Lessons from Victoria

Crikey subscribers will have noticed that I’ve been contributing a bit recently on next week’s Victorian state election. Much of it is specific to the occasion, but there’s some points of more general application.

For example, there’s this piece from two and a half weeks ago (now out from behind the paywall) on undecided voters, where I call for scepticism about a high “undecided” rate:

The notion of “late deciders” is one of those where politicians and media have a common interest: they both like the idea that voters are more flexible than they really are. It sells papers and it soothes political egos.

But I also suggest that there are reasons to think that stability in the polls is not as convincing an indication of voters having made up their minds when it comes to a state election as it would be in a federal election. (In fact there’s a further reason that I didn’t mention, namely that there just aren’t as many polls.)

This also gave me a chance to repeat one of my favorite lines (originally from 2007), that “the problem is metaphysical as much as epistemological.” That is, not only do we not know how to measure indecision, we don’t really know what it is.

Then there’s this story from last week about the Labor-Greens relationship and the failure of our politicians to learn from overseas (notably European) experience. The title and tagline (written by a subeditor) are a bit unfortunate because they confine it to a call for alliance between Labor and the Greens. While I do indeed say that that’s in Labor’s interests, the Greens’ interests are a bit different:

Austria’s Greens have entered conservative-led coalitions at state level, and the Greens supported centre-Right governments in Ireland and the Czech Republic.

Obviously, a party that wants to be seen as progressive has to use this tactic sparingly. But ruling it out from the start just means that the party will be taken for granted. Unless it can credibly threaten to switch sides, neither the Liberals nor the ALP have any incentive to offer it anything much.

In comments, Simon Bakker offered an explanation for Victorian Labor’s unrelenting hostility to the Greens, namely that the decline of unionisation means that Labor’s activist base is drawn almost entirely from “progressive middle class university types” – territory for which it has to fight with the Greens. In Europe, by contrast, social democratic parties can draw on a more authentic union base and leave the Greens some of the intellectual class. I think there might be something in this.

And yesterday I’ve got a piece on the relationship between politics and media. Drawing on a forum held at Melbourne University earlier this week, I make two points:

  • The shift with the rise of the internet from news acquired via traditional media outlets to direct consumption of politicians’ spin (e.g. on social media) is less noticeable than you might think because for a long time the traditional media haven’t been doing their job of mediating the coverage and have been delivering pretty much unmediated spin themselves.
  • The fact that political parties keep doing something – such as paying for negative TV advertising – is no evidence that it works, because party bosses have motives other than just winning votes. Giving large sums of money to media moguls may be beneficial to parties and their officials in ways that don’t assume anyone is swayed by the ads, or is even noticing them.

Neither is peculiar to Victoria. Traditional media may eventually deal themselves out of the game entirely, but until they do these are issues that the democratic world as a whole has to deal with.

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