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Galahs And Polls

by Malcolm Farnsworth

Walk into a pet shop and the resident galah will be talking about microeconomic reform. So said Paul Keating some 20 years ago as the last Labor government went about some significant policy renovation.

GalahsIn 2010 the galahs instead seem to be interpreting opinion polls. Recent weeks have been especially trying for us simple souls attempting to work out whether Kevin Rudd is a dead duck.

In January, The Australian reported that Newspolls covering October-December 2009 showed the Rudd government in a landslide winning position with 57 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote. The Morgan poll also said Labor was on 57 per cent. An Essential Research poll in January said Labor was ahead of the Coalition by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

These figures were essentially what we had been reading for over two years. They indicated a newly-elected government coasting to re-election against an Opposition that couldn’t surpass the mid-40s.

As recently as mid-April, the Newspoll had Labor leading 54-46, with a primary vote of 43.

All this came to a screeching halt when the Newspoll taken between April 30-May 2 showed the ALP trailing the Coalition 49-51, a five point decline. The ALP primary vote had plummeted eight points from 43 to 35 in the space of a fortnight.

The May 14-16 Newpoll showed the ALP primary increasing two points to 37 per cent. Labor and the Coalition were equal on 50-50 of the two-party vote.

By May 28-30, Newspoll had the ALP slipping back to 35 per cent of the primary vote but increasing its two-party lead to 51-49.

Yesterday, the June 18-20 Newspoll showed the ALP’s primary vote still languishing on 35 per cent but the two-party lead had stretched another point to 52-48.

As a dedicated political tragic, I looked at the early release of the Newspoll figures on Mumble on Sunday night. I was mindful that members of the News Limited aviary had pronounced that Kevin Rudd had a week to shape up or face a leadership challenge from Julia Gillard. It all hinged on their Newspoll, they told me. So serious was the situation, a Sky News commentator opined that there was a 30 per cent chance Kevin Rudd had just experienced his last weekend as Prime Minister.

Over the years, the political commentators have always told me I should look for the trend. A quick calculation showed that the ALP had increased its two-party lead in three consecutive Newspolls. From 54 per cent in mid-April, then down to 49 per cent a couple of weeks later, Labor had clawed its way back to 50 per cent, then 51 per cent, and now 52 per cent. That must be a trend, I thought.

But no. “Abbott narrows gap on Rudd” said the headline in yesterday’s Australian. On ABC News Breakfast, Virginia Trioli declared with great certainty that Rudd was still in trouble. Weeks of speculation about Rudd’s psychological health and Julia Gillard’s vote-pulling power seemed set to continue.

Suddenly, the two-party-preferred vote no longer shows what is really happening in the electorate. Somehow or other, I have been misled into focussing on the two-party vote. All along, it is asserted, I should have been looking at the satisfaction ratings of the leaders and the primary votes of the two sides.

The proponents of this line of thinking were particularly prominent during the last election. One prominent galah at The Australian spent much of 2007 quoting John Howard’s satisfaction and PM approval ratings in support of the view that the master politician was about to pull a magic electoral rabbit out of his hat.

Now this canard is back with a vengeance.

There has long been a debate amongst political aficionados as to the significance of satisfaction and preferred PM ratings.

Possum Comitatus has debunked the use of satisfaction ratings by showing that both Rudd and Abbott have been experiencing increasing dissatisfaction figures since last December.

He points to a “rampant disgruntlement” amongst the electorate.

Whatever the cause, it seems to me absurd to suggest that Kevin Rudd is the one in trouble when the Newspoll shows roughly equal levels of satisfaction (Rudd 36 per cent, Abbott 38 per cent) and dissatisfaction (Rudd 55 per cent, Abbott 49 per cent).

Yet the media “narrative”, as some call it, has it that Rudd’s descent from sky-high approval ratings indicates that he has lost his way. Even though the Newspoll shows Rudd leading Abbott 46-37 on the question of who would make the better Prime Minister, the media emphasis is on Rudd’s decline from figures in the 60s.

At worst, I would suggest the figures indicate disenchantment with Rudd but an unwillingness to bestow approval on Abbott.

What about primary votes? The new orthodoxy holds that the primary figures are more significant than the two-party-preferred figure. Is the ALP in trouble if it polls less than 40 per cent?

Last night, the inestimable Laurie Oakes, on Channel 9, said that the Rudd government is “cactus” if it can’t lift its primary vote above 35 per cent. The ALP “hardheads” understand that, he said. And it’s true. Sort of.

In 1977, the ALP polled 39.6 per cent of the primary vote and was beaten by Malcolm Fraser. In 1996, it went down to John Howard with just 38.75 per cent of primaries. In 2004, Mark Latham led the ALP to defeat with 37.63 per cent of primaries.

However, in 1977 and 1996 the ALP was thrashed. In 2004, with a lower primary vote, it suffered a severe but much less catastrophic defeat.

Moreover, in 1990, Bob Hawke led the ALP to victory with just 39.4 per cent of the primary vote. Hawke even lost the two-party vote, garnering 49.9 per cent to the Coalition’s 50.1 per cent.

If national majority rule prevailed, we should have had Prime Minister Andrew Peacock in 1990, just as Prime Minister Kim Beazley should have walked into The Lodge in 1998 with 50.98 per cent of the two-party vote.

Don’t forget South Australian Premier Mike Rann hung onto government a few months ago with just 37.5 per cent of the primary vote and a mere 48.4 per cent of the two-party-preferred.

Clearly, the situation is not as clear-cut as some of the commentators have been suggesting. Perhaps there is a “narrative” at work here.

Yes, the primary vote matters. But the two-party-preferred vote decides the winner.

The simple fact is that all Australian voters have to express an ultimate preference for either the ALP or the coalition.

This week’s Newspoll shows 15 per cent support for the Greens, down from the previous poll’s peak of 16 per cent. A further 10 per cent support “Others”. Fully one-quarter of the electorate wants to vote for someone other than the ALP, Liberals or Nationals.

That figure of 25 per cent is very high compared to what happened at the 2007 election. Then only 14.85 per cent voted for parties other than Labor or the Coalition: 7.79 per cent to the Greens and 7.06 per cent for Others.

Disenchantment with Labor notwithstanding, there has to be a question mark over the likelihood of that 25 per cent figure being reached by the Greens and Others.

But assume for the sake of the argument that 25 per cent do vote for minor parties. The preferences of that 25 per cent of voters are crucial to the outcome of the election. In our compulsory voting, compulsory preferential system, they matter a whole lot more than a vague polling question about whether people are “satisfied” with Rudd or Abbott.

Recently on Lateline, the Liberal Party’s Michael Kroger claimed that the high level of support in the polls for the Greens was because the voters “park their vote before they come to the Coalition”. This view was later endorsed by Fran Kelly on Insiders.

Really? Disillusioned Labor voters are moving to the Greens, preparatory to supporting the Liberals?

My personal vox pops on this question uncovered a former Labor MP who told me he’s going to vote for the Greens because he’s disgusted with Rudd for dropping the Emissions Trading Scheme. But his preferences are going straight back to the ALP, one way or the other.

A Greens voter I met recently expressed her utter dismay with Rudd but Abbott made her apoplectic.

These voters are not “parking” their votes with the Greens as part of a long march to the Liberals. They’re mainly progressive, left-of-centre, Labor-leaning voters. Some are free market, small-l liberals who would like to support Turnbull but they despise and fear Abbott. They believe the Liberal Party has taken a hard-right turn into climate change denial, economic primitivism and reactionary social policy.

What we can probably say with some confidence is that the Greens will once again fail to meet expectations. A proportion of Newspoll’s 15-16 per cent will flow back to the ALP. Ditto for the “Others”. Newspoll’s competitors tend to put the Greens on a lower vote of around 10-12 per cent.

The argument that Labor will struggle to win with a primary vote in the mid-30s is undoubtedly correct. The more primary voters Labor loses, the more it risks a leakage of preferences which could cost it the election. Labor’s aim must be to lift its primary vote as close to the 43.38 per cent it polled in 2007.

There is no question that the ALP has angered and disappointed many of its supporters. Some are outraged over the ETS decision. The former Labor MP I spoke to described its effect on the party as “corrosive”.

Others see Labor as trapped in a pincer movement, losing votes on the left over climate change, and on the right over asylum seekers and issues of competence, such as the insulation debacle.

However, another former Labor MP from the most marginal part of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs told me that housing prices and interest rates remained, as always, the most significant determinants of votes.

The Essential poll published yesterday showed the ALP on 38 per cent of primaries. The question for the months ahead is how many of those polling as Greens or Others can be won back by Rudd.

The same Essential poll showed only 29 per cent of those polled thought Abbott the best person to lead the Liberal Party. A change of Liberal leader was supported by 47 per cent. Even as Malcolm Turnbull returns to the fray, we’re not hearing much media talk about the state of the Liberal Party’s leadership or policy development.

The media coverage of the polls thus seems distorted. The drama and excitement of a government’s fall from favour obscures a more detached assessment.

Could Rudd lose? Of course. Will he? I have no idea. History and instinct says Rudd will survive but events may deign otherwise.

What I do know is that I can’t accept the interpretations of the polls that are offered up by many sections of the Australian media. Some interpretations merely serve editorial agendas. Others seem based on wilful ignorance. Most strike me as simplistic.

When opinion polls feature as front page “news”, we should question what kind of political coverage we’re getting. As the sources of political opinion proliferate, we should be mindful which parts of the incessant chatter we listen to because some of them think we’re just galahs.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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