Friday, 14 October 2011

Polling, Voting and Democracy

There's a lot of head scratching going on about declining voter turnout in recent elections throughout Canada. One thing the media seems to avoid discussing is  the corrosive role that polling has on elections.

Polls are lifeblood for the media during election campaigns, the source of endless stories and columns. I understand the justification for doing them and publishing the results: political parties use polling to shape their policies and promises, the media wants to be as informed as the parties are about what people are thinking, and having gathered the information why would the media play gatekeeper and not share the results with the public. I get all of that, I'm just not convinced that the rush to declare a "winner" days and weeks before the actual vote is healthy in a democracy ( pollsters do use very powerful statistical models to make these predictions, although relying on the phone book to generate genuine polling samples is an increasing problem because so many have given up a home phone for a cell phone, and you can't get a cellphone number published in the phone book).

It's one thing to try to predict who's going to win the big game, or a horse race, but keeping people engaged in an election campaign, and engaged enough to go out an vote is far more important. Two things at least result from the avalanche of polls leading up to a vote: some will think the result is a forgone conclusion so what's the use in voting on election day, and even more insidious is the notion that the polls say a party is going to win, and I want a government member from my district, so no matter what I think of this party's leader or policies, I'm better off going with a winner. Neither of these is good for democracy.

I realize a lot of this sounds naive and simplistic, and, with the interweb, any inkling of banning or controlling polls is farcical, and I do support polling on what people think about important issues, that's the kind of information political parties use to develop policies, and it should help the media plan how it covers things. I'd like to see both the media and the public ignore the "who's going to win" dance, and both work a little harder at explaining and understanding the important issues of the day.  What are we doing when Kim Campbell says an election campaign is no place for a serious discussion of complex issues? Stephane Dion may not have been the inspiring politician many were hoping for, but to lose even the the ability to discuss the important policy proposals in the "Green Shift" (carbon tax, shift in tax policy to help families cope, something like what Australia is doing now) as well because he was defeated,  is very discouraging.  No political party will attempt to propose anything that can't be captured in a 30 second sound bite, and given the many challenges we face,  that's idiotic.

For what it's worth a bit more on Australia's move to a carbon tax:

Carbon tax bill is good news for Australia

Once the dust settles, the majority in Australia are likely to find that the bill will benefit them

          o Bryony Worthington
          o, Wednesday 12 October 2011 23.23 BST
Thanks to a narrow victory for the government, Australia now looks likely to join the EU and New Zealand in introducing a comprehensive policy to make carbon polluters pay for the damage they cause. This is very good news. It has been an uphill battle, with the opposition and business lobby all but claiming that the sky would fall in should the bill be passed.

But once the dust settles and the lamenting subsides, the majority of people of Australia are likely to find that the bill passed on Wednesday benefits them. Much of the money raised from the carbon price of £15 per tonne of emissions will be recycled in the form of tax breaks and compensatory payments.

It will also be used to stimulate investment in new clean energy technologies leading to new jobs and increased inward investment. Hopefully over time this will boost Labour and the Greens' popularity, so ensuring that the policy is protected – despite opposition leader Tony Abbott's "blood promise" to repeal the legislation.

Australia's energy system is among the most polluting in the world thanks to its heavy reliance on coal, but Australia's climate is vulnerable to the impact that climate change brings. Acting to reduce emissions is in the country's self-interest in the longer term, especially if it can act as an inspiration for other countries to follow.

South Korea and China are looking to introduce emissions-trading schemes and all eyes in the global carbon market are now firmly looking eastwards. There could be significant advantages for Australia's financial institutions in being amongst the first to participate in this market, just as London has benefited from being the hub of the European carbon market.

The carbon price is fixed for three years, unlike in the European system where prices have reached rock bottom thanks to an oversupply of pollution permits. This has interesting implications for the EU, which has long basked in the glory of being able to claim that it is leading the world on climate change. If the bill passes into law, Australia will be able to fairly claim that it has now taken the lead.

Being out in front has its advantages and confers a moral superiority but there will always be forces of conservatism who will be made to feel uncomfortable. It is therefore more important than ever that countries in the early adopters group work together to defend their actions and encourage more into the fold.

No one, in Europe or Australia, can now claim to be going it alone, and with luck soon many more will step up and join the race to the top. As Australia has shown this will not be easy, but we must defy those who would rather participate in a race to the bottom where ultimately everyone is a loser.

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