Is demography destiny in public opinion?

The latest survey on gay marriage finds 62% of voters in favour and about a third against. This is pretty much unchanged from last year. The issue has gone up the political agenda, thanks largely to the Greens (how I hate to say anything nice about them…), but so far opinion is not moving much.

But the demographics of this issue remain very striking, and look to be a case of demography as destiny in public opinion. The case against gay marriage seems lost. Eventually politics will catch up with opinion, so I think it now a case of when we get gay marriage rather than if.

14 thoughts on “Is demography destiny in public opinion?

  1. You might have a bit of a wait yet … I think the polls show support for euthanasia over 80% with a similar age profile, but no signs yet of many politicians prepared to take on the Catholics fanatics.


  2. Russell – I agree politicians seem more conservative than the electorate on some moral issues (though they are also older, which partly explains it). But on euthanasia I suspect it is partly not wanting to be part of something they fear will be misused to kill ‘unwanted’ people. But I don’t think that’s a concern here.


  3. Andrew – do you know what the drift to more conservative attitudes is as people age? Maybe these reckless 20 year olds will degenerate into reactionary conservatives as they wither.


  4. Russell, I don’t think it is a case of people changing opinions as they get older. I think the situation is that the social zeitgeist moves to the progressive/left-wing over time.

    For example, this graph, if recalculated in 10 years time, everyone will have moved up an age group (roughly), and the values will be something like 90-80-78-68

    also, Andrew Norton, I like when you post graphs, those posts are always very informative.


  5. “The issue has gone up the political agenda, thanks largely to the Greens (how I hate to say anything nice about them…)”
    I have the opposite view — I think they help promote democracy, as they break the stranglehold fuddy duddy conservatives have and have had for almost forever, and given that Labor seems to have become a bunch of useless ditherers, it’s great that someone can actually come up with novel policies versus the same old stuff.
    In this respect, they force Labor to move away from their current (non-)position, because if they don’t, they’ll keep losing more and more votes. Just imagine in three years time if all Labor has done is implemented a NBN which doesn’t seem to be very popular, but the Greens have at least tried to give us gay marriage, realistic climate change policy, euthanasia, and protection of old growth forests in Tassie (and that’s only in their first few months) — all things which are popular with a large part of the electorate but they previously couldn’t have from either party (and the social policies are essentially free). I think the Greens will be on the up and up at the expense of Labor.


  6. Boz, it’s not so much the social Zeitgeist moves to the progressive/left-wing over time, but rather the progressive politics is where the social Zeitgeist is moving. At some point in the future, generations hence, it’s quite possible progressive politics will be associated with something quite alien to what we see today. Every young generation needs to define itself as being different from their parents, and that “different” is usually “the same, only a bit more so”. You can hardly imagine a progressive saying “everything’s perfect now, let’s just keep it like this”, no matter what state we’re in.

    It’s a little bit the same as what you said, but not perfectly…


  7. Michael, what’s “passive euthanasia”? Starving people to death, as with the quadraplegic climber earlier this year? Or just turning off more active forms of life support? Both of them are legal already. Are you claiming that opinion polls getting misleading results because people misunderstand the question?


  8. I don’t think there is a lot of evidence that people become more conservative in their political atittudes as they age. Older people are more likely to be conservative voters, but with a long history of polling we can see that are a conservative generation.

    On the gay marriage issue I went back to the first Australian survey question on it, in the 1989-90 National Social Science Survey, and looked at the opinions of those aged 30-60, the people who would now be in the 50+ age group.

    The results: Disagree
    1989-90: 67%
    2010: 46%

    1989-90: 14%
    2010: 46%

    Don’t know/neither:
    1989-90: 19%
    2010: 7%

    Some of the differences in don’t know would be due to the differences between a phone poll and a mail-out survey.

    But this generation seems to have become more in favour of gay marriage as it has been exposed to social change, but remains more conservative than younger generations.


  9. Medical professionals tend to be against active euthanasia, because of the position it puts them in.

    Sorry if this is offtopic, but I’ve always struggled to see the difference between “terminal sedation” and “active euthanasia”, except that one is over in minutes and one takes many hours, possibly days.

    Getting back to the politics, I think there are two main reasons why politics lags public opinion. One is that our parliamentary representatives contain a disproportionately high number of socially conservative Christians. The second is that while opposition to change on these issues is often not broad, it’s deep, and is therefore viewed as a potential vote-changer.


  10. so this cohort (currently aged 50+) have become more socially progressive on this issue over 20 years.

    That is very interesting! The change is also quite large. ‘disagree’ has decreased by 20%, and ‘agree’ has increased by 30%


  11. As Tim Blair once said: “I’m not against gay marriage, I’m against gay divorce.”

    I think the above comments misrepresent the core position of conservatives regarding ‘socially progressive’ policies such as gay marriage and ‘death panels’. I don’t believe they so much oppose such policies, but what they see as the inevitable consequences of the devaluation of core social institutions. As all true Libertarians know there are no solutions only tradeoffs; ABC celebrities regret their deliberate avoidance of childbirth, feminists oppose certain religious practice and dress styles. We also need to discern the real issue and avoid being distracted by fake issues erected by the left to hide their economic incompetence.


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