Once upon a time, when I was a busy and active member of the Australian Democrats, the thing that made me most excited of all was working on science policy. I ran a couple of public forums (that very few people attended) and spoke at the national conference (that only Democrats attended) and wrote a science policy (that only I read).
I had never written a policy before, and I was immediately struck by two questions. Firstly, where do you start? But more importantly (especially at 3am before a conference talk) where do you stop?
Policy was meant to be the thing that differentiated us from those other parties, big and small; those single issue minor parties, those major parties corrupted by vested interests, the dogwhistling senators and backbenchers, those ideological zealots who refuse to negotiate. We were a party that forged intricately detailed policy in the fires of committees and consultation and casting votes.
So where do you stop? If detailed policy is good, when do you stop writing it?
The paradox starts with the idea that detailed, well-researched policies serve as both a reason to take a party seriously, and a reason to dismiss them, depending on the voter. But the cost and benefit of each additional policy detail eventually diminishes and even turns around, as voters weigh their disagreement more highly than their agreement. A voter might not even notice their agreement with many details, it being a kind of common-sense to them.
There is more to it than this; policy details may stand out as weird exceptions to otherwise good policy, undermining how serious the party’s commitment to a particular policy even is. This has always been how I’ve felt about the Greens' opposition to ANSTO in relation to the rest of their science policy: it just sticks out as this sign of Not Getting It. And I will come back to that.
So policies become this ever-unfolding fractal of potential reasons to turn away from a party, more than reasons to support it.
The more I reflected on this, the more it bothered me. Partly because I began to see policy-as-a-platform in this relativistic way, no more valid than identity politics or uncompromising ideology (as though “validity” was not already a subjective idea). But also because I recognised in myself an irrational behaviour, a kind of perfectionism, that made me part of the problem I was trying to solve.
I would read policies point by point, scrutinising every line as a single manifesto. And when I found something I disagreed with, it would go on this mental pile of reasons not to support that particular party. But I didn’t really have a corresponding pile for the good points, or for the overall vision. I would just build up this list of excuses to dismiss a party and never check back.
Talking to voters later on made me realise I wasn’t alone in doing this… or in rationalising it. But it also made me realise that maybe, just maybe, I needed to let go of the idea that policy volume was an unconditionally good thing.
Case in Point: The Perfectly Planned City
The policy is simply that there should be a new city, subsidised by the government and funded by industry, focused on science, research, and commercialisation of technology. But… there’s more. The policy also details the location (between Sydney and Canberra), the transport mode to connect it (high speed rail), immigration law exceptions (more of it), and the zoning regulations (eg. minimum population density). Even the name is already thought up: Turing.
Here’s the paradox in action: there are exactly zero voters who would vote for the Science Party after reading the charter city policy who wouldn’t have already voted for the Science party. That is, no one is going to switch votes after reading it. (I feel pretty comfortable making this assertion, so it must be true.) But going the other way: there may well be folk who read this policy, think “WTF,” and look elsewhere.
Even if there aren’t, even if the number of people in the second group is also zero… what’s gained? Have the policy ⇒ possibly lose some voters, or maybe you don’t. Ditch the policy ⇒ no change.
Why do something that has only a cost and no benefit?