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ANU sociologist discusses a survey designed to measure voters' attitudes to politicians and to test the existence of a personal vote for MPs.

ERROL SILVER: Do voters choose between candidates merely on the basis of party labels? Politicians hope not. Indeed, most believe they have built up a personal following which boosts their vote. So social scientists at the Australian National University decided to investigate whether or not there is a personal vote for MPs. Dr Clive Bean explained to Jenny Hutchison how he went about measuring voters' attitudes to politicians.

CLIVE BEAN: What we did was use a measure which has been around in survey research for some time, and used very widely in measuring attitudes towards political leaders in particular, and parties and other groups, which we call a feeling thermometer and it runs on a scale from 0, which means a very cold or unfavourable feeling, through degrees up to 50, which is neutral, and then on to 100, which is the most positive or warm feeling they can have. What we found overall, was that there was, even once one had taken into account all sorts other factors related to the vote such as the party influence, which is very dominant, and attitudes towards party leaders, and voters' social background and attitudes to issues of the day etc, etc, that even statistically controlling for those factors, there was a small, but significant, effect of the personal vote, as measured through this feeling thermometer. So a popular MP could gain as much as between 3 or 5 percent more of the vote, on the basis of their personal appeal than an unpopular opponent.

Now, it's often been argued in the more popular political literature and also in the more academic political science literature, that marginal seats will be where the personal vote, really comes into play because competition is very tight and marginal seats, there's a lot more at stake, and the local candidates will put a lot more into the contest. However, at the same time, marginal seats is where the parties put the most into the contest and as it turns out, it's safe seats rather than marginal seats, where the local member effect is somewhat stronger. In other words, the party hypothesis seems to come through in the marginal seats, the party effect tends to swamp the local member effect. Now it's been argued in the political science literature, that the basis of the personal vote in politics is to do with the community service that politicians do to help their constituents, in terms of their weekend surgeries, as they call them, and doing things for the community and for individuals within it. And one might expect, if that were the case, that over a period of time, that politicians' personal vote would accumulate because the longer they were in office, the more chance they would have to do things to benefit the community and individuals within it, and those individuals would remember that the politician had done good by them and would return the favour with the vote for them. However, the evidence that came in this study and in fact is reinforced by a study that was done in Britain, suggests that there isn't any particular cumulative advantage that occurs over time. If anything, it suggests that a politician who has been in office for a short time, perhaps one term or two terms, may develop a slightly stronger effect but that after then, their effects starts to tail off. Furthermore, the level of popularity for incoming politicians tends to decline somewhat, over time. In other words, one might assume that politicians who have been in office for some time, tend to rest on their laurels and they may well pay for this to some extent, at the polls, according to this data.

JENNY HUTCHISON: What happens when you have two candidates up against each other, both of whom have a high profile for some reason; both of whom inspire strong positive and or negative reactions? One obvious seat of course was North Sydney with Ted Mack and Mr Spender.

CLIVE BEAN: North Sydney in this election, I suppose, would have to be the archetypal example of the personal vote at work, because there's no party vote to be had for a candidate like Ted Mack. The important thing in the end, is not whether each candidate inspires a certain amount of strong positive feeling and a certain amount of strong negative feeling but whether the strong positive outweighs the strong negative for one, more than it does for the other. In other words, whether the average level of popularity, for one turns out to be rather higher than for the other, and one could assume that in the North Sydney case, which is a slightly unusual case anyway, because it was essentially a person battling parties, but one could assume that Ted Mack's level of popularity was overall, extremely high, relative to his competitor's.

ERROL SILVER: Dr Clive Bean from the Australian National University. So let's go to that Independent, Ted Mack, and an excerpt from his maiden speech.

TED MACK: For the first time in many years, the voters of an electorate have sent someone to his house with no ties to a party, to preselectors, or to a special interest group. The electorate has given notice that safe seats are becoming a thing of the past and is delivering a message that many in this house will not want to hear. The community has taken the rhetoric of competition and deregulation at face value and is now applying it, to use today's jargon word, to the duopoly. I've been sent here, not only because of dissatisfaction with the Australian political system, but also because for a decade, the electors of North Sydney have experienced a new and better way of running public affairs; a way that's founded on the principle that people whose lives are affected by a decision, must be part of the process of arriving at that decision; a way that delivered a new kind of open, accountable participatory democracy with expanded public services and reduced taxation; a way that had no place for secret, centralised decision making by executives of political parties, in combination with powerful unelected, unaccountable interest groups, that is now the dominant process in a largely self-serving Australian political system.

These ideas are not unique to North Sydney - they began in the 1960s and they're buffeting monopolies around the world, whether they be commercial, bureaucratic or political. Advocates of reform of Parliament have suggested such titivations as: additional staff for members; more private members' time; procedural reform; expanded committee system; longer sitting times; more free votes; televising of Parliament; electronic voting. As for the latter, the simplest system would be for only the party Whips and myself to vote, and of course, any party member that wishes to commit harikari by crossing the floor. All of these so-called reforms avoid the issue. The issue is control of Parliament by five or six people, through the rigid party system. This was starkly confirmed recently, when only about five phone calls were necessary to commit our defence forces to a possible war in the Middle East.

The issue is centralisation of power; government by special interest and elitism, to the point when probably 142 of the 148 members of this House, and certainly in the public, have little or no input into public decision making, except for a little chook feeding by way of pacification. There's of course, no suggestion that things would be much different if a change of government occurred. The Opposition in this House is only a more disorganised version of the Labor Party in terms of centralised power. The fact is, that after nine elections in 18 years, the community has learnt that government by rejection is comparatively futile. A change of government means more of the same, irrespective of election rhetoric. Reform must recognise that the system of delegating all rights to a representative or political party every three or four years, and then passing judgment on that representative or party, is futile. The growth of education; the information explosion; the rate of change, have fundamentally made the representative system ineffective and even unnecessary. People must be part of the decision making process whenever it affects them. We must shift to participatory democracy through a whole range of mechanisms, such as the greater use of referendums; acceptance of people's right to initiate and even veto legislation.

ERROL SILVER: The Independent Member for North Sydney, Ted Mack. Well, next week we'll look at legislation before the Parliament, including the re-introduction of former Senator Julian McGauran's End of War List Bill. and we'll review the initial experience with new Senate procedures for referral of Bills to Standing Committees, and the operation of the Selection of Bills Committee. Till then it's goodbye from the Ring the Bells team of Jenny Hutchison, Russell Thomson and Errol Silver.