What if policies have networks like people?

It’s been policy-light this election season, but some policy areas are up for debate. Others are being carefully avoided by mutual agreement, much like at Christmas lunch when we all tacitly agree we aren’t bringing up What Aunty Betty Did Last Year After Twelve Sherries. It’s all too painful, we’ll never come to any kind of agreement and we should just pretend like it’s not important.

However, policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum and I wondered if it was possible that using a social network-type analysis might illustrate something about the policy debate that is occurring during this election season.

To test the theory, I used the transcripts of the campaign launch speeches of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. These are interesting documents to examine, because they are at one and the same time an affirmation of each parties’ policy aspirations for the campaign as well as a rejection of the other’s. I used a simple social network analysis, similar to that used in the Aeneid study. If you want to try it yourself, you can find the R script here.

Deciding on the topics to examine was some trial and error, but the list was eventually narrowed down to 19 topics that have been the themes of the election year: jobs, growth, housing, childcare, superannuation, health, education, borders, immigration, tax, medicare, climate change,marriage equality, offshore processing, environment, boats, asylum, business and bulk billing. These aren’t the topics that the parties necessarily want to talk about, but they are nonetheless being talked about.

It took some manoeuvring to get a network that was readable, but one layout (Kamada Kawaii for the interested) stood out. I think it describes the policy state quite well, visually speaking.

topic network 160627

We have the inner circle of high disagreement: borders, environment, superannuation, boats and immigration. There is a middle circle doing the job of containment: jobs and growth, housing, childcare, education, medicare, business and tax- all standard election fodder.

Then we have the outer arc of topics neither the labor or liberal parties really wants to engage with: offshore processing, asylum (as opposed to immigration, boats and borders), climate change (much more difficult to manage than mere environment), bulk billing (the crux of medicare) and marriage equality (have a plebiscite, have a free parliamentary vote, have something, except responsibility). I found it interesting that the two leaders’ speeches when visualised contain one part of a policy debate around immigration: boats and borders. But they conspicuously avoided discussing the unpleasant details: offshore processing.

Much like Aunty Betty and her unfortunate incident with the cold ham, both parties are in tacit agreement to ignore the difficult parts of a policy debate.

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