Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Hobart Building Heights Elector Poll

On Monday the Tasmanian Electoral Commission released the results of a voluntary postal elector poll about building heights in the Hobart City portion of Greater Hobart.  This non-binding elector poll has been something of an oddity with a lot of commentary making various claims about it so I thought I'd say a few things about it too.

The turnout

The elector poll attracted a response rate of 42.39%.  This compares to the response rate of 61.94% at the 2018 Hobart City Council election, however that was a record high turnout for Hobart, which had never been above 55.5% before.

I have found data for fourteen previous elector polls going back to the mid-1990s, of which six were held concurrently with council elections and eight were held separately.  Of the eight held separately, I have comparable data for six, and of these turnouts ranged from 83% to 109% of the previous election's turnout for that council (in many cases I have had to use raw turnout figures as I cannot find enrolment data at the time of the poll).  So this elector poll at 68% of the municipality's previous turnout has the lowest comparative turnout rate - and this would be so even without Hobart's 2018 turnout spike.  Issues in comparable elector polls included amalgamation, a proposed major pulp mill, whether to move a council's administration, whether to change a council's name, the location of a waste disposal site and options for a lawn cemetery.  To complete the set, other issues that have been canvassed in elector polls have included water supply and pricing options (including whether fluoride should be added), and the boundaries of a municipality.  It's notable that one of the three pulp mill polls occurred in Hobart, about 200 km away from the pulp mill site.

This is the second elector poll this year, following one for Tasman council (amalgamation) at which turnout exceeded that for the regular election.  Of course when elector polls are held at the same time as a council election the turnouts are closely connected.  Prior to these two there had been no elector polls that I could find this decade.

The survey design

Elector polls are expensive, with this one estimated to have cost around $180,000.  Probably the biggest issue I have with the elector poll system is that despite this expense for the councils - an expense that can be foisted on them based on a petition of 1000 or 5% of voters (whichever is the lesser) - there is nothing in place to ensure that the question design is fair.  As a result, the outcomes of elector polls will often be subject to competing spin.

In this case the questions were:

Principal Question

Q: Should the Council support the building height limits and other recommendations made by its planning officers?

Further Questions

Q: Would you prefer the building height limit in Height Area 1 to be lower than 60 metres?

Q: Would you prefer the planning schemes remain unchanged?

The voting papers were accompanied by material to explain the issue to voters and more extensive material was also available online.  The material explained that under the current planning scheme buildings over 30 metres high are refused unless they meet certain criteria, in which case they can be accepted.  However, this has implied a potential open slather for developers to build skyscrapers provided the criteria are met.  Concern about proposed skyscrapers considered out of character for the city led to Council commissioning a report on building height options, following which the Council's planning officers made recommendations to Council concerning absolute maximum heights for particular areas.  These were then not immediately accepted by the current Council, which commissioned a report to consider the impacts of the proposals.

The issue I have with the Principal Question is that it smuggles in an argument for one of the sides.  The elector poll was about support or otherwise for building height limits.  The argument smuggled in is that the height limits being proposed were supported by the Council's planning officers.  This is a potentially persuasive argument from authority (these people are professionals, so it may be assumed that they probably know what they are doing) in favour of the proposal.   Although the question is factual, it presents evidence for one side and not the other.  Imagine if the question had been:

Should the Council introduce proposed mandatory building height limits that would remove its discretion to approve buildings any higher than the proposed limits, without further consideration of social, environmental and economic impacts?

This question also would have been factual but would have been loaded.  It would have led the respondent to consider arguments against: that the decision might be inflexible or might be premature.  What would have been wrong with just:

Q Should the Council support the proposed building height limits and related proposals?

... (or similar) without saying who the recommendations were by, which after all is stated in the accompanying material?

Having said this, I see worse in commissioned issues polling on a regular basis, and I suspect that the impact of the question wording on the outcome wasn't massive.  But a high spend on an elector poll with debatable wording is a worse outcome for everyone than if the wording had been clearly neutral and fair.

How voters voted

The data from the TEC count includes cross-tabulation of results of the second and third questions based on how a voter voted on the principle question.  However it doesn't include figures showing the popularity of combined three-question responses, so we can't say how many voters voted No-No-No or Yes-Yes-Yes.  I haven't so far found a way to extract these (even approximately to within, say, a few hundred) from the results but if anyone comes up with one let me know.

The headline figure is the 77% Yes response to the principle question.  Of those voting No to the first question, virtually half voted Yes to the second question, signifying that they opposed the recommendation because they thought the height limits should be even lower, so on the surface at least 88.4% of voters either supported the proposal they were asked about, or wanted lower limits in area 1.  The No-No vote to the first two questions (11.4%) was low, although that would seem to be the only way one could vote (if voting at all) if one wanted to allow much higher buildings in Hobart.
As a result the group initiating the poll, Hobart Not Highrise, is claiming the result as a very big win.  Opponents are continuing to point out that most voters didn't actually vote, and are also claiming that voters were confused by the complexity of the poll.  It's very likely that most voters who would vote in a council election, however, did vote.

Overall, 76.4% said yes to a lower height limit in Area 1 and 29.4% said yes to leaving the planning schemes unchanged.

Were voters confused?

Aside from a fairly high level of anecdotal reporting of confusion (often linked to voters deciding not to vote), I've also seen a couple of arguments regarding the results being contradictory.

The first is that a voter who voted yes to the first and second questions (58.2% of respondents) is contradicting themselves, because they say they support the recommendations but also say that they want the height limit lower than in the recommendations.  I don't think these voters are necessarily confused  - it has to do with how different people think about saying they "support" something. Someone can say they support a proposal because they mostly agree with it, think it is the best of the options on the table, and think it would be a great improvement, but that ideally they'd go a bit further.

The second is that a voter who voted yes to the first and third questions (17.2% of respondents) is contradicting themselves.  This objection only covers a small portion of respondents, but I think it's a more compelling one as concerns those respondents.  The supplied material spells out pretty clearly that what is proposed is a substantial departure from the existing planning scheme.  It's difficult to see how a person who has understood the issue supports the proposed height limits and supports the current planning scheme remaining unchanged.  This highlights a common problem with issues polling - if respondents are fed a number of propositions that intuitively sound good, some may say yes to all of them even though they are contradicting themselves in the process.  In this case, both questions speak to a conservative approach - to not change Hobart's skyline by filling it with skyscrapers, and to leave an existing approach in place.

It's also notable that the informal vote on all questions was extremely low.  This doesn't suggest that there were voters who were consciously confused by some of the questions but not others.

Organisation level of campaigns

Hobart Not Highrise has been campaigning on this issue for some time and issued a leaflet on it, delivery of which included No Junk Mail letterboxes.  In contrast while there were cases of a No vote to the principal question being advocated (including by the Property Council's Brian Wightman, who advocated No-No-No in a Mercury op ed published midway through the campaign) there wasn't much of an organised campaign.  Prominent opponents of HNH generally disapproved both of HNH's position and of the massive spend on the elector poll in the first place, so some simply boycotted the poll.  At the same time there wasn't any kind of high-profile organised boycott movement either.  There was a statement of arguments against the poll, but it wasn't stated who had written it, and the official information didn't include a link to a No case as such, perhaps because there wasn't one to link to.

The elector poll system

The current review of the Local Government Act proposes scrapping the elector poll system since elector polls are expensive and since information about the state of public opinion can be obtained in many other ways.  It is true that none of these ways will see as large a level of interaction as an elector poll, but even the large sample size of an elector poll is inconclusive when question design is debatable, when an issue is specialised and technical and if most voters still don't vote.  Councils may see the need to conduct elector polls on issues like amalgamation, but the ability of small proportions of the voter base to initiate them is a recipe for abuse of process (I would class the Hobart elector poll on the pulp mill as an example of this).  There is also the potential for elector polls to be initiated on the sorts of social issues that it is better not to have public votes on (such as Hobart's current spat about gender-inclusivity).  If the system of public petitions for elector polls is to be retained the number of signatures to initiate a poll should be greatly increased.

Interaction with affordable housing

Pro-development forces in the city have tried to draw a link between allowing high-rise buildings and fixing the city's affordable housing crisis.  Some have alleged that there's a mindset more interested in keeping Hobart as a picturesque heritage town than in whether people of all incomes and backgrounds can actually still afford to live in it as it becomes more popular both with new residents and with holidaymakers occupying Air BnBs.  Opponents however have questioned whether high-rise apartment living and hotels are solutions to the problem or whether they are just building more housing/accommodation for the wealthy with no useful flow-on to those in need.  Although affordable housing was mentioned briefly in the "against" case sent out to voters, the result is completely unclear regarding what residents actually think about affordable housing - whether they think the look of the city is more important, or whether they just don't think the issues are related.

As usual, I may add more comments later.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Tasmanian Local Government Reform Proposals (2019)

The Tasmanian Government has been conducting a detailed review of local government legislation in the state, including electoral rules.  This week this took a major step forward with the release of the Reform Directions Paper.  This outlines a series of possible changes that, based on further feedback, may then appear in the government's draft legislation.  Many of the suggested changes are excellent, in particular reducing the number of boxes a voter must number on the councillor ballot for a valid vote.

My main reason for writing this article is to raise major concerns about some of the proposed options for electing mayors.  The paper gives four possible options for mayors, one of these being the status quo (the mayor is elected directly, anyone enrolled in the council area can run for mayor, the mayor must be elected as a councillor to serve as mayor).  While the status quo has some issues, I don't like any of the three alternatives much, and two of them are especially unsound.  I am writing this article mainly to provide detailed reasons as to why these options are bad, and I encourage anyone who wants to to use these arguments in their submissions, or add others.  While I'm doing this I may as well comment quickly on other aspects of the paper.

There's plenty of time to send a submission with submissions not due until 30 September.  For some reason the official closing time for submissions is 5 pm.  

Monday, July 1, 2019

Not-A-Poll: Best State Premier/Chief Minister Of The Last 40 Years: Final Round 1

A loooong time ago when the world was young and innocent I started a runoff series to select this site's choice as best state Premier or Chief Minister of every state and territory in the last 40 years.  The plan was to then run a final with all the state and territory winners together.  Ultimately and unsurprisingly with the left-wing skew of readers on this and other psephology sites, Labor leaders won every round convincingly, so I also ran a runoff to get a token Liberal into the final as well.  Earlier this year I got too busy with all the elections going on to run new rounds when each month started, so I have waited until the elections were over before starting the final.

Our contestants and their histories in this contest are:

NSW - Neville Wran, Premier 1976-1986.  Topped the NSW group first round with 37.8% and thrashed Bob Carr 152-50 in the runoff.

Victoria - Daniel Andrews, Premier 2014-present.  The only current Premier to win a state, Andrews polled second in the Victorian group first round with 25.3%, but with a landslide election victory under his belt, defeated Steve Bracks 158-102 in the runoff (which was postponed in an attempt to reduce contamination from the state election.)

Queensland - Wayne Goss, Premier 1989-1996.  Tied with Peter Beattie on 29.3% in the Queensland group first round then cleaned up Beattie 122-73 in the runoff

Western Australia - Geoff Gallop, Premier 2001-2006.  Gallop won the WA first round narrowly with 32.5%.  The first runoff against Carmen Lawrence was tied 97-97 and I hadn't made a rule for ties so there was a second runoff, which Gallop won 75-71.

South Australia - Don Dunstan, Premier 1967-1968, 1970-1979. Smacked it out of the park with 57.4% in the SA group first round.

Tasmania - Jim Bacon, Premier 1998-2004. Polled 37.3% in the Tasmanian group first round and defeated Lara Giddings 105-84 in the runoff.

ACT - Katy Gallagher, Chief Minister 2011-2014. Polled 40.3% in the ACT group first round and defeated Jon Stanhope 119-52 in the runoff.

NT - Clare Martin, Chief Minister 2001-2007.  The only other leader to win in the first round, with 57.6% in the NT first round (none of the others even managed double figures!)

And the Coalition wildcard is Nick Greiner, NSW Premier 1988-1992, who eventually won a long series of Coalition eliminations, defeating Kate Carnell (ACT), who I had been suspecting would win the Coalition series when I started it, 58-38 in the final.

I've decided not to add any more wildcards.

The rules for the final runoffs are:

* The last candidate in each round is eliminated.
* Any candidate failing to poll 8% in a round is eliminated.
* Ties are resolved in favour of the last leader on primaries at a previous stage at which there wasn't a tie, and failing that in favour of the candidate least recently in office.
* Any candidate who could not mathematically win or tie from their position in a preferential election is eliminated.

Spruiking is, as always, welcome in comments.  Voting for round 1 is open til the end of August.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

What Might 2PP Voting Intention Have Really Looked Like In The Last Federal Term?

The 2016-2019 parliament saw Australia's worst failure of national opinion polling since the early 1980s, a failure that was not just a combination of normal errors and a reasonably close election.  Aggregated polling had the Coalition behind for the entire term, at no stage better than 49% two-party preferred, and yet the Coalition won with 51.53% of the two-party preferred vote.

The view that the polls were in fact right all along but voters changed their minds at the last moment (either on election day, or on whatever day each elector voted) fails every test of evidence that it can be put to.  The difference between voting intention for voters voting before election day and on election day is similar to past elections, and if anything slightly stronger for the Coalition.  There was no evidence in polling of change in voting intention through the final weeks, as would have been expected as voters who had already voted reported back their behaviour if the polls were at all times accurately capturing the intentions of the person being polled.  Also if those who had already voted had shifted towards the Coalition as they made their final decisions while those who had yet to vote were yet to do so, there would have been polling gaps of several points between those who had already voted and those yet to do so; this was not the case in the released evidence either.  

Friday, June 28, 2019

Most Tasmanian Senate Votes Were Unique

Over the last week or so I've been looking at some statistics relating to the uniqueness (or not) of Senate votes in Tasmania, and some other aspects of Tasmanian Senate voting.  At the moment I'm only doing this for Tasmania, but it can be extended to other states if anyone else wants to do so.  This article has been rated 4/5 on the Wonk Factor scale - it is obviously out and out wonkcore but the maths is not as tricky as in some of the stuff on this site.

All Senate votes are scanned by optical character recognition and the scans are verified by human data operators.  The AEC publishes files of all formal Senate preference votes that can be used by outside observers to verify that the AEC is getting the right results and computing the count correctly.  This year's formatting of these files is a lot more user-friendly than in 2016.  On downloading the files one can find all the numbers recorded as entered in the system for any vote recorded as formal.  Sometimes this includes both above the line preferences and below the line preferences (if both are formal, below the line takes precedence, an issue I will come to later on.)
One minor change is that ticks and crosses are no longer indicated by special characters, an aspect that was the source of some confusion among the easily confused at the last election.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Senate Reform Performance Review 2019

The results of this year's half-Senate election are all in so it is time to observe how our new Senate system performed at its first half-Senate test.  Australian Senate voting was reformed in the leadup to the 2016 election to abolish Group Ticket voting and the preference-harvesting exploits it had become prone to, and give voters more flexibility in directing their own preferences either above or below the line.  In the leadup to that election, many false predictions about Senate reform were made and were then discredited by the results.  I reviewed how the new system went back then: Part 1, Part 2.  Some of the predictions that were made by opponents of Senate reform concerned the results of half-Senate elections specifically, so now we've had one, it's a good time to check in on those, as well as on how this election compared to 2019.  One unexpected issue with the new system has surfaced, concerning above the line boxes for non-party groups, but it is one that should be easily fixed.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Seat Betting As Bad As Anything Else At Predicting The 2019 Federal Election

Advance Summary

1. Seat betting markets, sometimes believed to be highly predictive, did not escape the general failure of poll and betting based predictions at the 2019 federal election.

2. Indeed, seat betting markets were significantly worse predictors of the result than the national polls through the election leadup, and only converged with polling-based models to reach a prediction that was as inaccurate as the national polls at the end.

3. Seat betting predicted fourteen seats incorrectly, but all of its errors in Labor vs Coalition contests, in common with most other predictive methods, were in the same direction.

4. Seat betting markets did vary from a national poll-based outlook in several seats, but their forecasts in such cases were about as often misses as hits.

5. This is the third federal election in a row at which seat betting has failed to show that it is a useful predictor of classic (Labor vs Coalition) seat-by-seat results in comparison with simpler methods.  


With all House of Representatives seats now declared, it's time for a regular post-election feature on this site, a review of how seat-by-seat betting fared as a predictive method.  I have been interested in this subject over the years mainly to see whether seat betting contained any superior insight that might be useful in predicting elections.  In 2013 the answer was a resounding no, in 2016 it was a resounding meh, and surely if seat betting could show that it knew something that other sources of information didn't, 2019 would be the year! Even if seat betting wasn't a very good predictor, if it was not as bad as polling or headline betting this year, that would be something in its favour.

2019 saw the first failure in the headline betting markets since 1993, but it was a much bigger failure than that.  In 1993 Labor were at least given some sort of realistic chance by the bookies, and ended up somewhere in the $2-$3 range (I don't have the exact numbers).  This year the Coalition were $7.00 to Labor's $1.10 half an hour before polls closed - just an implied 14% chance -  and Sportsbet had already besmirched itself in more ways than one by paying out early (which I think should be banned when it comes to election betting, but that's another story).  The view that "the money never lies" has been remarkably immune to evidence over the years, but surely this will be the end of it for a while.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Senate 2019: Button Press Thread


Just starting a thread that will cover the button presses in the remaining Senate races including any interesting information from the distributions of preferences as they come to hand.  I haven't been putting myself in the loop concerning when exactly the button presses will occur, save that Tasmania's will be tomorrow at 10:30 am (open to scrutineers, of which I'm not one this year) with the declaration of the poll on Friday at the same time.  The ACT count is also ready to go (to be delcared on Friday afternoon) and the remaining counts are getting close to completion with relatively few unapportioned or uncounted votes still showing.  The NT button has already been pressed, which did nothing because both major party #1 candidates had a quota.  William Bowe has some comments on NT preferences.

Jim Molan's Senate Result In Historic Context

There is a lot of discussion surrounding Senator Jim Molan's below the line vote in the NSW Senate race.  Misleading arguments about it are being weaponised by some of those who would like to see Molan appointed to the Sinodinos casual vacancy, but there is also a risk that amid all this appreciation of the scale of Molan's result could be lost.

To start with, Molan absolutely is not going to win and has never even looked remotely like being in contention during counting.   But his result is still very significant - in the state in which getting a high below-the-line vote is most difficult (because of historically low below the line rates and also the sheer scale required for an individual campaign), Molan has so far polled just over 130,000 votes (2.8%).  His share should rise slightly based on remaining unapportioned votes but won't be significantly above 3%, if it even reaches that.