Consistent with this, 59% of the 184 libertarians in the survey supported either a constitutional bill of rights or a statutory charter of rights. By contrast, 52% of the 256 classical liberals preferred leaving the protection of individual freedoms to the democratic system, which among other things allows broader considerations to be taken into account. (Charts containing classical liberal and libertarian views compared, and further analysis can be found here.) However, a large minority of classical liberals want freedoms to be protected by the courts, and a large minority of libertarians preferred the democratic system.

Across most issues, there was a pattern of classical liberals and libertarians being on the same side of a broad debate but with libertarians taking the more radical stance. For example, while 40% of classical liberals chose the most radical option of cutting tax as a proportion of GDP to 20% or less, 57% of libertarians chose that option. While 46% of classical liberals thought that minimum wage laws should be repealed, 59% of libertarians took that view. While 50% of classical liberals would legalise marijuana entirely, 65% of libertarians would do so. As I said in 2006, ‘if libertarianism and classical liberalism are not identical twins they are at least first cousins, which is why classical liberals can end up appearing like “moderate” libertarians.’
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Non-existent ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’?

1,201 people answered the Australian political identity survey question on which political philosophy they identified with. Of these, the single largest group (a third) regarded themselves as social democrats. Just over 20% called themselves classical liberals, 15% described themselves as libertarians, 8% saw themselves as greens, and conservatives made up 14% of the sample, 8% describing themselves as social conservatives and economic liberals and 6% simply as conservatives.

Another 9%, 106 respondents, did not find their own beliefs in the political labels I chose. The single most popular response among these was ‘socialist’ or some variant on that, with 16 socialist respondents and 1 Marxist. ‘Social liberal’ or some variant on that was the next most popular from 14 people, with a couple of small-l liberal responses as well. We also had people who wanted to be simply a liberal, a liberal conservative, and a liberal democrat.

Though academics and commentators routinely discuss ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’, not a single person used those labels to describe themselves. In my question on which political intellectuals respondents had read, the ‘neoconservative’ thinkers – Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss – were the least read. Even among self-described conservatives and social conservatives, only 14% had read anything by Kristol and just 8% had read anything by Strauss.

It raises again the question of whether labels like ‘neoliberal’ and ‘neoconservative’ have descriptive or analytical value. My own reading of work by local academics (eg here or here) suggests that the main effect of the labels is to lead them down the wrong path, importing global academic concepts (neoliberalism) or distinctively American political ideologies (neoconservatism) rather than trying to understand the local variants of liberalism and conservatism.

In the next post, I will look at what classical liberalism and libertarianism mean in the Australian context.

Australian political identity survey – the methodology post

My Australian political identity survey closed this morning, and I will write several posts on the results over the next few days. But first some discussion of how respondents were solicited and the biases that might cause – some of which is in response to questions and criticisms since the survey began.

The first point is that this was not a normal public opinon survey – it was a survey of people willing to identify with with a philosophical political label. The difficulty this poses is in finding such people, who are likely to be a small percentage of the electorate. If a pollster was commissioned to do it I expect it would take tens of thousands of phone calls to produce the 1,200 responses I received in my online survey.

My method was to largely recruit via blogs. Apart from my own, there were links from Andrew Leigh, Andrew Carr, Australian Conservative, Andrew Bartlett, Institutional Economics, the f-rant, Sacha Blumen, Club Troppo, Thoughts on Freedom, Pollytics, Quadrant blog, and Catallaxy.

Blogs were supplemented with my personal networks, via email and my Facebook page.
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