The Welfare Short Survey was one of the issue short surveys issued with the August survey. Welfare is a significant issue in voter’s decisions, but a fractured one perceived very differently by different people.
544 voters took part in the survey (250 women, 284 men, and 8 non-binary or agender). Of these, 189 were currently in receipt of some kind of Centrelink benefit. Another four were currently in the process of applying for benefits. Interestingly, a number of aged pensioners either were not sure or didn’t consider the aged pension to be a Centrelink benefit, and three full-time students commented they were eligible for Centrelink benefits, but considered dealing with Centrelink more stressful than going without the money.
There were a number of oddities in responses to this survey, and I will confess I went down a few rabbit holes trying to find the source for a few of them. For example, the repeated claims that the problems in our welfare system were all caused by people living polyamorous or polygamous lifestyles I was able to trace back to Pauline Hanson’s Facebook Groups and similar online spaces – and of course she has been banging that particular drum for a little while.
The one I have not been able to figure out is a furious insistence (and I recall it happened during the advertising of the short survey back in August) that ‘welfare’ is an American term, that it is insulting, and I should have been using the term ‘social security’. I can neither find the source for this nor any rationale, but it does seem to be linked to the idea that ‘pensions are not welfare’.
WHAT IS ‘WELFARE’?
We began as we always do asking what the term means to you, and got mostly highly emotional responses.
Many of the responses can’t be shared as the involve personal stories that may be considered identifying, and some were literal answers (supporting those in need, Centrelink payments, etc), but the others largely fell into three groups:
‘Bloody dole bludgers’
- I am sick of welfare being doled out to those that do not deserve it. Having entire classes of people who are encouraged to be parasites MUST eventually collapse altruism and society. This will be a truly horrendous scenario. It has happened before and it is happening now. Reckless splashing out on welfare WILL destroy our society.
- There is far too much welfare given to the wrong people. Often low income people end up subsidising welfare schemes for higher income people. It also discourages people from seeking employment.
- People leeching off my taxes because they are too lazy to look after themselves AND also far too much middle class welfare
- Too much of it goes to the wrong people (asylum seekers, multiple wives etc) and nowhere near enough to the people who built this country.
- Welfare is the only form of income for many Australians – many of these recipients are struggling to make ends meet in terms of food and heating, which is disgraceful in a first world country. Many politicians (with their overly generous pensions) do not do anything meaningful to alleviate this suffering.
- The Government needs to look after Australians better and before refugees.
- Unlucky people who are treated badly by the government
- Pork barrelling – welfare is used by politicians to transfer wealth for the purpose of buying votes.
- It is complicated. Those who need support often don’t get it and there are those who are clever at getting the support that they don’t deserve.
- Another very complicated issue with emotionally laden terms. I believe in compassion and that all people should be treated fairly.
- Too complex to describe in a short space. Welfare is incredibly important and I think that there is a lot of misinformation out there regarding welfare.
We asked whether you believed welfare was a ‘right’, ‘an entitlement’ or ‘a privilege’… this is in keeping with a long tradition of research in what’s called ‘welfare heuristics’. A very mixed bag in response, including a high number of ‘others’.
We were able to code out of the ‘others’ a full 1% of respondents who preferred the term safety net, many of the others wanted to say an entitlement for some, or a right but… The ‘pensions are different’ refrain continued through many of the other answers:
- Old age Pensions are earned not an entitlement, most of the rest are privileges and should be limited in time.
- I believe the Aged and Disability Pensions should not be lumped into the same box as unemployment benefits.
Most of the focus in this short survey was on the Robodebt issue. I was actually surprised at the awareness level of the issue, because it often seems to be an issue in a bubble, but people know about it…
The support is pretty mixed. Yes, a majority (51%) oppose it, but it’s only just a majority, 34% support, 11% don’t know and a further 5% gave complex and qualified answers:
- Whereas I support cracking down on welfare cheats, the robodebt system does not take into account actual circumstances. It sometimes targets genuine people. This is not acceptable.
- I think the circumstances should be treated individually. There is a big difference between a person on supporting parent benefit working for an extra $100/wk in a cash job .. or a business person making $1000s of dollars in under-the-table payments.
- I think the government needs to have something in place to recoup money that people have fraudulently received,but not the way they have been doing it
This issue has echos of the refugees dilemma – people are torn between the need to deal with the problem, and the woeful way the government is currently dealing with it.
Our panelists are probably sick of a scale we use sometimes called the Mushiness Index – which asks 4 questions on a scale of 1 to 6, in order to measure volatility of opinion. Mostly we are using it on the issues as an anchor or control study for the variation we are developing for vote intent volatility (insert boring method mumbo jumbo blah…). However, on this issue it did flag a really interesting result: opinions on Robodebt are soft. It’s very, very rare to see mushy or volatile opinions on a domestic policy issue, usually only on foreign policy issues are they mushy. And particularly on something like welfare, which is so close to home for a lot of people… this is fascinating, so I’ll walk you through it. These are the four questions.
Now, if we were being fancy then we would calculate the factor with the biggest deviation from the mean to identify what aspect of that issue’s management was the most volatile and thus open to movement from a campaign standpoint, but that’s a lot of nerdy work that I find actually kills the value of the Mushiness Index – this is a glance tool, like an opinion volatility SWOT. People aren’t talking about the issue much if at all. Most are not affected by this issue, but there’s a spike of people who care about it; directly affected is few. Opinions are largely locked in, but not rock solid – because the majority of people either want or are open to new information.
Then you add together the scores for each respondents answer to the four questions to get a score. That score is how soft or firm the individual’s opinion is. Add them all together and you can get an indicator for how soft or firm the electorate is on the issue.
Within a range of 4 -24, scores of 4-10 indicate opinion mushiness; scores of 11-18 indicate moderate mushiness; and scores of 19-24 indicate opinion firmness. Collectively, an issue is firm when 50% or more of the respondents are firm in their opinions; an issue is very mushy when fewer than 50% are firm and 20% or more respondents are mushy; and an issue is moderately mushy when fewer than 50% of respondents are firm, but fewer than 20% are mushy (see Yankelovich, Skelly & White 1981, pp. 18-19).
Collectively opinions on the Online Compliance Intervention or Robodebt issue are currently moderately mushy (and honestly only a fraction away from very mushy). That is highly unusual for a domestic policy issue. If someone decided to campaign hard on it in the (remaining months of the) campaign, there is certainly room to move hearts and minds… but are there votes in it?
WELFARE AS A VOTE INFLUENCE
The important part where we always end up. Some respondents seemed to struggle to disengage from robodebt back to a wider view of welfare, although certainly most did, with many examples of which specific aspect of welfare they were motivated by.
- Not voting in a compulsory election, however I would be influenced a great deal if this robo debt was to be scrapped. It’s un-Australian pure and simple.
- Changing the Old Age Pension age to eventually 70 is a huge factor in my vote decision.
- Changing to the CDC card is a big factor for me
75% is certainly the highest we have seen so far for any issue in terms of vote impact. But these are murky waters, and not a lot of clear messaging, other than ‘pensions are special’. More research required here.