What does the public really want when it comes to political leaders, or anything else? A deliberative democratic perspective

Anyone in Australia will know that today there was a leadership vote in the governing Labor party at the Federal level. There are more than a few commentators playing to the theme that the victory of the prime-minister over her challenger is one of internal party machinations triumphing over popular will. Her colleagues voted overwhelmingly for her, the public wanted to revert back to the previous leader. Her unpopularity is supposed to reflect the illegitimacy of her tenure in the top job.

But what light does a deliberative perspective put on the issue? Putting aside procedural issues concerning whether the public should have direct say in who is prime-minister (as opposed to the parliament of elected members), let’s ask the question about what processes are forming public opinion on the issue and how a deliberative system might affect the outcome.

The first point is that public opinion might well be different — although this is not automatically the case. We know from running many small deliberative forums that when members of the public come together and engage directly with an issue that many end up changing their positions. The main reason in many kinds of issues comes down to the fact that argument that influence many of them in everyday politics tend to be the emotionally appealing, easily digested ones. When people get the chance to sit down, learn and talk about an issue the dynamics often change very quickly. Many end up engaging with the substance of the issue, rather than the symbols. The same sometimes goes for perceptions about well-known protagonists in public issues who (very kindly) give their time to present to minipublic forums. In other words, the person that they see on television is quite different to the person that they are engaging with in front of them. (This is not only because they get a chance to engage with a public figure, but also because the context of a small group deliberative process tends to put people in an inquisitive frame of mind — seeking to find out more — rather than an attacking one that you sometimes see when politicians hit the shopping malls.)

If we were to run a deliberative process (which is very different to a focus group, by the way, but that’s for another post) involving members of the public on the question of the Labor leadership, would there be a change in sentiment? Possibly. It’s ultimately an empirical question —we can’t actually run such a forum — but one of two things could happen.

Firstly, the participants could basically stick to their original positions, with the ability to directly engage with the contenders and the relevant issues merely confirming their original position. In this case it would tend to confirm that the politics that goes on inside the Labor party is out of touch with the will of the public.

Secondly, participants could find that they identify with the publicly stated experience of many members of the Labor caucus: that the PM is basically an effective leader who works well with colleagues to get things done; the challenger is…well, found wanting.

It’s impossible to know the actual outcome, but that’s the point. There is very little sense that the wider public has a chance to really understand what is going on in the politics that affect them. If there is a chance that they would desire a different outcome under a more deliberative set of circumstances, whatever that may be, then there is a need to look at the way that our system of politics operates. Our research to date (for example here) suggests that what we see in opinion polls is a poor reflection of what the public really wants when they get a chance to engage with the issues. If this is the case, then it represents a crisis of democracy far more serious than the internal machinations of a leadership fight within a political party.

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