False tax and spend choices

Essential Research today kicked off the annual round of pre-budget tax and spend polls, but with some pretty bad questions. Take the question below on the goal of returning to surplus by 2012-13, which according to this poll most people think should be abandoned:

But how about if the question had been phrased:

Q. Do you think it is more important for the Government to return the budget to surplus by 2012/13 as planned – which may mean cutting services and raising taxes – OR should they delay the return to surplus and go deeper and deeper into debt, with more government spending each year diverted to paying interest?

Tax and spend questions need to spell out the full implications of choices for the results to be meaningful. The failure to explain the real alternatives also renders pointless a question on increased spending.

7 thoughts on “False tax and spend choices

  1. Quick point:

    “and go deeper and deeper into debt, with more government spending each year diverted to paying interest?”

    Perhaps would be better like:

    “and go deeper into debt?”

    You know, to remove the bias from either side.


  2. Yes, it’s a shocking question. It seems that much of the media has the view that Labor’s promise of a budget surplus by 2012/13 is a fetish designed to assuage the concerns of a naive electorate (the same naive electorate that bought Howard’s line that “interest rates will always be lower under a Coalition government”, which sunk Latham). Politics moves in cycles and the current generation of political leaders and reporters did not live through the ‘banana republic’ days of the mid 80s when the budget deficit was linked to international sentiment and a falling Aussie dollar. Nowadays, commodity prices and the dollar are strong, so the deficit is relegated to a kind of who-cares issue. The real issue is and has always been about the quality of spending (and taxation), irrespective of whether we are in surplus or deficit.


  3. I think Labor has itself in a bind less because it believes that it must pander to the concerns of a naive electorate on macroeconomic issues, but because they cannot afford any more broken commitments.

    When I see the fiscal mess that most other countries are in I see the general anti-deficit aspect of Australia’s political culture as a major strength, even if intellectually speaking it is not necessary to stick to a particular timetable.

    The main probem with the next budget is as Rajat suggests the likely poor quality of the cuts and spending.


  4. Andrew, I agree that in the likely absence of engagement from the electorate on quality-of-spending issues, the anti-deficit aspect of Australia’s political culture is a major strength. My fear is that at least the views of elites is changing and becoming more blase.


  5. I haven’t seen lately the question: “Are you willing to pay higher taxes to pay for improved government services?”
    The Australia Institute trots that out regularly.

    The fellow who taught me about market research warned me “Quite often survey responders tell lies”.


  6. Ken – I have some new data on that. Will post on it tonight if I have time. While all sorts of criticisms can be made of responses to polls, consistent trend data in my view does point to underlying opinion shifts.


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