Polls that Count


The only poll that counts, we’re told time and again, is the one on election day. But if you believe that you’d believe anything perhaps even that AWB executives really didn’t know they were paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein.

The truth is opinion polls are important. They are keenly and closely watched by all the players. There are patterns and accepted wisdoms that come with them. Each is gauged according to the particular part of the electoral cycle we happen to be in.



For instance, a poll that has the Government five points behind the Opposition 18 months out from an election won’t be given the same weight as the same result 12 months later. A poll showing voter dissatisfaction with the Labor leader will also be judged on the severity of the discontent and the political pressures at play at the time.

You might well ask: When hasn’t there been a poll that’s shown that in the past 10 years or so? But it’s all about degrees of interpretation. Simon Crean’s demise as leader of the ALP was driven by polling that showed deep public reservations about his leadership and a subsequent serious and continuing lack of support for the Party under his watch. Kim Beazley has survived some relatively poor personal satisfaction ratings because the Labor Party’s primary vote has held up pretty well.

Of course, polls have the most resonance for those in Opposition. There is a sense that a Government can drift for a while but has the power to pull itself back with the required backflips, scare campaigns and policy initiatives. John Howard is a specialist at it.

Which brings us to the latest and perhaps most significant of the recent Newspolls. Newspoll is considered to be the most reliable in the business but the interpretation of that poll can sometimes seem peculiar or, as Labor’s Bob McMullan puts it, ‘inadequate.’

‘Beazley Leaves Voters in Marginal Seats Dissatisfied: Poll’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

That was the headline The Australian managed to pull from a poll that basically showed Labor neck and neck with the Coalition on 42 per cent of the primary vote in 45 key marginal seats. Given that at the last election the Coalition won 45 per cent of the primary vote to Labor’s 40 even with Mark Latham in the job the headline writers could have come up with an entirely different interpretation without trying too hard.

As Bob McMullan says, any consistent reading of the polls shows that Labor has been ahead for the past six months. But the public perception of Labor hasn’t changed basically, most people still believe pretty firmly that Kim Beazley will lose the next election.

‘That discontinuity takes a bit of explanation,’ says McMullan. ‘One part of it is just how inadequately the polls are reported in Australia. I don’t mean bias, I just think journalists have a mindset [that]the Government’s going to win, so they write their coverage accordingly, despite the facts.’

Perhaps. But the question remains: what do polls really mean? How are the hardheads on either side viewing the polls just a year out from the election?

There’s no doubt the Government is mildly concerned. As the Prime Minister keeps telling his Party room ‘there’s no place for complacency,’ and ‘the next election will be difficult.’ Clearly, Howard would like to be further ahead in the marginals. Privately, though, he is said to be pretty confident about his chances of beating Beazley for a third time.

As for Labor, it’s true, as McMullan notes, the polls show that of all governments in Australia the Federal Government should be the easiest incumbent to beat. Polls for the recent State elections have had those Labor Governments consistently in front.

But the hard truth, as many in the Labor Party acknowledge, is that the issues of economic and national security are still seen as the Federal Coalition Government’s big strengths. And they are still the issues that bite in those electorates where elections are won or lost.

Some in Labor have been buoyed by the recent polling, other perhaps wiser heads admit that the reality is they are still a long way from a winning position.

Oppositions need to present a story, a narrative and a credible alternative message. They also need a naturally conservative electorate to feel motivated enough to change a government.

Senior Labor figures readily acknowledge Kim Beazley has yet to connect in that way. Given the political debate of late has been dominated by Industrial Relations, the sale of Medibank Private, the T3 float and a couple of interest rate rises, most of the players believe Labor should be further ahead.

The trouble with Labor at the moment or perhaps this is always the trouble with Labor is that there are so many competing interests inside the Party looking for concessions. The unions want to push Labor’s IR policy back to pre-Hawke and Keating days; there’s pressure to appease other sectional interests like the Greens; and as we saw with the recent values debate, others want to push Beazley even closer to the Government on some policy issues.

In a sense, Beazley is still so insecure that he’s trying to please everyone, but to be convincing he needs to define himself for the voters and present a message that is as much about him as it is about the Labor Party. The pragmatists say he needs to start by showing some leadership from within, by taking on some of the sectional interests.

It was in 1998, during the first Howard-Beazley contest, that John Howard coined the phrase ‘no ticker.’ It is a moniker that Kim Beazley has found hard to shake ever since. But if he’s ever to be Prime Minister he needs to do just that.

The polls show Labor is ahead but they also show that Kim Beazley is still looking for his ticker.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.