Changing your opinion: why is it so wrong in politics?

A common feature of political dialogue, both from politicians and how they are reported on in our media, is the term ‘backflip’. The frequent usage of the term, and the mindset that goes with it, is damaging to productive political discourse.

To borrow from John Maynard Keynes,

“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

What is a backflip? Well, in a political sense, a backflip generally refers to the changing of one’s policy, often despite prior statements that this would not occur. The term is used in a derogatory manner, mainly to point out the apparent untrustworthiness of the person making the backflip. It is implied that since the person stated their policy on a subject in the past, they are misleading voters by changing that policy.

Some cases labelled a ‘backflip’ occurring in recent years in Australian politics  (Undoubtably this issue exists in other countries, but I’m going to use examples from Australia) that readily come to mind:

I’m quite sure that if you asked any standing member of the Australian parliament the question “do you change or evaluate your opinion on presentation of new, relevant information?”, their answer would be “yes”. So why are politicians so ready to label any change of opinion ‘a backflip’, and why is the media so ready to report it?

When it comes to politicians, it simply boils down to political point scoring. I don’t like to make sweeping generalisations without hard data to back it up, but it would seem that the preferred method of communication in today’s political climate is vitriol and ad hominem attacks, as opposed to focussing on actual policy and positive outcomes for their constituents and country. There have been quite a few opinion pieces on this topic of late, many of them laying the blame at the door of Tony Abbott and the dialogue of his party while in opposition over the last few years. Of course, the blame doesn’t solely lie with Abbott; he didn’t start it – he just perfected it. That’s not a compliment.

Here’s a few opinion pieces on the matter from across the political spectrum from the Sydney Morning Herald, the BBC and the Brisbane Times.

Politicians seems to have come to the conclusion that the most effective way for them to look better than their opposition is to blindly attack them on everything they say and do, no matter how rational it was. Unfortunately, it seems to have worked for the Liberals, sweeping them to power with a huge coalition majority in the 2013 Federal Election.

However, politicians don’t promote their messages, positive or negative, all on their own (they’re not all Twitter masters like K. Rudd). That’s the media’s job. From the ABC opinion:

Modern journalism is all about the search for the “Gotcha” moment; the gaffe, the slip of the tongue, the contradiction which can be seized upon and endlessly replayed […]

A politician asked a question like: “Will you guarantee that there will be no tax rises in your term of office? That not a single worker will lose a job? That no one will be worse off?” has just two choices: lie, or obfuscate. A refusal to play the silly game on the grounds that the question is unanswerable in that form is automatically taken as a negative. Yet such questions are the daily provocation ministers face, not just from the shock jocks, but from broadsheet gurus who regard themselves as the real kingmakers of the process.

How does this help us have constructive political dialogue? Well, it doesn’t. It does, however unfortunately, help sell newspapers. And (from the same ABC article above) the effect of this is:

[…] every policy has to be reduced to a slogan, and every debate considered not on its merits, but in terms of the perceived winner or loser.

This decline in communication standards at the expense of good policy is hard to stem. It’s not something that can be legislated against; it’s a mindset that needs changing. Both politicians and media outlets alike need to recognise their social responsibilities and the effect their actions have. It’s very easy to blame someone else, but as I hope everyone learned while still at primary school: take some responsibility for your own actions.

Politicians got where they were by being, among other things, effective debaters and communicators. If they stopped and thought about their methods of ‘one-upping’ their opposition, they’d realise they were entirely crude and damaging. It’s time to respect the fact that sometimes opinion and policy does, and indeed should, change.

Of course, labelling a policy or opinion change as a backflip might sometimes be justified, but let’s explore what you need to take into account:

  • How long ago was the previous position stated?
  • Have the facts and/or opinion of the public changed (not mutually exclusive)?
  • Did the person state that their policy/opinion would not change in the future?

How long ago the previous opinion was stated and what bearing that has on the new decision would need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. In news this week, Tony Abbott has returned the titles of knights and dames to the Order of Australia honours list. However, only in December he (very probably) stated that he wouldn’t be considering this move, saying “I just don’t think that’s realistic in this country.” This is not a particularly fact based issue, more a matter of personal taste, so I find it a little odd for him to change his opinion in such a short time-frame. On the other hand, as a purely hypothetical example, if Abbott had presented a fiscal policy in December relating to interest rates, and then the Reserve Bank dropped the market interest rate by 2%, it should be quite acceptable for him to alter his policy today to reflect the change in facts.

The time I’m happy for the media to lambast a politician is when they confidently assert that something will never happen on their watch…and then they do it. Unfortunately, the media encourages politicians to deal in black and white, simply because it makes a better soundbite. The politician who succumbs to this temptation deserves to be fully ridiculed for dealing in absolutes on a nuanced subject. Case in point – John Howard and the GST. The politicians could help themselves; just once, I’d like to see the following stated as an introduction to a policy about to be presented:

At this current time, we believe that this policy best deals with [the situation] in its current state. Of course, should the situation change and/or new facts come to light, we will adapt our policy to facilitate the most appropriate outcome.

You never know, it might just raise the intelligence quotient of our political dialogue.

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One thought on “Changing your opinion: why is it so wrong in politics?

  1. Pingback: Hang on, did Andrew Bolt just negatively judge Tony Abbott?! | Logical Philosophical

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