The Australian political landscape


The ABC’s Vote Compass is a neat way to find out where you stand on the main issues in the 2016 election. The quiz has 30 questions, each of which has been assigned a score in two dimensions, namely economic and social. Thanks to some amazing work by David Barry, the point value of each question is now public. I thought it would be fun to build on his work by plotting them on a grid similar to the one used in the quiz results, so that we can visualise what Australian politics looks like in 2016. (Make sure to do the quiz before reading on, or your enjoyment will be spoiled.)

The Questions

Here’s what the questions look like when you plot them in the economic/social space. I’ve used abbreviations to label each question. The full text is in the GitHub repo that reproduces these graphs.

By far the most potent social issue is the treatment of refugees, which shows up in three different questions, followed closely by foreign aid. The biggest contributors to someone’s position on the economic scale are their views on the minimum wage, weekend penalty rates and socialised medicine. The minimum wage is not an election issue—under our current system, the federal government has given up the ability to change it—but perhaps it’s a good predictor of people’s feelings about economics generally.

As David Barry points out, it’s odd to see euthanasia listed purely as an economic issue, and negative gearing purely as a social one. They might be coding errors in the Vote Compass app. Update: the creator of Vote Compass got in touch to say that those codings are intentional. In the factor analysis they used to make the quiz, they found that people’s views on euthanasia lined up with their economic opinions rather than their social ones, and vice versa for negative gearing.

The Whole Landscape

I plotted those arrows on a scale where the scores range between plus and minus 100 on each axis. Zooming out, we can see the whole range of political views on one chart. I’ve used the flavour of the most important Vote Compass questions to sketch in labels for each zone.

One way to understand the extremes of this graph is to figure out the smallest number of strong opinions you’d need to reach the outer quadrants. It turns out that you need extreme answers to 15 of the 30 questions to reach the top right or bottom left quadrants of the chart. The people in the bottom left believe that we should admit fewer refugees, keep turning back boats, keep the offshore detention camps, refuse to lease Australian ports to foreign companies, not teach transgender awareness in primary school, create a federal ICAC, raise the minimum wage, keep weekend penalty rates, raise company tax, reduce private health care and make health consumers pay less, reject free trade, and restrict coal-seam gas exploration. That sounds like a pretty good picture of a Hanson/Lambie type voter.

If someone holds exactly the reverse of those 15 opinions, then they end up in the top right of the diagram. Given libertarianism’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to nonwhites, I have to wonder how many people will actually find themselves there. Social issues that are much more in a libertarian’s comfort zone, such as drug legalisation, didn’t make the cut for Vote Compass this year.

Because there are a bunch of questions that mix economic and social values, it’s easier to reach the top left and bottom right. You can get to the communist quadrant with nine strongly-held beliefs: introducing a price on carbon, having gender quotas in parliament, raising the minimum wage, raising company tax, maintaining public services even in the face of a budget deficit, making the NBN faster, taking more refugees, closing the offshore camps, and no longer turning back boats. Again, believing the exact reverse will take you to the bottom right.

The Voters

When you ask people what issues are most important for deciding their vote, the topics they most often list are all ‘economic’ ones: health, taxation, jobs, economic management, housing, and education. Topics such as the treatment of asylum seekers are far down the list. It’s the economy, stupid. So perhaps the second dimension of the Vote Compass scale is redundant when it comes to most people’s actual voting decisions. Still, it’s worth thinking about, if only to maintain a belief that Australian politics is more than one-dimensional.