Why politicians don’t respond to good evidence

People seem to be puzzled at politicians’ inability to respond to apparently clear data that suggests something ought to be done. I am putting up the proposal that the current crop are following a long tradition of if you don’t like the data, ignore it, or keep looking for some that confirms your prejudices.

Take a simple issue like abortion law reform and see why even politicians those who, according to new data support change and have electoral support as well may still do nothing, This can be seen in the latest flurry of this debate which again has raised questions on why politicians are not responding to obvious popular support for changing the laws. Katherine Betts’ latest effort (People and Place) reiterates her earlier figures that show the majority of voters, and even of politicians, are in favor of women’s right to choose. Yet in Queensland and NSW there are serious concerns, including by Anna Bligh, that any attempt to remove abortion from the Crimes Act, may not only be lost but may also wind back the current reasonably functional status quo that follows precedent judgments.

To understand why this gap exists between politicians’ actions and pollster data requires an understanding of why only some polls affect political process. I learned the limits of data in my 1974 lobbying efforts on a similar topic. The Mackenzie Lamb Bill sought to legalise abortions in the ACT and I organised the new Women’s Electoral Lobby to undertake surveys of local electors in a number of crucial areas. As an ex market researchers we were careful with the design and collected thousands of responses to a question on women having a right to terminate if they chose to. We covered multiple electorates of those who opposed the bill. Positive responses ranged from 65% to 90% so we took the results to Parliament House.

Liz Reid, the new women’s adviser, took the tabulations and sampling details to the MPs. She returned and showed me the response from Rex F.X. O’Connor. He had written on the bottom, ‘yes but they were all publics’ ie non Catholics. Others similarly decided not to believe us so we lost. I  realised then that politicians believed their prejudices rather than evidence. The 200,000 bulk letters from Right to Life were believed , not our much more representative survey.

Abortion is a particularly vivid illustration of this phenomenon because it is a conscience vote and there is no party discipline to counter personal prejudices. Socially conservative, mainly still male, politicians can be seen as principled by their minority supporters. This also raises the issue of whether some conscience votes make bad laws as the absurd current case in Queensland of someone procuring their own termination illustrates. Despite that, I am wary about pushing abortion change in NSW because of my doubts that the NSW Parliament would act as responsibly as those in Victoria and the ACT have recently done. If the Shooters Party can hold the ALP government to ransom, why would one expect reasonable responses from them on this emotive issue?

This is an individual example of politicians believing their own mythologies but it happens at party level too. Another example is politicians and advisers deny the consistent findings over the last decade plus that people would prefer Governments to fund better services than give them tax cuts. The reason given has been that people are obviously lying in their responses because votes can be bought! The evidence was the 1980 Fraser election!!!

Given this track record, it is not surprising that complex issues such as climate change measures fail to get up. Why would politicians trained in the art of avoiding making rational decisions be any better on literally earth shattering issues than the example above? There are too many examples of politicians and parties who make decisions on the basis of prejudice and political advantage to assume good policy making as a norm. I recognise that data, particularly from surveys, may be contestable but this does not excuse ignoring good evidence. Indigenous policy is another area where evidence is regularly ignored, as noted publicly by Fiona Stanley.

Decisions that attract public debate and fervour are too often based on fear, prejudices, media hype, and limited access to diverse viewpoints. So people need to understand that many political decisions are not rational or even evidence based. This deficit allows noisy or clever (often expensive) lobbying to play into anxieties about voter backlashes, particularly where small swings can make a difference and because politicians want to believe those who reinforce long held political prejudices.

This means those of us who push unpopular or difficult issues need to be very aware that having good solid data is only the starting point for achieving political change. Politicians can make irrational decisions but those challenging them, do need the facts and know how to use them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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