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.

1 comment:

  1. This was my first time voting I Tasmania as a new arrival.

    I did get one of the Hobart Not Highrise flyers and I think it's worth noting they were printed in Andrew Wilkie's office and that they referred to the "problem of homeless people." Because of course it's homeless people themselves that are problem in NIMBY world.