Can We Be Trusted To Choose The Next Government?

Perhaps, as Churchill argued, for all its flaws democracy is better than the alternatives.

Sir Winston Churchill had such faith in the ordinary Briton he backed them to stand defiant against the Nazi Blitzkrieg.

“We will fight them on the beaches,” he famously declared. And they responded.

But when it came to the political judgement of his compatriots, Churchill was much more dismissive.

“The best argument against democracy,” he grumbled, “is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The son of a Lord, born in a stately home, Churchill inspired a population while seeming sometimes to despise them.

Winston Churchill outside 10 Downing Street, gesturing his famous 'V for Victory' hand signal, June 1943. (Photo by H F Davis/Getty Images).

The concept of government of the people, by the people, for the people -- so perfectly expressed by another wartime leader, Abraham Lincoln -- seemed a dubious prize for Churchill even as he worked so hard to protect it.

“Democracy is the worst form of Government,” he declared to Parliament, “except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

As Australians get set to vote, is Churchill’s pessimism right?

The next federal election could be a lot tighter than the 30-something Newspoll wins clocked up by Labor suggests. The polls have been narrowing. They could tighten further once voters start to pay real attention.

“The political contest in Australia is very close,” says the Prime Minister.

Malcolm Turnbull, with a slightly different trademark hand signal. Image: Getty.

So, can we be relied upon to deliver the best possible government? It is unlikely Churchill would find average Aussies any more impressive than average Brits.

The case against us is made by another giant figure of the 20th Century, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman devised endless little trick questions to catch us out in the profound irrationality of our thinking. His work has been pushed back into focus by a recent book from Moneyball author Michael Lewis, called The Undoing Project.

One of the little riddles Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky devised was this one:

Which is more likely?:

1/ A massive flood occurs in North America in which 1000 people die. 2/ An earthquake in California causes a massive flood in which 1000 people die.

Most people know California is on a major faultline. We’re all been condition by disaster movies and school books to expect a coming “Big One”.

Consequently, most people (and I have tried it on my colleagues) choose Option Two.

But it’s an irrational choice. A trick of the mind. Any deaths in a flood caused by a Californian earthquake would be contained within scenario #1, which is also broad enough to include any other cause of a devastating flood.

Through hundreds of similar little questions, many of them contained in Kahneman’s 2011 bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, the academic reveals how lacking in a rational base most of our decisions are.

So if we are all less rational than we imagine, why should we be entrusted to choose a government?

Perhaps, as Churchill argued, for all its flaws, democracy is better than the alternatives.

Bob Hawke reckoned voters always got it right. Image: Getty.

Bob Hawke was more generous about his fellow Aussies. He reckoned, with few exceptions, Australian voters get it right. Even through the Menzies years. Even -- by implication -- when Malcolm Fraser won his landslides against Gough.

We had better hope Hawke’s optimism will be justified by the choice we are about to make. Because whoever we elect, we are going to need the best we can get.