According to recent media reports, the NSW Labor Party has been conducting some interesting ‘focus groups’ in Harris Park (Western Sydney). As Alex Mitchell reported in The Sun-Herald:
Under pressure in the opinion polls, Labor is planning to launch an American-style negative election campaign targeting Opposition Leader Peter Debnam as filthy rich, out of touch with ordinary voters and a business failure. Even Mr Debnam’s retired father, John, has being dragged into the negative image-making with false accusations that he suffers from depression. At Labor-organised focus groups in Sydney, the audience is being asked about Mr Debnam snr’s ‘struggle with depression’ a campaign technique the Liberal leader has branded as ‘sick, offensive and reprehensible.’
Polling to try and ascertain what people are thinking about across a range of issues is just normal political practice. One requirement for electoral success, after all, is that candidates stay ‘on message’ and polling is a legitimate way to determine what that message (or messages) should be.
It is not the only way, of course. Parties also take the electorate’s pulse by media monitoring the concerns of talkback radio callers and writers of letters to editors giving political campaign managers some idea of the issues that arouse voters’ passions.
But polling can be manipulated unscrupulously, and the technique known as ‘push polling’ is one unethical approach that seems to have gained acceptance among Australia’s major Parties.
Typically, push polling uses telephone surveys. The person calling on behalf of a polling agency asks a series of questions, one of which is worded hypothetically, such as: ‘If you knew that the Prime Minister was an axe murderer, would you still vote Liberal?’ Or, ‘If you knew that a close relative of the Opposition Leader was about to be charged with fraud, would you still vote Labor?’
The justification for such questions is usually that the Party behind the polling needs to find out whether the electorate cares about candidates’ pasts.
Several points must be made here. First, push polls are normally conducted late in the campaign, so Parties wouldn’t be able to really use the information anyway it’s more that the targeted candidate has little time to refute any rumours. And even if the candidate does manage to do so, they lose valuable time on a diversion rather than campaigning positively.
Second, these types of questions are not put to actually gather information they are designed to the sow seeds of mistrust in the minds of voters. Rather than extracting, or pulling information from an existing pool of opinion, this kind of polling aims to push information out into the electorate. The gossip mill works overtime. The media pick up the rumour.
Thanks to Paul Batey
The targeted candidate issues a denial, of course, but they would, wouldn’t they? The electorate’s cynicism about politicians is such that a denial is almost as good as an admission the denier is either not telling the whole story (where there’s smoke there’s fire), or the candidate needs to take a lie detector test.
Third, using the question is merely a rhetorical device. The respondent cannot answer effectively. In the extreme case of a question like the one about the Prime Minister, only one answer is conceivable. In the case of questions like the second one above, the answers would be completely unreliable. People cannot instantly make decisions on such matters and would likely change their minds often. In both cases, the responses would be meaningless. In the case of the focus groups in Western Sydney, Labor did not deny it asked questions about the health of Peter Debnam’s father, but it did deny that it would make personal attacks in the campaign leading to the NSW State election next March.
When confronted over the use of this push polling, Party strategists follow the example set by Ministers of the Crown. Initially, they deny all knowledge and refuse to believe their Party could do such a thing. Then, forced to confront the possibility, they blame someone else, usually the pollsters.
Lately, they have tried to turn defence into attack. They say that their opponents do ‘push polling’ while they have simply made some mistakes. The difference they claim, is in the intention. The other side aims to mislead we were just over enthusiastic.
The Federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) has heard allegations by major and minor Parties and Independents. Most of the accusations have been directed at the Liberal Party, for example in elections for the Northern Territory, the NSW State seat of Manly and the Federal seat of Canberra.
There have been disputes over what constitutes push polling. But, when reading the JSCEM transcripts, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, while publicly condemning push-polling, Party leaders probably all believe that this kind of behaviour is acceptable, as long as everyone’s playing by the same rules. They show little regard for the possibility that those rules are unethical and that the electorate despises them for it.
At every election, Parties run advertisements that are marginal in terms of meeting existing regulations. At every election, the authorities overseeing radio, television and print advertisements rule some material inadmissible. Parties might claim that it is necessary to test the boundaries of acceptability. But when Parties get desperate, they run serious risks. Banned ads are of course wasted, and Parties probably feel the financial penalty deeply, but as recent amendments to the electoral laws will make more funds flow to the major Parties, the threat of fines fades further into insignificance.
Perhaps it is time for the imposition of severe personal penalties on Party officials and candidates who are found to act unethically. After all, the Government has been keen to crack down on welfare cheats and to provide heavy penalties for anyone thought to be holding (even inadvertent) knowledge about alleged terrorists so, to be consistent shouldn’t it should get serious about those who abuse the electoral system’s freedoms?
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