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PoliticsSeptember 21, 2017

Don’t vote based on policy, say the people who created Policy

Since the Policy tool launched on the Spinoff last month, its creators have watched people arrive by the tens of thousands to learn about the parties’ positions. What lessons have they drawn?

There’s a right way and a wrong way to think about voting.

First you have to care. Easy enough.

Then you’ve got to think. Slightly harder.

You’ve got to put away childish things – personality, tradition, values – and sit down at the adults’ table to think about the policies. Evidence based ones. Sensible ones that deliver for New Zealanders. Fresh policies. Smart, innovative policies dreamed up in think-tanks and evangelised at TED talks, imported from Norway and proven in Nevada. Ideally involving apps.

As the TOP billboards put it: think, care, vote. For a party whose central pitch is new ways of thinking, this proposition is fundamentally uncontroversial. This election everyone agrees.

Everyone is about policy in 2017.

Labour’s policies, National says, aren’t clear enough. National’s policies, Labour says, are made “on the hoof”. The Greens, meanwhile, produce lengthy and detailed plans for Labour to pinch, and ACT promises to not just be tough on crime but “tough and smart”.

The parties announce new policy endlessly; so much so that they sometimes announce the same policies twice. On Sunday, National announced its “Families Policy”, which would be better described as “National’s List of Policies Previously Announced of Particular Pertinence to Families”. The Greens did much the same a few days previously, repackaging long standing tertiary policies into the “Student fair deal”.

The policies themselves differ, of course, but beneath the platforms is a consistent way of thinking about voting. Vote for policies. This is a virtue. Voting for anything else – for personality, tradition, or values – is a vice. This is why “Jacindamania” was a pejorative from the start, framing the apparently genuine hope and excitement of many people, and particularly the young, as delirious and unserious. Jacinda, the thinking goes, is nothing but star-dust.

“Now is the time for scrutiny, not starry eyes,” the commentator says.

“People can’t go shopping with your values,” Bill chides Jacinda.

“If only they stopped publishing polls,” Gareth whispers as New Zealand edges closer to breaking his evidence-based heart.

Even Jacinda, champion of values, agrees: “I think, actually, voters want to hear what we’ll do.”

So despite all the outsider rhetoric, TOP is not a party of heretics, but of true believers, convicts to the belief system advanced by most mainstream parties that if only we thought about things harder and actually implemented some evidence-based policies we’d be set. Their policies, of course.

You might think we’d think the same, having spent 18 months making Policy, a tool that is pretty much a shrine to this way of thinking. We could advise you to head over to Policy and let the graph tell you who to vote for.

But really, it’s just lipstick on a spreadsheet.

We made Policy because we found it surprisingly hard last election to find out what was on offer. We wanted to make this easier for everyone. The idea was we’d read press releases and PDFs until our eyes bled, sort the policy from the puff and put it all in one place. Then we’d all be able to think more clearly.

And we did it.

Six weeks ago Policy launched on The Spinoff with over 700 policies from seven parties across 30+ issues, each changing by the day. Since then over 100,000 people have used the tool, spending a cumulative total of two years pouring over policies, selecting those they like and discovering which parties they align with. Policy, and a number of other tools like it, have made this election more accessible than any before.

And look, it’s great knowing the policies. At the very least so you know you’re not being lied to. But people hoped for even more. We’ve had requests for dislike buttons, the ability to weight issues, and even to measure the costs of each policy favourited.

If we could just refine the tool a bit, if we could just make it smarter and more sophisticated, perhaps we could cut away all the messiness. Freed from puff, rhetoric and personality, we might be able to at last sort the good policies from the bad.

Certainly, taking a good hard look at the policy dispels some of the old stereotypes. The common belief, for instance, that National is the party of facts, figures and well-costed policy, and Labour and the Greens the parties of reckless innumerates, doesn’t really hold up.

While the Greens routinely produce costed and clearly presented policy documents, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what National’s policies are and how they relate to one another. It’s harder still to figure out whether a given announcement is new policy or something ongoing, or even already achieved; whether there’s new money or just a specific application of funding from the previous budget.

There is, though, a lot to be said for the conventional wisdom about the conventionally wise NZ First. While their website boasts a sprawling and extensive list of policies, some of it is so dated there’s still a reference to something called ‘Telecom’(?). And Winston’s daily pronouncements on the campaign trail lend the party’s policy documents an element of quantum uncertainty.

But there’s a limit to the granularised, pointillist analysis that the Policy tool allows.

Three years is a long time and no suite of policies can cover off the many decisions that a government must make. You don’t enact your manifesto and then call it a day, and you don’t stick to your policy promises come what may. A global financial crisis might thwart your plan to cut taxes. Nuclear winter might hamper your solar power subsidy scheme.

But even if we could predict the future – even if government was required by law to enact a mandated manifesto and nothing more – the Policy tool of the future couldn’t tell you who to vote for. Even if it had a dislike button.

How, after all, are we supposed to evaluate these policies? So much for careful thinking – so much of policy discussion is assertion and counter assertion, bogged down in attempts to clarify matters as simple as how to use Excel properly. And often enough, “talking about policy” isn’t really talking about policy at all.

On Saturday the Herald published a column by John Roughan, John Key’s biographer, in which he drew a dichotomy between “the head” and “the heart”. The heart (his? yours?) says address poverty. But the head (certainly his) asks “once we have lifted all household incomes above the statistical poverty line do you think all the kids will come to school with a cut lunch?” Stupid heart! The head doesn’t, though, bother to answer this hypothetical or explain its relevance.

Of free post-school education, he laments “It’s sickening to see [millennials] offered this temptation to use the first vote of their lives for self interest.” Free education? It’s “just plain bad public policy”. But what does he really mean by bad policy?

Presumably, he means that it’s inadequately targeted use of money that could better be put to scholarships or what have you. But even if Roughan had spelt this out, many would still advocate the policy, and not because they necessarily dispute Roughan’s analysis of the consequences. Because there isn’t an objective good and bad policy.

Mostly, these assertions about “good policy” and “bad policy” are really just shorthand for “good for me” or “bad for me”. This is what’s missing from the imagined politics of evidence – there are actually conflicting interests which aren’t resolved by questions of evidence, but by a struggle over whose interests are preferred. In this case, by an election.

Tallied policies don’t explain the real social forces which give rise to the policies in the first place. But they can give you a sense of them.

Renting policies, viewed as a whole, are one of the starkest example of this – some parties represent the half of the population which owns none of the houses, and some represent the half which owns all of the houses. In this case, it’s actually that simple. Go have a look and you’ll see what we mean.

Just don’t see the policies as isolated line strokes. See them instead as letters that make words that make sentences that make stories.

There are some very different stories being told.

Keep going!