IAN ROBINSON. The Myth of the Mandate.

Jan 31, 2019

If they win the next election, “Labor will have a mandate to push through tax changes,” claims Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen (The Age 23/01 p. 1).

This claim has no basis. The existence of an electoral ‘mandate’ for individual government policies is a myth. 

Despite being claimed by every Australian government back as far a we can remember, usually to bully senators into accepting Government (or in this case would-be Government) legislation, this alleged ‘mandate’ has no justification in reality.

The reason is simple. In an exhaustive preferential system of voting dominated by two parties, voters ultimately have a choice between two bundles of policies.  In each major party’s platform there are likely to be things they like and things they don’t. The voter will weigh them up and opt for one party and its bundle rather than for the other party and its bundle. The voter can’t vote for individual policies.

This means there will be policies of the winning party that many voters who voted for that party don’t agree with.  The voter is forced by the exhaustive preferential voting system to ultimately register a vote for one of the two bundles of policies.  But this cannot be interpreted as a mandate for every one of those individual policies.

So, while victory in an election may give a party a mandate to govern for three year, this mandate does not flow down automatically to each of the party’s pre-election proposals, which may or may not be supported by the voters who elected them.

Thus parties cannot assume that each and every one of the policies they took to the election has majority voter support. Indeed it is logically possible, especially in an election with multiple candidates, as is the norm today, for parties to be elected with a policy in their bundle that a majority of voters oppose.

Appeals to this mythical policy “mandate” have increased in recent years, since the rise of the minor parties has made it unlikely that any party forming a government will have a majority in the Senate. 

In fact it is not uncommon in recent years for voters, in a bicameral system like ours, to vote for one party in the lower house and a different one (often a minor party) in the upper house, thus directly supporting a situation in which no party has a majority in both houses.  Part of the rationale for this is that even though you vote in the lower house for a party you broadly support, you can vote for a different party in the upper house that opposes the specific policy of that party you don’t support. This seems a rational way of getting the government you want while avoiding a particular policy you don’t want. Some of the voter support for the late Australian Democrats and the current Greens in the Senate clearly follows this pattern.

There is a further problem with the policy mandate claim.  Lately we have seen a trend towards presidential-type campaigns and policy-free election strategies, and it might be argued that policy considerations scarcely count any more in some voters’ decision-making process.  Charisma and perceived leadership qualities may be both the main selling point in a party’s appeal to the voters and the deciding factors in voter choice, which hardly translates directly into a mandate for any specific policy for the winning candidate.

That some voters believe they are voting for a leader, rather than a set of policies, is supported by the high degree of angst amongst voters during recent leadership upheavals, when the leader they thought they voted for was overthrown. 

A further consideration that tells against the mythical claim for a policy “mandate” is that it is possible in a democracy that I am exercising my vote not in favour of a particular party, but against its rival.  I might be “voting against” a party, rather than “voting for” the other one, and although in practical terms this has the same effect as if I had seen myself as voting for the second party, it cannot by any means be claimed as giving blanket approval for that party, let alone to any of its policies.  A number of recent examples of governments generating such negative sentiment and being “voted out” will readily come to mind.

All of these considerations count strongly against any claim by a political party to have a mandate for a particular policy.  That alleged policy ‘mandate’ is a myth. The only mandate is to govern for three years and to negotiate each policy through the particular upper house that the electorate in its wisdom has seen fit to provide. And the party may find in the upper house parties or individuals who have been put there by the electorate to try to stop them, and who claim a ‘mandate’ to stop them. But that would just be another example of the same myth.

Ian Robinson has been a tutor in political philosophy at the University of Melbourne, a lecturer in philosophy and educational theory at Coburg Teachers College, and head of Professional Writing and Editing at Chisholm TAFE. His articles have appeared in The Age, The Australian Rationalist (which he also edited for a number of years), Free Inquiry and Philosophy Now. His full-length plays The Process and Godot: The Wait is Over recently had successful seasons at La Mama in Melbourne.

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