Thursday, August 8, 2013

If you asked your MP one question...

TL;DR: meta-politics.

Credit: Sky News

There's an election on in Australia soon, and if you're 18 or over you may be wondering who to vote for. (Having paid attention in school, you're of course aware that under the Westminster system, you don't vote for a prime minister: you vote for your local MP.)

There's a fairly useful question worth asking your local candidates, and it happens to be perfectly generic:

If push came to shove, what issues would you put the people's values ahead of yours for?

See, sometimes it's good to know that a candidate is willing to stick by their guns:

Example: You want longer weekends. You live in the federal electorate of Lazyburg.

You vote for Jane Doe, who believes in longer weekends. She gets in.

Later, opinion polling shows that not even 10% of people in Lazyburg want longer weekends. Jane decides to stand by her principles, and votes for longer-weekend legislation.

In this case, Jane preferenced her beliefs over the electorate's, which is great for you, because you're ideologically aligned with her.

...and annoying when they don't:

Example: You want longer weekends. You live in Lazyburg.

You vote for Jane Doe, who believes in longer weekends. She gets in.

Later, opinion polling shows that not even 10% of people in Lazyburg want longer weekends. Jane decides to listen to the electorate, and votes against longer-weekend legislation.

In this case, Jane preferenced the electorate's beliefs over hers, which sucks for you. You wish you'd known that she would be this populist before you voted for her.

Sometimes it's good to know that a candidate is willing to listen to the people:

Example: You want longer weekends. You live in Lazyburg.

You vote for Dawn Ray, who believes in shorter weekends. She gets in.

Later, opinion polling shows that 90% of people in Lazyburg want longer weekends. Dawn decides to listen to the electorate, and votes for longer-weekend legislation.

In this case, Dawn preferenced the electorate's beliefs over hers, which is great for you, because you side with the majority.

...and annoying when they don't:

Example: You want longer weekends. You live in Lazyburg.

You vote for Dawn Ray, who believes in shorter weekends. She gets in.

Later, opinion polling shows that 90% of people in Lazyburg want longer weekends. Dawn decides to stand by her principles, and votes against longer-weekend legislation.

In this case, Dawn preferenced her beliefs over the electorate's, which sucks for you. You wish you'd known that she would be this ideological before you voted for her.

Let's be very clear here — this is not a value judgement. If your local candidate supports something because they've consulted with their constituents and they know what their electorate wants, or if they support something because they truly believe it's the right thing to do, that's okay either way. But you want to know which it is before you decide to vote for/against them.

(Voting for me without reading the manual may void your warranty.)

Of course, this question is only really worth asking about issues you care about.

Example: You don't really care if weekends are longer. You live in Lazyburg.

You vote for Lisa Mi, who believes in shorter weekends. Or was that longer? One of the two. Anyway she gets in.

Later, opinion polling shows that the electorate feels pretty strongly about the issue. Lisa makes a decision about this, votes accordingly, and you don't really care because, well, you don't care.

Later still, Lisa is photographed picking her ear at a strip club and you write an angry letter to the paper.


This is more obvious for some politicians and parties than others. For example, Family First's traditional position on gay marriage1, and the Greens' position on offshore detention2, don't reflect the view of the electorate at large. The party and its candidates seem to genuinely believe in these policies, even if they are antithetical to election success.

This is not surprising! These are, after all, minority parties. Insofar as one can describe Australian politics in terms of a left- and right- wing, they both sit one or two \(\sigma\)s from the centre. If you're considering voting for them, it's still worth asking these minority party candidates where they draw the line between personal and electorate values, especially on local issues that don't factor into their party's platform. Like that conjunctivitis factory being built in your neighborhood. (Seriously! Even if it generates business for local pharmacies, it's an eyesore.)

The question gets far more interesting in the case of independent candidates (who don't have a party platform to adhere to), and/or major-party candidates (whose parties' platforms are centrist enough that they might move on you without warning). In these cases, it's really worth getting to understand your local candidates.

No candidate is going to be entirely poll-driven, and no candidate is going to be ideologically zealous on every single issue. It's important to understand which of your grievances with the candidate are trifles, and which ones promise to irk you for their whole term. There are no black and whites, and, yes, that makes everything more of a headache for you when you're trying to rank who you like best. For, e.g., ALP or LNP candidates, their having to answer to a mutable party line further complicates matters, and it's worth also finding out what issues they'd cross the floor for if the party line changed.

Your vote counts! Caveat emptor: don't go in there blind.

Footnotes:

1 Family First platform: Marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. Retrieved 8/8/13.
SMH/Nielsen: 62 per cent of voters support legalising same-sex marriage outright. Article from Nov 15, 2011. Retrieved here 8/8/13.

2 Greens platform: The Australian Greens want to put a stop to offshore detention altogether. Retrieved 8/8/13.
Nielsen poll: 67% of Australians support offshore processing of asylum seekers in PNG and Nauru. Poll from Aug 26, 2012. Retrieved here 8/8/13.