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Good policy comes second to voter trust

  • 08 May 2013

'Labor fails to convert widespread support for NDIS to ballot box', trumpeted The Australian's report of the latest Newspoll.

The failure, according to the paper's political editor, Dennis Shanahan, consists in this: an overwhelming majority of poll respondents, 78 per cent, want the proposed disability insurance scheme, for which the Gillard Government has gained Opposition approval. Yet voting intentions have scarcely shifted from the dismal prospect for Labor indicated in the previous Newspoll, taken a fortnight ago when bipartisan support for the 0.5 per cent rise in the Medicare levy that will pay for DisabilityCare was far from certain.

The two-party preferred vote for the coalition is now 56 per cent, up one per cent, and for Labor it is 44 per cent, down one per cent. These variations are within the statistical margin of error, so no change: the government is still heading for a thumping defeat, as polls have been predicting for months.

Well, yes. The puzzle is that Shanahan thinks that this translates into a story about the government's 'failure' to gain any traction from its win on disability insurance.

The reality is that an election is not a referendum on a set of policies. People typically vote for whoever they trust to govern, and the votes that decide elections are rarely cast by citizens who could give a detailed explanation of the rival parties' platforms.

There is no shortage of academic research to support this contention, but anyone who has handed out how-to-vote cards on election day knows it to be true from experience. Politicians and journalists must know it, too, but it is an oddity of modern democracy that both groups frequently act as though it were not so.

To say people vote for the party or candidates they trust — or more precisely, for those they trust more than the alternative — is not to say voters are stupid. On the contrary, it reflects their instinctive understanding that implementation of a political party's platform is not a necessary consequence of that party winning an election.

Nor, in this context, should 'trust' be understood to mean 'like'. Tony Abbott has often trailed Julia Gillard in personal approval ratings, but even when her net approval rating has been higher than his the