The myth of the mandate

Ian Robinson / 07 November 2013

Prime Minister Tony Abbott seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that he has a “mandate” for all the policies he went to the last federal election with.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the first place only 45% of the voters voted for the Coalition, which could be interpreted as 55% not wanting his policies, or at least prefering someone-else’s policies to his.

But this is to assume that people vote for a political party because they have rationally assessed and evaluated the party’s policies and voted for that party in order to have those policies executed.

This is clearly false. People vote for a particular political party for a whole raft of reasons, many of them not related to any of its policies. For example, they may dislike the leader of the other party, or they may come from a family that has always voted for a particular party, or they may have a rule always to vote against the government of the day, or they may toss a coin, or they may like one policy (eg no gay marriage) and disapprove of another (eg abolishing the carbon tax) and have to chose between them. And some commentators have argued that the recent federal election result represented more a vote against Labor and not a vote for the Coalition (nor ipso facto for its policies).

Moreover, moving the goal posts and taking the two-party-preferred, rather than the first preference, vote as the yardstick, doesn’t advance Mr Abbott’s case.  In an exhaustive preferential system, if you want your vote to count, ultimately you must rank all the parties, whether you agree with any of their policies or not. Many of the second, third or fourth etc preferences from minor parties that eventually ended up flowing on to the coalition may have been cast by people who either don’t know what the Coalition policies are, or don’t agree with them, but see the coalition, or their representative, as marginally preferable to those of the Labor party, and who want their first preference (for neither) to count.

In other words, preferences cannot be automatically counted as support for a party or its policies. They may simply reflect the choice of the lesser of two evils.

It may be argued that be this as it may, it is still the case that by electing Mr Abbott, the voters have indicated a preference for at least some of his policies, even if we don’t know which ones. However even this is not necessarily the case. As I demonstrated in similar circumstances fourteen years ago (see “The Myth of the Mandate”, Australian Rationalist, No 48, Autumn 1999, p 18), even if we presuppose that a vote for a party is a vote for its policies, which we have shown to be questionable, it doesn’t follow that you can assume that at least some of the winning party’s policies must have majority support. It turns out it is possible for a party to win the vote in an election without any of its key policies being supported by a majority of the voters. In other words, it is possible for a party to win an election even if all of its individual policies are opposed by a majority of the populace.

Therefore, the claim that the winning party in an election has a mandate for each and every one of the policies does not stand up to scrutiny and to keep on claiming the support of a mandate is nothing more than a bit of political flim flam, and an attempt by the Coalition to use shonky thinking to attempt to trick the other parties into voting for the Coalition legislation.

Mr Abbott and his Ministers are using this mythical mandate to try to bully the Labor Party and the rest of the Senate in general into accepting without question the Government’s legislation, but they must all stand up to him, and stick to the policies they believe in.

The only mandate that the election win gives Mr Abbott is a mandate to govern for up to three years. This mandate does not automatically cover each and everyone of the policies the government enunciated during the election campaign. These still have to be negotiated on their merits through the wide range of political interests that each election throws up, especially in the Senate.

There is a certain irony in the way in which political parties of all persuasions flourish the notion of a compelling mandate binding on others when it suits them, but don’t see the election vote as binding on themselves when at a later date they want to change their policies or renege on their promises.

It is even more ironic that Mr Abbott proclaims electoral support so fervently for the policies he in now trying to get through parliament, yet in the case of  two policies that he is against, gay marriage and voluntary euthanasia, both of which have had clear electoral support now in the region of 70%-80 %  of voters for some years, the idea of meeting the wishes of the electorate suddenly goes out the window. The word hypocrisy springs to mind here.

In summary, we the people might have given the Liberal Party a general mandate to govern us for three years, but in a two party system with a bicameral parliament this general mandate to govern cannot in any way be converted to a specific mandate to lever any particular policy through the political process.  Such a mandate doesn't exist.  The notion of a specific policy mandate is a myth.

Ian Robinson

President Emeritus, Rationalist Society of Australia Inc.

November 2013

All the more reason.

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