Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Quick Post: The Fundamental Problem with #VoteCompass (#auspol #ausvotes)

VoteCompassThe ABC launched Vote Compass this week, a tool which allows you to declare your position various policy issues and see where your position aligns with major parties.  Far from being interesting or informative, Vote Compass highlights something that has gone terribly, terribly wrong in modern political discourse.

The questions asked by Vote Compass do nothing to understand (or translate) the reasons why a person holds a particular viewpoint.  You’re asked questions like ‘Asylum Seekers?’ and told to rate to what extent you think ‘Boo!’ or ‘Hooray!’  Despite being conservative, I know that the positions I advocate are similar to positions advocated by various parties (right through to and including the Sex Party, of all things).  Where we differ is in the reasoning behind those positions.

For example: China?  Both Greens and National Party voters will shout ‘Boo!’ at this question because both groups are rabid Sinophobes.  It’s not until you explore the reasons behind their Sinophobia do you understand what distinguishes the one from the other.

We see the problems that this line of inquiry causes almost routinely.  I think that multiculturalism is great and that the State has a role in facilitating awareness of our diverse cultural histories.  Most of my lefty friends will agree with this position, but the reasoning behind the position differs.  They argue that diversity is good for social cohesion; I use Edmund Burke’s argument that an individual is necessarily connected to their cultural history.  Two completely different sets of reasons; same outcome.

‘People of the same sex should be allowed to get married?’ ‘Hooray!  Equality is love!’ ‘Hooray!  Promoting loving families is important!’ ‘Boo!  Marriage is an oppressive institution!’  ‘Boo!  I hate faaaaaaaaaaaaaags!’

The Boo!/Hooray! model encourages us to move away from reasons for our positions and focus on our positions simpliciter.

Perhaps this might not be a problem.  Perhaps I might want to know which party is committed to my positions regardless of whether or not the reasons are the same.  Consider, for example, the broad church of opposition to the Carbon Tax.  Are you against it because you think it’s hurting Australian businesses and pushing up cost of living pressures, or are you against it because scientists are evil?  Consider also the opposition to the Regional Resettlement Arrangement.  There are those who assert that it’s evil and inhumane and cruel and terrible and won’t work, and those who argue that it’s not as evil and inhumane and cruel and terrible as John Howard was and therefore won’t work.  In the case of the Carbon Tax, regardless of your reasons, you’re going to find the Coalition agrees with your position.  In the latter case, regardless of your reasons, you’re going to find that the Labor Party does not match your position.

But VoteCompass also puts the parties on a conventional two-axes ‘spectrum’ and maps the user’s ‘position’ on  the same graph.  Even if I concede that parties are about positions rather than about the reasons behind those decisions (increasingly a true statement), it is nonsensical to claim that those positions correlate to a particular position on the graph.

For example, the Greens and the Coalition oppose the move to an Emissions Trading Scheme.  Does this mean that the Greens and the Coalition overlap at some point on the graph?  Well, no.  This means that they differ in their reasons… but we’ve already excluded reasons from consideration.  Oh, dear.

One of the axes is the ‘economic freedom spectrum’.  On the one end, you have a state-controlled economy (colloquially known as ‘Socialism’).  On the other, you have the laissez-faire, Austrian economics ‘Libertarian’ end.  The Coalition’s major position is to scrap the carbon tax and replace it with ‘Direct Action’ (state-controlled intervention into the economy).  Yet the Coalition is positioned on the libertarian end of the spectrum.  The Greens and Labor both (in different ways) want to decentralise the control of carbon and use market mechanisms to address the problem.  Both are positioned on the socialist end of the spectrum.

It’s utter nonsense.  All parties treat the spectrum as a buffet from which they pick the positions which will most appeal to their electoral base.  It’s why the Greens’ asylum seeker platform makes zero sense (two people separated by a few hundred kilometres are treated extremely differently): there’s no reason for the position, it’s just popular with their voters.  The Greens want to make agriculture more environmentally friendly, but also want to protect traditional agricultural practices among Indigenous populations.  The Liberal Party wants to cut costs for businesses, but also wants to have businesses fund Paid Parental Leave.  The ALP is trying to reform the economy to meet environmental goals, and still throws handfuls of cash at the local car manufacturing industry.

The terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ when it comes to the parties don’t represent anything real.  Libertarians aren’t conservatives and yet I’m supposed to share the right end of the spectrum with those clowns.  I’m sure the champions of the proletariat feel the same way about the hipsters on the left.  Instead, they are symbols by which the electorate can affect authenticity.  Why are you so outraged about this policy?  Because right wingers are evil and we left wingers oppose everything they say.  Why are you supporting a policy which would not be to your own advantage?  Because lefties don’t know how to manage the economy.

We need to break down the Boo!/Hooray! model that is dominating political discourse.  We shouldn’t be entrenching it with the Vote Compass.  Sure, it’s just a bit of fun but it promotes harmful attitudes.


9 responses to “Quick Post: The Fundamental Problem with #VoteCompass (#auspol #ausvotes)”

  1. Good post Mark. I am normally of the camp that this stuff doesn’t do any serious harm and kind of gets people involved in politics and public policy which is a good thing.

    But your example of the ETS in particular resonated with me. The minority parliament has been good to see which issues the Coalition and Greens will both oppose, but as you mention for a variety of reasons.

    Personally, I found the questions and positions of the parties on immigration and asylum seeker issues strange but I guess that’s what happens with a strictly linear method.

  2. I was having a similar dillema with the concept of labeling people as “left” or “right”. Typically very few people, or even political parties, are that easy to categorise. Unfortunately our political system doesn’t allow us to vote for individual policies, we have to vote for the “block” of policies that a particular party (or in some cases an independant) has chosen to adopt.
    Your example of the ETS is a good one, but our whole voting system is fairly simple if you think about it. You either vote for someone or you don’t. The vote form doesn’t have a “comments” section to let you explain why you voted a certain way. So in that sense, does it really matter *why* a party adopts a policy position if it still delivers the outcome you want? There may be further implications with the “next steps” that party takes, so that might be the way to decide a undecided choice between parties (After doing X, Greens next step will be further left, LNP’s next step further right?)
    I suppose that’s how things like Vote Compass are trying to work. They take an “average” of the block of policies to determine a position on the spectrum. While it is simplistic, I would say it actual raises awareness to at least some small amount among a large portion of the population which previously had no, or little, awareness at all. If you are already thinking in non-linear ways about policies, parties, and left/right labels, then Vote Compass is really just “a bit of fun”.

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