Inside Story

Life, death and the pollsters’ art

Newspoll’s revised figures suggest that Malcolm Turnbull did better last year than we thought. It’s another reason to give up our obsession with polls

Peter Brent 25 April 2018 655 words

Hostage to fortune: prime minister Malcolm Turnbull talks to journalists at the Teenie Weenies Learning Centre in Panania on the day of his thirtieth disappointing Newspoll result. Brendan Esposito/AAP Image

When Malcolm Turnbull justified knocking off Tony Abbott as prime minister partly by referring to the Coalition’s loss of “thirty Newspolls in a row,” it turned out to be a politically unwise move. On top of that, the prime minister deserves a stern rebuke for pushing political commentary even further into meaninglessness.

The Australian political class’s unhealthy obsession with opinion polls, weekly, fortnightly and monthly, and the loopy overestimation of their power to “measure” the political climate — as if, for example, a small “movement” can be attributed to something that “happened” in the past fortnight — aren’t new, but until recently the surveys were at least seen as tools and not as contests within themselves.

Turnbull’s terminology of “losing” versus “winning” was a quantum lurch further into superficial horse-race-ism. Thanks to his own date with destiny this month — when he himself “lost” thirty Newspolls in a row — it caught on. And it remains with us; yesterday’s blurb on the Australian’s home page referred to Turnbull’s having “lost his thirty-first straight Newspoll.”

Help! Please make it stop.

Like the ever-shrinking news cycle, opinion-poll fetishisation is one of those things politicians seem to have no choice but to accept. They follow the polls’ logic, perceiving and analysing leaders’ political prowess through their prism. There is no escape.

It cuts both ways. This week’s Newspoll, with Labor still ahead in two-party-preferred support — but not quite as far ahead, on 51–49 — has put pressure on opposition leader Bill Shorten. But is it really 51–49?

Modern politics is characterised by low primary support for both major parties. This week’s Newspoll, for instance, has 37 per cent for Labor and 38 for the Coalition (both unchanged from a fortnight ago). The lower this support, the harder it is for pollsters to estimate two-party-preferred numbers. This doesn’t matter much if one side is a mile ahead, but the closer to 50–50, the more that rubberiness matters.

Bloggers Kevin Bonham and William Bowe have pointed out an apparent recent change in Newspoll’s assumptions about Pauline Hanson’s One Nation preferences. Until last December, the pollster assumed they would split about 50–50 between Labor and the Coalition because that’s what they did at the last election. But the 2016 allocation came from such a tiny primary vote (1.3 per cent, running in a handful of electorates), whereas the party was hitting double-digits during 2017 and this week it’s on 7 per cent. And the 2016 vote was influenced by Labor-friendly how-to-vote cards (which Wyatt Roy, at least, can blame for his demise in Longman).

There is little doubt that the much bigger opinion-poll support One Nation has been attracting comes predominantly from right-of-centre respondents. Even if One Nation runs in every electorate across the country, which is unlikely, opinion polls routinely overstate minor-party support and so some of those who say they’ll vote for the party will end up drifting away.

So for this reason as well it’s reasonable to distribute most One Nation preferences to the Coalition, as Newspoll now does. Using the old method, the pollster would very likely have Labor on 52 per cent this week — a trivial difference in every way except its impact on political commentary.

Ideally, all those earlier Newspolls would be revised in the archives as well, but pollsters don’t do that, and anyway you couldn’t rewrite all the associated commentary and analysis.

And if you accept the logic of commentary-through-the-polls, it turns out Shorten wasn’t doing quite so well during 2017 and Turnbull wasn’t as hopeless as he seemed.

What does Newspoll have in store for our politicians over the rest of 2018? I suspect Shorten’s overtaking of Turnbull as “better prime minister” will set the cat among the Liberal pigeons. Despite a dip this week, I’d say this is all but inevitable.

Unless Labor finds a way to dispose of Shorten first.

Our politicians live and die by Newspoll. •