Australia’s frenetic love affair with opinion polling has been brought to an ignominious end. Late at night on May 18, our beloved polls were found to have betrayed us. They lied about where our primary votes were and told us we’d get Bill, but instead we got Scott.
The Conservative Party, and the majority of middle Australia going by the election result, were fearful of a Bill Shorten win given the raft of economy-wrecking socialist policies he and Labor offered the voters.
Macquarie Media federal political correspondent, Harry Spicer, writes in The Australian:
“There are some real consequences of this polling failure, the biggest of which occurred among a group of friends of mine, who have had a near breakdown in their relationship over polling. “Never ever quote a poll to me ever again,” one said. I look forward to the television adaptation of the saga.
Forgive me, but I was never really in love with the polls. I found them rude, lacking in charm. They would never tell you the whole story, just declare they loved you or they didn’t; they prefer you or they don’t. The Australian people are far more romantic than that.
Ridiculous analogy aside, I was on the booths in Peter Dutton’s Brisbane electorate of Dickson on election day. Watching the voters come in was fascinating. Many were parents, towing the kids along from Saturday sport. They’d been busy, trying to renovate the house, keep on top of the mortgage and looking after nan and pop.
So busy, that I dare say they actually hadn’t sat around reading much about the election.
They missed the culture wars, but caught a glimpse of the leadership spills. They had heard about negative gearing, maybe even a retirement tax. Something about cancer expenses.
It seems to me these people had been undecided right up until they got inside the polling booth and pulled open the party paraphernalia handed to them. It just so happened this group of people saw the Coalition’s message, which translated to a safe economy for them and their family, and broke heavily in Scott Morrison’s favour, particularly in my home state of Queensland.
As recently as May 12, Newspoll had about 17 per cent of voters as undecided.
That’s an enormous figure, more than enough to sway elections. Taking this figure into account, the two-party preferred figure could really be Coalition 41, Labor 42, Undecided 17.
These numbers cast doubt on just how wrong the polls were. It’s hard to accurately predict a two-party preferred result when so many of Australia’s swinging voters simply have not made up their minds. The intuitive meaning of all this is actually remarkably simple: people really have better things to do than pay attention to politics, and don’t tune in to campaigns until the pointy end. They’re trying to live their lives.
So when the polls come in and they show a party is doomed, or roaring ahead, perhaps they’re right at that moment in time. But there’s always more to the story than just numbers. It’s how they’re interpreted that’s important.
Political parties need to remember that people elect governments, pay mild attention to major manoeuvres and policy changes, and then judge them at the ballot box three years later.
It’s for this reason the Coalition got away with such dysfunction for large periods of its previous term: people simply forgot about things like the dual citizenship saga, because it really didn’t change their lives.
History has also shown that lagging in the polls isn’t a death sentence. There’s the often talked about comeback of the Howard government in 1998, 2001 and 2004, when voters appeared set to tip out the Coalition. In 2000, John Howard trailed 40-60 two-party preferred.
Yet when an election campaign finally came around, people would seriously think about it and change their minds, re-electing the Coalition on multiple occasions. This was because Howard’s government was judged on its macro achievements and performance, rather than who had spent too much on their travel allowance a year ago.
Polls are still important and provide a decent snapshot of the electorate at a point in time. It’s just they have limitations. They won’t tell you how soft voters are, they won’t tell you what people will be thinking about in a year’s time, and their samples and methodologies aren’t always watertight. Our political parties need to consider this, and perhaps our politicians should use their instincts a little bit more.”