Inside Story

Losing ground?

Support for the Voice may not have dropped as much as the latest Newspoll suggests

Murray Goot 9 June 2023 1357 words

A number game: AFL player Michael Long (centre) during his Long Walk to the MCG last month promoting the Voice. Joel Carrett/AAP Image

The latest Newspoll — headlined “Less Than Half Aussies Intend to Vote ‘Yes’ on Voice” on the Australian’s front page — has created something of a stir.

At the beginning of April, when Newspoll last reported on support for putting a Voice into the Constitution, it estimated the level of approval at 53 per cent and opposition at 39 per cent; 8 per cent said “Don’t know.” Two months later, the corresponding figures are rather different: 46–43–11.

On the face of it, this looks like support has declined by seven points, the opposition has risen by four points, and the “Don’t knows” have gone up by three. And it looks like that’s the result of a couple of months in which the No side has campaigned hard and the Yes side has been on the back foot, with some of its erstwhile supporters either switching to No or putting off a firm decision and “parking” their vote, as Newspoll’s former boss Sol Lebovic used to say, under “Don’t know.”

Thus, Dennis Shanahan, in a comment for the Australian: “The latest Newspoll figures… suggest there is an across-the-board movement against the voice and a surge in uncertainty.”

Not so fast. There are two reasons for caution when comparing the June results with the April results: a change in Newspoll’s question and a change in what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, its “choice architecture.”

The question: The Australian notes that the question asked in its latest poll is not the same as the question asked in its previous polls. The obvious implication is that its figures need to be interpreted with care.

In April, Newspoll explained that “There is a proposal to alter the Australian constitution to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament.” It then asked:Are you personally in favour or against this proposal?”

In its latest poll, Newspoll used a slightly different preamble: “Later this year, Australians will decide at a referendum whether to alter the Australian Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”(with those italicised words underlined in the questionnaire). It then asked: “Do you approve this proposed alteration?” This made it “the first Newspoll survey to present voters with the precise question they will be asked at the ballot box when the referendum is held later this year.”

If the differences in the wording of the two questions explains, at least in part, the differences in the two sets of responses, it is not clear how it does. Did the reference to “recognition” deflate support? That seems unlikely: since “recognition” has wide public support, its inclusion is more likely to have boosted support than deflated it. Did the prospect of having to vote at a referendum boost opposition? Again, that seems unlikely, though at a time when voters may have more pressing things to worry about, it’s probably the better bet. Perhaps the heavy black underlining of the proposal caused concern.

According to a quote in the Daily Telegraph, another News Corp masthead, polling analyst Kevin Bonham believes Newspoll is “likely more accurate” than many other polls because it has been the first to use the exact wording of the referendum proposal. However commendable that might have been, we cannot assume that the wording necessarily makes a difference to respondents.

A polling purist might baulk at Newspoll’s switch from: (a) asking respondents whether they are “in favour or against” (balanced alternatives) a proposal to alter the Constitution to establish a Voice; to (b) asking respondents whether they “approve” this proposed alteration, with no balancing alternative (“disapprove”). It might also have been better practice to ask respondents how they intended to act (that is, vote) rather than how they felt (“in favour or against”; “approve”).

The choice architecture: What the Australian overlooks — and what Newspoll itself fails to note — may be something more important than the change in the question: the change in the poll’s choice architecture. In April, Newspoll not just posed a different question; it also offered a different array of response options: “Strongly in favour,” “Partly in favour,” “Partly against,” “Strongly against,” “Don’t know.” In its most recent poll, by contrast, the options offered to respondents were simply: “Yes,” “No,” “Don’t know” — a set of responses, it should be acknowledged, better suited to a referendum than the set Newspoll previously offered.

How might this change have affected the results? With a wider number of response options, the proportion that chose “Don’t know” was relatively small; in April’s Newspoll, it was 8 per cent, with the numbers in February (7 per cent) and in March (9 per cent) having been almost the same. Polls by other companies in February, March or April that offered the same sort of choices as Newspoll offered in its latest poll reported higher figures for “Don’t know,” just as Newspoll now does.

The assumption that we can compare polls that use different architectures (Yes/No/Don’t know as against Strongly in favour/Partly in favour/Partly against/Strongly against/Don’t know) simply by collapsing categories (Yes = Strongly in favour + Partly in favour) is mistaken.

It is difficult to say how much the change in the Yes and No responses can be explained as an effect of the change in the choice architecture. But this doesn’t leave us without any bearings. As we would expect, the “Don’t know” number in June (11 per cent) is higher than it was in April (8 per cent); the “surge in uncertainty” is therefore almost certainly an illusion — an effect of changes in the response categories.

If the “Don’t know” number is higher, then the Yes and/or No vote has to be lower. In this Newspoll, the Yes vote is lower but it is also lower than we might have expected on the basis of a switch in choice options alone. And the No vote, far from being lower, is higher.

Allowing for changes in the choice architecture, this suggests that, over the two months since Newspoll’s last survey, the Yes side has lost support and the No side has gained support.

This is hardly news: a tightening of the contest is what almost all the polling has shown for some time. The intriguing question is how much of a tightening would Newspoll have shown — with or without its new question — had it not changed its response options.

Nor is it news that fewer than half of those polled intend to vote Yes. Since March, none of the polls that use the standard architecture (Yes/No/Don’t know) — Freshwater, Morgan, Resolve — have reported Yes majorities. The only way of conjuring Yes majorities from these polls has been by assuming either that the “Don’t knows” won’t vote or that enough of them will vote — and vote Yes — to get the proposal over the line.

According to Simon Benson, who wrote the Australian’s main story, the Newspoll results “suggest the debate is now shaping up as one being led by elites on one side and everybody else on the other.” What this means is unclear. There are “elites” in both camps. But even if the “elites” were only on the Yes side, the polls don’t show “everybody else” on the other. Benson has reprised a dichotomy, pushed by some on the No side, without thinking it through. The poll results, he says, “stand as a warning sign for advocate business leaders that their customer base and employees may not necessarily be signed up to the inevitability of the referendum’s assumed success.”

Is the Australian’s clearest contribution to the debate its headline? In February, the website run by Fair Australia, the name under which senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price’s Advance is campaigning against the Voice, advertised its plans to “build an army of Aussies” to “defend our nation.” Now, told by the Australian that most “Aussies” don’t intend to vote Yes, the undecided may draw some reassurance that it’s okay to vote No. •