I haven’t done much blogging for a while, but before Campbelltown Council votes to permanently increase the amount of money it takes from the people of Campbelltown by over $5 million a year, I think it’s important that the people have a picture of the process they have been led through at their expense.
I think anyone who has received the mailouts (link to pdf) regarding the special rate variation would begin to understand how one-sided this process has been. Whilst this has been sold as a consultation, it has been quite clear from the start that only one solution is acceptable, raising taxes on the people and businesses of Campbelltown by over 8%.
Here’s an example of the consultation presented:
The reality is that this minimum 3% to 3.5% increase will not address our existing infrastructure gap and will only fund the day to day operations of Council’s services, which is why we need to make a change now.
This is an opinion, presented as fact, and it’s arguably simply false. The minimum 3% increase would address our existing infrastructure gap with plenty left over if we stop spending millions on totally discretionary spending such as tourism centres, childcare, CD recycling programs, foreign aid, community grants, just to name a few.
One would also think, as part of a consultation, the council would present alternatives. And this is what I indeed suggested. That an alternative be presented without a rate rise that instead cuts back on programs like the above and redirects their funding to infrastructure.
I know selling service cuts would be a tough ask. But since we’re “consulting” I thought it would be reasonable to put that on the table. Perhaps the community might consider the option of some service cuts with a smaller rate rise.
The council didn’t want the community to have that option. My amendment to simply to put another option on the table, was defeated 13-1.
The icing on the cake came on Tuesday night. I was listening to the briefing regarding the report on the rate rise community consultation. Statistics were presented to councillors regarding the public acceptance of the rate rise via a phone survey.
It was unusually high, around the 60% mark.
I immediately thought something was suspect. Quite simply, people aren’t that supportive of tax rises, particularly what I’ve heard from the community on this rate rise.
The first part of the story was relatively simple and plain to see. Out of the five options:
- Very supportive
- Somewhat supportive
- Not very supportive
- Not supportive at all
three options, including “somewhat supportive” were included in the “supportive” 60%. Take these out and the supportive group is now under 50%, but not by much.
I thought something else was going on, and I immediately suspected a more alarming misrepresentation. I suspected that there were leading questions.
For those who haven’t heard of this effect, the best way to explain it is this clip from Yes Prime Minister
Basically, you can get any sort of response you want by controlling the questions before, typically by asking questions that have only one reasonable response. It’s called Response Bias.
So when I read through the physical report on the telephone survey this Friday, my suspicions were confirmed.
Here’s how the questioning went around the rate rise question. First:
How important do you believe it is for Council to implement programs that will provide better infrastructure?
Of course respondents are going to say infrastructure is a good thing, particularly when costs are not mentioned. The return of 95% respondents saying this was very important or somewhat important is completely unsurprising. Hence it has little value as a survey question. What it does to is set up a positive connection with better infrastructure in respondents’ minds.
The script read to respondents over the phone then goes further. Below I’ve placed it in full:
Campbelltown City Council believes that the long term sustainability of Campbelltown is important to everyone – from residents of all ages who utilise local roads, community facilities, services and open spaces; to local businesses and industry that rely on the city’s proximity to major transport routes, consistent growth and reliable infrastructure.
Council is now facing the challenge of balancing community expectations for services and infrastructure with the financial cost of maintaining these services and infrastructure into the future.
The challenge has occurred as a result of the long term ‘cap’ on Council’s rates by the State Government, and the decision by Council to refrain from increasing rates over and above this ‘cap’ for many years. The City of Campbelltown continues to grow, placing more demand on local infrastructure, a lot of which is now in urgent need of repair and maintenance.
In order to make Campbelltown an ever better place to live, Council is proposing a Special Rate Variation of 11% in July 2014, aimed at addressing the existing infrastructure maintenance backlog and ensuring that the city’s assets can be continued to be maintained to a suitable standard in the future.
Council would like to know your opinion of the proposal for a one-off rate increase of 11% in July 2014, which would include the 3% rate cap allowed by the state government.
Some parts are plainly misleading. The idea that the growth of Campbelltown will increase demand on local infrastructure is technically true, but what is failed to be mentioned is that growth increases the rate base. Growth isn’t part of the “cap”. With higher densities, this may actually ease maintenance costs relative to our rate base, not increase them.
But the killer is this:
In order to make Campbelltown an even better place to live, Council is proposing a Special Rate Variation of 11% in July 2014.
Shortly after this statement, the respondent is asked whether they support the special rate variation. They basically have just been told that opposing the special rate variation means not making Campbelltown better.
After all this propaganda, to get almost 40% of respondents not even “somewhat supportive”of the special rate variation is indicative of the level of opposition in the community.
Of course the survey suggests that “Council would like to know your opinion”, but by now it seems that council isn’t interested in your opinion; it’s interested in increasing its coffers.
What makes this whole episode not just laughable, but quite sad, is that more than $50,000 in ratepayer funds have been spent on this farce of an exercise.
I guess the next question to be asked is why? Has this whole process been intentionally designed to cynically present a lop-sided view of public support?
Probably not. Instead, what I think we’re seeing is a problem with our political system and culture. It’s not that most people in politics and government are bad people. There are some, of course, but by and large they are generally well intentioned.
What the issue is, essentially, is the over-inflated sense of importance people in politics and government place on their activities.
I don’t think that council intentionally said “In order to make Campbelltown an even better place to live, Council is proposing a Special Rate Variation of 11%” to skew responses.
The problem is this. Consider the idea of taking $5,000,000 from the people Campbelltown and putting it in council’s hands. Will that make us better off? Most people, whatever side they’re on, will consider that an opinion. But between council walls, it’s seen as close to an objective fact.
It’s seen as such an objective fact that councillors will vote against any alternative view even being presented to the people.
It’s seen as such an objective fact that council is completely blind to the completely one-sided and farcical nature of its consultation.
And this is why you will see council spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year promoting itself, sending mailouts and running tourism centres few even visit.
This is a repeated theme that comes up in my experience.
For example, the idea that governments should take our money and use it to present a one-sided view on a constitutional change was almost unanimously supported by politicians on both sides of politics, particularly in local government. When I was the only councillor to speak against it at the local government conference with hundreds of delegates, I saw perhaps five who put their hand up in support when it came to a vote.
Yet, most ordinary people would have found the above proposal abhorrent. What it comes back to is the same again and again. Politicians’ and government’s extraordinary belief in their goodness, so much so that spending your money to convince you of their goodness is good for you.
It’s quite likely that the rate rise will sail through 13-1. This was quite clear to me early on, when at the initial committee meeting Labor/Liberal were moving/seconding amendments to the consultation proposal together in a way that very much seemed like they had talked about what they were planning before. This level of co-operation was news to me, but I quickly realised it was unsurprising. Both had made election promises of “no cuts to services”, so saving both of their election promises seemed like a good point to come together on.
And that’s politics.
Update – And the plot grows thicker:
Micromex Research, the company hired by council to conduct the poll, does a lot of work for councils, as clearly seen on its website here. Scan down to the Ku-ring-gai case study, instead of the outcomes being “a report on the views of residents was presented to council”, the case study proudly states:
Ku-ring-gai Council was granted approval to continue the special NTRA rate variation for a further 5 years, which has allowed Council to begin building the centre.
Think about other councils pushing for a rate rise, and considering Micromex as a client? Consider how appealing they might consider this case study outcome, and what sort of survey they might expect to be designed for them?
I’m not the first to make these observations of Micromex. For example, this according to thisarticle, University of Canberra marketing academic Raechel Johns claimed the ACT government poll run by Micromex contained leading questions.
But in the end, this isn’t about Micromex, this is about council. Council had strong input into this process, including the questioning, and I presume (well, one would hope) approved the final survey.
Whether what the council has done is technically push polling is a debatable point. The Northern Territory has regulated push polling, and defines it as the following here:
In this section:
“push-polling “means any activity conducted as part of a telephone call made, or a meeting held, during the election period for an election, that:
(a) is, or appears to be, a survey (for example, a telephone opinion call or telemarketing call); and
(b) is intended to influence an elector in deciding his or her vote.
As it is actually a survey it meets part (a) and looking at the script it’s quite clear to me it also satisfies (b).
Some would argue that push polls are only those which have no intention of collecting results though. This is just a debate into definitions though, the primary issue is that when you conduct a survey with leading questions and one-sided information you don’t get a statistically valid result. That’s pretty obvious.