02 April 2012

How stupid are voters, anyway? #nlpoli

Poke around some political websites over the past couple of months and you’ll find a few columns on the question of how much voters are paying attention to politics in the run-up to the American presidential election.

These will give you a good sample:

Take a few minutes and read those articles.  One of the things you’ll appreciate when you get to the last one is that, as Matt Corley points out, voters aren’t stupid. That is, they don’t lack the intellectual ability to figure something out and make a decision.  What they lack is information about some subjects.

The issue that those three articles all mention is gasoline prices.  American presidents can’t do much to change gasoline prices.  Most Americans apparently think he can. Not surprisingly, therefore, Republican candidates spend a chunk of their time bashing Barack Obama over American gasoline prices.

We’ve had the same issue here within the last decade.  The incumbent Liberals introduced something called Petroleum Products Pricing, a system that supposedly regulates the price of gasoline and other fuels and ensures they are “reasonable”.  The whole thing was a charade, of course, but the system stays partly because it is popular and partly because it has proven to be a cash cow for government. 

That’s not the finest example of public ignorance and the politicians who preyed on it, though.  To find that one, you’d have to look at the claim that the federal government took oil royalties from the provincial government through the federal government’s Equalization program.  The federal government never did any such thing but that didn’t stop a provincial royal commission and two successive Premiers from going to war with Ottawa to try and right the imaginary wrong.

The second premier started his administration with a jihad over the royalties.  They talked about cracking open the 1985 Atlantic Accord and renegotiating it.  Finance minister Loyola Sullivan held a news conference in which he announced the shocking news that as provincial government revenues from its own sources went up, Equalization went down.  He never bothered to mention that this was exactly how the system was supposed to work.

In the end, he and his boss settled for a $2.0 billion cheque.

And that was the end of it.

Still that didn’t stop a raft of politicians and a few other informed commentators like Wade Locke from suggesting it was much more than that.  Some people still believe that the cash windfalls that swelled the provincial treasury from 2006 onward all came from that deal.  They didn’t.  They came from the oil royalty regimes dating back to 1990 and oil prices that have skyrocketed to historic heights due to international political and economic uncertainty.

People in the province  - like people in any part of North America – don’t spend a lot of time thinking about politics.  And there are a great many things, like the inner workings of Equalization or how oil royalties make money for the province, that they simply leave to other people to figure out.

Voters aren’t stupid.  They just leave those things to others, like politicians.

Voters expect those politicians to understand the details of complicated issues.  They expect them to look after things while the voters get on with taking the kids to school and hockey practice and all the other stuff that occupies a normal life.

They just don’t expect politicians to tell them things that aren’t true.  Sad to say, politicians sometimes seem to have a problem with that one. 

- srbp -