Do Australians want parties to fulfil their election promises? Not as much as listening to people or experts.

This post is based on Voters’ preferences for party representation: Promise-keeping, responsiveness to public opinion or enacting the common good recently published in the International Political Science Review.

Annika Werner is Research Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University.

2016 Federal Election, various sites, Canberra, ACT for SRH and AEC, 2nd July, 2016

2016 Federal Election, various sites, Canberra, ACT for SRH and AEC, 2nd July, 2016: Wikipedia 

Remember when Julia Gillard promised not to introduce a carbon tax and then, after winning the election, broke that promise? The outrage was great and it has been argued that this story was part of Gillard’s eventual political demise. The basis for the widespread criticism was the idea that political parties should fulfil their electoral promises once they are in government. This idea is not only publicly common but is also the basis of many democracy models: parties propose their election programs, voters choose among these programs, and – if in government – parties then put these programs into action. This is the basic process on which representative democracy supposedly rests.

However, apart from high profile promises like Gillard’s ‘no carbon tax’, it is unclear whether voters actually agree with the promise-keeping ideal as a general principle. We can think of at least two other ways that parties might legitimately make their policy decisions: First, parties could listen to what public opinion says about a specific policy, meaning they could be responsive to the general public. Second, parties could strive to find the best possible policy solution by getting experts to advice on all possible options, with their advantages and disadvantages. Thus, parties could seek a form of ‘common good’.

To find out whether Australians agree with the idea that parties should fulfil their promises or whether they prefer parties to follow one of the other principles, I conducted a representative online survey among 1222 Australian voters aged 18 and over. First, I asked them how important they think promise-keeping, public opinion and the common good should be for parties. Then I asked them which of those options is more important in a one-to-one comparison. Finally, I confronted the survey respondents with an artificial decision-making situation. This situation had three solutions, reflecting promise-keeping, public opinion and the common good as advised by experts. Respondents had to choose one option.

The results were as clear as they were surprising. While Australians do think that promise-keeping is important per se, both public opinion and the common good are seen as much more important once the comparison between options is introduced.

Table 1 shows the results of the first two survey questions. As we would expect, 92% of respondents said that promise keeping is ‘somewhat’ or ‘very important’. However, when pitched against the other two options, its importance dropped dramatically: only 35% rated promise keeping as more important than public opinion and just 25% rated promise-keeping as more important than the common good.

Table 1: Evaluation of representation styles, individually and in pairs, relative shares in percent.

Style Very important Somewhat important Not very important Not at all important Can’t say
Promise keeping 75 17 5 1 3
Public opinion 40 43 9 3 5
Common good 66 24 5 1 4
Percent of respondents rating style 1 over (>) style 2  
Promise keeping > Common good Common good > Promise keeping  
25 67 9
Promise keeping > Public opinion Public opinion> Promise keeping  
35 55 9
Common good > Public opinion Public opinion > Common good  
40 49 11

Notes: Source: own data. Values are population estimates based on a random sample of 1.222 Australian voters, aged 18 or older. Post-stratification for region, gender, education, and vote intention. Deviation from 100% due to rounding.

This result is even stronger when the Australian respondents had to choose between all three options at the same time. As Figure 1 shows, 44% of all respondents wanted the decision to be made on the basis of experts advising what would be best for the whole community. 22% opted for the decision based on what public opinion said and only 9% regarded it as most important that parties stick to their promises. Of those respondents that chose an alternative, none proposed an option that took the election promise into account. The most common proposals were that the party decides after consulting public and experts, a referendum, a compromise between all actors, and a consultation between the experts and the public.

Figure 1: Share of Australian respondents preferring representation styles.


                                      Source: own data

Thus, only a small minority of Australian respondents agrees with the dominant conception – according to the literature – about what parties should do after the election, i.e. keep their election promises. This has widespread implications and poses a lot of new questions.

First, box-ticking exercises that match party promises with government policies might serve no other purpose than to express mistrust against parties. While it is generally agreed that parties and governments need to be held accountable for their actions, alternative standards like the actual outcomes for society might be more suitable (even if harder to measure) than simple promise-policy comparisons.

Furthermore, the findings indicate that, while public opinion should definitely play a role in political decision-making, people agree with experts playing a prominent role in advising parties. That a sizable portion of people choose expert judgements over those of parties runs counter to recent claims about the spread of ‘post-truth’ beliefs. Similarly, that respondents rate expert judgement higher than public opinion contradicts calls to put more political decision-making power directly in the hands of the people.

At the same time, we can also read this as posing a big dilemma for political parties. It seems that Australian voters discount the promises parties make in election programs—except when they don’t (e.g. Gillard’s carbon tax). Moreover, there is no agreement regarding an alternative mechanism. Some people want parties to make decisions on the basis of public opinion, others on the basis of expert advice. And this does not even take the relationship between voters and specific parties or the nature of the policy decision into account (which will be topics of future research). Thus, there seems no normatively superior solution and parties will have to live with making many people unhappy at many times.