Inside Story

Nuclear power, Newspoll and the nuances of polled opinion

Is the Australian’s polling and commentary doing the opposition any favours?

Murray Goot 12 March 2024 6060 words

Big and brave? Opposition leader Peter Dutton promoting nuclear power at the Australian Financial Review Business Summit in Sydney this morning. Bianca De Marchi/AAP Image

Opinion polls emerged in the United States with the rise of “objective” journalism after the first world war — or, more precisely, with the rise of objectivity as an ideology, as Michael Schudson argues in Discovering the News, his landmark social history of American newspapers. Central to the rise of objectivity was “the belief that one can and should separate facts from values.” But “facts,” here, were not “aspects of the world.” Rather, they were “consensually validated” claims about the world, to be trusted because they conformed with “established rules deemed legitimate by a professional community.”

While not mentioned by Schudson, nothing spoke to the rise of “objective journalism” more clearly than the rise of “scientific” polling: the attempt to document “the voice of the people” based on interviews that, in principle, gave every citizen an equal chance of being heard, of saying what they had to say, via questions free of bias, that bane of objectivity.

George Gallup, a figure central to the spread of polling, presented poll-takers, in his polling manifesto The Pulse of Democracy (1940), as people “moving freely about all sorts and conditions of men and noting how they are affected by the news or arguments brought from day to day to their knowledge.” Gallup took this model from James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth (1888), but his own polling, with its set questions and predetermined response categories, was far removed from the kind of observation Bryce favoured

In reality, Gallup followed a news-making model — the model exemplified by press conferences and media releases, where news is made for the press without being controlled by the press. Gallup not only created news, controlling what was asked, how it was asked and when; he also syndicated his results to a broad range of newspapers. Having his polls published by papers whose politics ranged widely shored up his claims to objectivity.

A parallel existed with the Associated Press, America’s first wire service. Since it “gathered news for publication in a variety of papers with widely different political allegiances,” Schudson notes, “it could only succeed by making its reporting “objective” enough to be acceptable to all its members and clients.”

While servicing a diverse range of outlets was central to Gallup in America, this is not what happened in Australia. When Keith Murdoch introduced the Gallup Poll here in 1941 he made sure that the company he set up to run it was controlled by his own Herald and Weekly Times and its associates in various states. Although Australian Public Opinion Polls (“The Gallup Method”) was notionally independent, executives from the Herald and Weekly Times, including Murdoch, could (and did) influence the questions Roy Morgan, APOP’s managing director, asked, including whether they should be repeated from poll to poll.

Whereas the American Gallup boasted subscribing newspapers that were Republican (as Gallup himself may have been), Democrat and independent, none of the newspapers that subscribed to the Australian Gallup Poll are likely to have ever editorialised in favour of federal Labor; for many years, Morgan himself was an anti-Labor member of the Melbourne City Council.

Much of the polling done in America and later in Australia, however, fits a third model: things that the press creates either directly (in-house polling; for example, of a newspaper’s own readers) or indirectly (by commissioning an independent market research firm to ask questions on the newspaper’s behalf). Media products that fit this category range from Clyde Packer’s creation of the Miss Australia contest in the 1920s (also copied from America) and the Australian Financial Review’s endless business “summits” in the 2020s, to the media’s ubiquitous sit-down interviews with politicians and celebrities. This is now the dominant model.

Creating news is the surest route to having an “exclusive” and creating “product differentiation.” If the “exclusive” is produced often enough, is highly valued, and prominently flagged — polling is now featured on the front page — it becomes a way of building “brand loyalty.” Newspapers that regularly commission polls from the same source, or that have a regular but non-financial relationship with a pollster, hope for all of this. Media that don’t commission their own polls — television and radio, especially — are often happy to recycle polls published in the press.

Brand loyalty is a way of building a readership. When it comes to polling, it generally means not citing polls generated by competing brands — especially polls that could raise doubts about one’s own polls. Where different polls produce different — even conflicting — results, this usually means that the rules of objectivity that require journalists to confirm their stories using more than one source are readily abandoned. While some newspapers are more brand-focused than others, journalists consulting their own polls and not others has become standard practice.

In polling, the strength of any brand — the reputation of the poll — depends on the prestige of the news outlet that publishes it. It also depends on the poll’s record, and that record is assessed against the few objective measures that exist: election results and referendums.

Polls that score well on these measures are more likely to be trusted on things other than the vote. That, at least, is the hope of the companies that poll for the press or have their polls publicised by the press. Companies involved in the prediction business try to ensure that their polls come as close as possible to predicting the actual vote — closer, certainly, than any of their rivals.

What pollsters hope to be trusted on, as a result of the accuracy on these measures, is everything else they do for the press — notably, reporting on the popularity of party leaders and taking “the pulse” (as Gallup liked to say) on issues of public policy. More than that, they are after a spillover or halo effect for their market research businesses more generally; financially, this is the point of involving themselves in the not particularly lucrative business of predicting votes. Trust is important because what companies report on matters other than the vote typically cannot be checked directly against any external measure.

Absent any objective check, there is always a risk of polling that panders, consciously or otherwise, to the client’s agenda or the pollster’s preferences. Against this happening, the guardrails erected by industry bodies like the relatively new Australian Polling Council or the old (Market) Research Society are either weak or non-existent — the APC mostly concerned that pollsters explain their methods and post their questionnaires online, a very welcome development but one that stops well short of setting wide-ranging standards in relation to the questions members ask; the Research Society mostly concerned to reassure respondents about the way polling companies protect their privacy.

Newspoll — and other polls

Enter Newspoll, a brand owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Established for a high-end newspaper, the Australian — whose news and views are seen by some as exerting an out-size influence on conservative politics — Newspoll can claim a record of predicting national elections second to none.

In the course of conducting its most recent poll — a fortnightly event that usually grabs the headlines for what it has to say about national voting intentions, leadership satisfaction and preferred prime minister — Newspoll raised the issue of nuclear power. “There is a proposal to build several small modular nuclear reactors around Australia to produce zero-emissions energy on the sites of existing coal-fired power stations once they are retired,” Newspoll told respondents (emphasis in the original). It then asked: “Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal?” Respondents were invited to select one answer: “Strongly approve” (22 per cent); “Somewhat approve” (33 per cent); “Somewhat disapprove” (14 per cent); “Strongly disapprove” (17 per cent); “Don’t know” (14 per cent). In short: 55 per cent in favour; 31 per cent against; 14 per cent not prepared to say either way.

As Newspoll might have anticipated on an issue as contentious as this, its question generated controversy. Unimpressed, the economist John Quiggin proposed — tongue-in-cheek — a quite different way the question might have been worded: “There is a proposal to keep coal-fired power stations operating until the development of small nuclear reactors which might, in the future, supply zero-emissions energy. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal?”

A question on nuclear power could have been asked in any number of ways: by putting the arguments for and against nuclear power; by taking the timeline for getting nuclear power up and running and comparing it to the timeline for wind + solar + hydro; by asking who should pay (governments, consumers, industry, etc.) for different forms of energy with zero emissions, and how much they should pay; by qualifying the “zero-emissions” solution with some reference to the waste disposal problem; by omitting the words “small, modular” — not just descriptors but, potentially at least, words of reassurance; and so on.

Different questions might still have produced a majority in favour of nuclear energy. A question asked for the Institute of Public Affairs by Dynata, in April 2022, on whether Australia should build nuclear power plants to supply electricity and reduce carbon emissions,” found a majority (53 per cent agreeing), and an even lower level of opposition (23 per cent).

As with Newspoll, the IPA poll raised considerations that invited an affirmative response: “small modular,” “zero-emissions energy,” “on the sites of existing coal-fired power stations once they are retired” (Newspoll); “to supply electricity,” “reduce carbon omissions” (IPA). Not a single consideration in either poll might have prompted a negative response.

The high proportion in the IPA survey neither agreeing nor disagreeing (24 per cent) — an option Newspoll didn’t offer — allowed respondents who actually had an opinion to conceal it, Swedish research on attitudes to nuclear power suggests. So, while the level of opposition recorded by the IPA might have been higher without the “easy out,” the level of support might have been higher too.

Other questions about nuclear power failed to attract majority support. Asked in September by Freshwater “if Australia needs nuclear power” (the precise question was not published), and presented with a set of response options similar to those offered by the IPA, 37 per cent of respondents supported nuclear power and 36 per cent opposed it, 18 per cent saying they were “neutral” and 12 per cent “unsure.” Apart from coal (supported by 33 per cent), every other energy source received wider support: hydrogen (47 per cent), natural gas (56 per cent), offshore wind (58 per cent), onshore wind (61 per cent) and solar (84 per cent).

Asked in the same poll whether “Australia should remove the ban on nuclear power development,” 44 per cent agreed. But asked whether they agreed or disagreed that “Australia does not need to generate any energy from nuclear power,” 36 per cent disagreed. Similarly, no more than 35 per agreed that “the federal government must consider small nuclear modular reactors as part of the future energy mix” — a much lower figure than Newspoll’s, even if the question isn’t necessarily better.

Freshwater also asked respondents to choose between two trade-offs: “Australia builds nuclear power plants meaning some coal power plants are replaced earlier” (44 per cent chose this one) and “Australia does not build nuclear power plants meaning some coal power plants are extended” (38 per cent); 18 per cent were “unsure.” Respondents opposed to both coal and nuclear power were left with only one place to go — “unsure.” But on the poll’s own evidence — 33 per cent supporting coal, 36 per cent supporting nuclear — the figure of 18 per cent appears to underestimate this group considerably.

Another question on nuclear power, this time asked by RedBridge, is said to have shown a 35–32 split over “the idea of using nuclear to provide for Australia’s energy need.” As yet, however, neither the question nor any figures have been posted on its website.

Yet another question, asked in February by Resolve for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, also failed to show majority support for nuclear power. Told that “there has been some debate about the use of nuclear power in Australia recently” and asked for their “own view,” respondents split four ways: “I support the use of nuclear power in Australia” (36 per cent); “I do not have a strong view and am open to the government investigating its use” (27 per cent); “I oppose the use of nuclear power in Australia” (25 per cent); and “Undecided” (15 per cent).

In reporting this “exclusive survey,” David Crowe, chief political correspondent for the two papers, made no reference to the Newspoll published the previous day. This, notwithstanding that in reporting the Resolve poll Crowe gave pride of place to “mining billionaire” Andrew Forrest’s attack on the Coalition’s nuclear policy — a policy the Australian suggested had received a “boost” from the Newspoll. Nor did Crowe refer to any other poll.

On one reading, most respondents (61 per cent in the Resolve poll compared to 39 per cent in Newspoll) had “a strong view” (the respondents who declined to say “I do not have a strong view…”), those without “a strong view” either being “open to the government investigating” the use of nuclear power or “undecided.” More likely, the question didn’t measure how strong any of the views were — some of those without strong views being “open to the government investigating its use,” others joining those who harboured strong views (respondents Resolve didn’t directly identify) to indicate either their support or their opposition to nuclear power.

Effectively, the Resolve poll rolled three questions into one — one, about support or opposition to nuclear power; another about the strength of these opinions; and another about “the government investigating” the “use” of nuclear power. But since responses to one of these questions would not necessarily have determined responses to any other, Resolve’s shortcut obscures more about public opinion than it illuminates; a respondent with a strong view, for example, might still have been “open to the government investigating its use.”

In October 2023, Resolve asked another question — this one reportedly commissioned by the consulting firm Society Advisory, and run “exclusively” by Sky News. The result suggested a degree of openness to nuclear power that was even higher than that indicated by Resolve’s poll for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Asked if “Australia should rethink its moratorium (ban) on nuclear power to give more flexibility in the future,” half (49 per cent) of the respondents were in favour, less than half that number (18 per cent) were against, opposition to “flexibility” requiring some strength, with an extraordinary 33 per cent “unsure” — a sign that this question too was a poor one.

Not only do answers depend on the question, they also depend on the response options. In an extensive survey — not just a one- or two-item poll — conducted in October–November 2023, the British firm Savanta asked respondents “to what extent, if at all,” they supported or opposed using nuclear energy “to generate electricity” in Australia? While 40 per cent said “strongly support” or “tend to support,” 36 per cent said “strongly oppose” or “tend to oppose,” 7 per cent said “Don’t know,” and 17 per cent said they “neither support nor oppose.”

As with the Resolve poll for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, Savanta’s response options — which included “neither support nor oppose” — reduced the chance that its question, however worded, would yield a majority either in favour of nuclear energy or against it; almost as many opposed nuclear energy as supported it, a quarter (24 per cent) choosing to sit on the fence. In the Newspoll, where 55 per cent approved and 31 per cent disapproved, there was no box marked “neither approve nor disapprove.” If there had been, then almost certainly Newspoll would not have found majority support either.

The Savanta survey also shows what happens to support for a single option — here, nuclear power — when respondents are given a range of options. Asked to think about how their “country might shift its current energy generation mix” and given a list of five alternatives, only 23 per cent nominated “nuclear energy”; 41 per cent, almost twice as many, nominated “large-scale solar farms.” Of the rest, 15 per cent nominated “onshore wind farms,” 6 per cent “gas carbon and storage (CCS),” and 4 per cent “biomass from trees.”

Newspoll made no attempt to ascertain whether the public had heard of “small modular nuclear reactors” much less what the public knew about such things. In the Guardian, the proposal was described as “an uncosted Coalition thought-bubble”; in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, former deputy Reserve Bank governor Stephen Grenville noted that there were “just two operational SMRs, both research reactors” and that work on what “was expected to be the first operational commercial SMR” had “been halted as the revised cost per kWH is uneconomic for the distributors who had signed up.” Elsewhere, an academic specialising in electricity generation described SMRs as “not, by any stretch of the imagination, what most people would consider small.”

On what the public knows — or, more accurately, on how much it thinks it knows — the Savanta survey is again useful. When asked what they had heard of nuclear energy, few (8 per cent) said “I have not heard about this energy option” or “don’t know.” But just 18 per cent said “I have heard about this energy option, and know a lot about how it works.” Most said “I have heard about this energy option, and know a little about how it works” (41 per cent) or “I have heard about this energy option, but don’t know how it works (33 per cent).

In a poll conducted by Pure Profile, reported in May 2022, 70 per cent said they didn’t understand “the difference between nuclear fission and nuclear fusion.”

… and the Australian

Keen to publicise the result of its Newspoll — a result the paper openly welcomed — the Australian’s reporting of the poll and its commentary around it was tendentious.

The distinction between respondents’ having a view and their having a “strong” view was one it mostly ignored or fudged. The paper’s political editor Simon Benson, reported in Crikey to be “responsible” for the poll, ignored it. He repeatedly represented “majority” support as “strong” support. The fact that pollsters themselves regularly make this mistake shouldn’t make it any more acceptable. If support is a metre wide, it isn’t necessarily a metre deep.

The headline in the print edition — “Powerful Majority Supports Nuclear Option for Energy Security” — fudged the distinction. In itself, 55 per cent is not an overwhelming majority; in 2017, same-sex marriage was supported in the nationwide “survey” by 62 per cent. In itself, 55 per cent is hardly a “powerful” number — one that politicians ignore at their peril; in the lead-up to the same-sex marriage decision, both John Howard and Tony Abbott made it clear that they wouldn’t consider anything less than 60 per cent in favour to be a number that the parliament would have to heed. Had 55 per cent (not 36 per cent) “strongly” approved nuclear reactors, the Australian would have had a defensible case. But even in polls that offer a binary choice, “strong” majorities are rare.

Rather than representing a “powerful majority” in favour of the “nuclear option,” Newspoll’s figures might equally be said to show that most respondents (61 per cent) did not feel strongly one way or the other — a majority that the Australian would not have wanted to call “powerful.”

A highlight, Benson argued, was the fact that respondents aged eighteen to thirty-four — “the demographic most concerned about climate change” — was the demographic most likely to support nuclear power, 65–32. “There is no fear of the technology for most people under 40,” he concluded. This line was one that impressed shadow climate change and energy minister, Ted O’Brien, when he discussed the poll on Sky News.

It also resonated with opposition leader Peter Dutton. Attacking the prime minister for being out of touch with public opinion, which he was reported to have said was “warming to nuclear power,” Dutton noted that nuclear power was “supported by a lot of younger people because they are well-read and they know that it’s zero emissions, and it can firm up renewables in the system.”

The news that “NewsPoll [sic] showed a majority of young Australians supporting small-scale nuclear power generation,” even prompted a discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power — not the pros and cons of the polling — on the ABC.

But eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds as the age group most favourably disposed to nuclear power is not what Essential shows, not what Savanta shows, and not what RedBridge shows. In October’s Essential poll, no more than 46 per cent of respondents aged eighteen to thirty-four supported “nuclear power plants” — the same proportion as those aged thirty-six to fifty-four but a smaller proportion than those aged fifty-five-plus (56 per cent); the proportion of “strong” supporters was actually lower among those aged eighteen to thirty-four than in either of the other age-groups.

In the Savanta survey, those aged eighteen to thirty-four were the least likely to favour nuclear energy; only about 36 per cent were in favour, strongly or otherwise, not much more than half the number that Newspoll reported.

And according to a report of the polling conducted in February by RedBridge, sourced to Tony Barry, a partner and former deputy state director of the Victorian Liberal Party, “[w]here there is support” for nuclear power. “it is among only those who already vote Liberal or who are older than 65.”

In the Australian, the leader writer observed that “public support for considering nuclear power in Australia is rising as the cost and implications of meeting the decarbonisation challenge becomes more real.” But Newspoll had never sought to establish what respondents think are the “cost and implications of meeting the decarbonisation challenge” so it could hardly have shown whether these thoughts have changed.

Benson’s remark, on the Australian’s front page, that the poll showed “growing community support” for nuclear power was also without warrant; “growing community support” is something that the poll does not show and that Benson made no attempt to document. Since the question posed by Newspoll had never been asked before, and since polled opinion is sensitive to the way questions are asked, “growing community support” is one thing the poll could not show.

Subsequently, Benson cited Liberal Party polling conducted “immediately after the [May] 2022 election loss” which “had support at 31 per cent.” The question? Benson doesn’t say. Is it really likely, as Benson believes, that in a “short space of time,” as he describes it — less than two years — support for nuclear power could have jumped from 31 per cent to 55 per cent? The considerable shift in polled opinion on same-sex marriage that Wikipedia suggests happened sometime between 2004 and 2007 is hardly likely to have happened since 2022 in relation to nuclear energy.

Peta Credlin, Australian columnist and Sky News presenter, argued the growing-support line by stringing together: a poll conducted in 2015 (by Essential, though she didn’t identify it as an Essential poll), which had support at 40 per cent; the IPA poll (which it was safe to name) from 2022, which had support at 53 per cent; and the Newspoll, which had it at 55 per cent. Not only was each of these conducted by a different pollster, hence subject to different “house effects”; each had posed their own question.

Had the Australian wanted to see whether support really was growing it might have considered re-running one of the questions it had asked years before — or, preferably, re-run more than one. But perhaps the point of the polling was not to show that support was growing but to create the impression that it was growing — that it had a momentum that might leave Labor, “in its fanatical opposition to nuclear power,” as Benson wrote, stranded on “the wrong side of history.”

This was not the first time the Australian has interpreted the results of a Newspoll as heralding a turning point on this issue. In 2007, shortly before prime minister John Howard announced that the Coalition would set up a nuclear regulatory regime and remove any unreasonable impediments to the building of nuclear power plants in Australia, the Australian told its readers that there had been a “dramatic shift” in support for nuclear power. The basis of its claim: questions asked by Newspoll — two in 2006, one in 2007. (In those days Newspoll was a market research company, not a polling brand whose field work had been outsourced first to YouGov and more recently to Pyxis.)

The questions asked in 2006 were not the same as the question asked in 2007. In May and December 2006, Newspoll told respondents: “Currently, while there is a nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney used for medical and scientific purposes, there are no nuclear power stations being built in Australia.” It then asked: “Are you personally in favour or against nuclear power stations in Australia?” The majority was against: 38–51, in May; 35–50, in December.

In March 2007, Newspoll changed the question, and framed it quite differently: “Thinking now about reducing gas emissions to help address climate change,” it asked, “are you personally in favour or against the development of a nuclear power industry in Australia, as one of a range of energy solutions to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?” On this, opinion was fairly evenly split: 45–40. The majority were not against; in fact, there was a plurality in favour. The Australian’s interpretation: in just four months, Dennis Shanahan and Sid Marris concluded, the attitude of Australians to nuclear energy had “dramatically reversed.”

Not so. After commissioning Newspoll to ask the 2006 question again, in April 2007, the Australia Institute found that the level of support for “nuclear power stations being built in Australia” was 36 per cent (35 per cent in December 2006), the level of opposition was now 46 per cent (previously, 50 per cent), and the “don’t knows” were now 18 per cent (previously 15 per cent). In short, whereas opposition had exceeded support by fifteen percentage points, 50­–35, it now exceeded support by ten points, 46–36 — a decline of five points, but no reversal, dramatic or otherwise.

This time around, both the Australian Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald have asked questions similar to the one Newspoll asked in February, but in polls of their readers not in a public opinion poll. Asked, in July 2023, whether Australia should “consider small nuclear reactors as one solution to moving away from fossil fuels?,” the Financial Review’s readers favoured “consider[ing]” the idea, 58–30. Asked, in July 2023, whether “small nuclear power reactors should be part of Australia’s energy mix,” the Herald’s readers opposed the idea, 32–55. Even if these questions had been included in national polls, the Australian might have baulked at citing the results of either, since it would have given oxygen to another brand.

There is evidence of a growth in support for nuclear power between June 2019 and March 2022, but there is no convincing evidence that points to “growing support” in the two years since. When the Lowy Poll asked respondents, in March 2022, whether they supported or opposed “removing the existing ban on nuclear power,” 52 per cent said they supported it, an increase on the level of support in March 2021 (47 per cent). And in September 2021, when Essential asked respondents whether they supported or opposed “Australia developing nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity,” 50 per cent said they supported nuclear power, a sharp increase on the level of support (39 per cent) it reported in June 2019. However, when Essential asked the question again, in October 2023, the level of support hadn’t moved.

The only evidence for a recent shift comes from Resolve. In October 2023, when Resolve first asked the question it asked in February 2024, 33 per cent (compared with 36 per cent in February) supported “the use of nuclear power” and 24 per cent (23 per cent in February) opposed it. (Nine Entertainment appears not to have previously published Resolve’s result for October.) Its February poll represents an increase of four percentage points in the gap between the level of support and the level of opposition, from nine points to thirteen.

But a shift of four points is well within the range one might expect given the vagaries of sampling — the “margin of error” that pollsters regularly parade but just as regularly ignore. Non-sampling error — a much bigger problem than pollsters acknowledge — also might have played a part, especially given a question as complex and confused as the one Resolve asked. Errors of both kinds are compounded by the widespread use by pollsters of opt-in rather than probability-based panels.

Jim Reed, who runs Resolve, is reported as saying that voters “were increasingly open to the potential of nuclear power now the Coalition was advocating for existing technology in large-scale plants.” According to Reed, support has “swung towards at least openness to nuclear power.” But Nine did not reveal what change, if any, Resolve had detected since October in the number without “a strong view” and “open to the government investigating its use (27 per cent in February).” Support, Reed added, was “weak… at the moment simply because people aren’t being asked to approve an actual site.” Even if he had measured strength, which it appears he hadn’t, one could equally imagine support becoming weaker, not stronger, once voters were asked to “asked to approve an actual site.”

What sort of voters did he think were now supportive or at least “open’? “We’ve got a new generation of younger people who are quite positive towards nuclear power,” Reed said. Was this “new generation” evident in October or did it only become evident in February? If it was evident in October, was it responsible for February’s four-point shift? Nothing in what Nine published allows us to say.

While Reed restricted himself, largely, to interpreting the actual data, in the Australian the commentary strayed much further. It wrote, for example, of “the costs and risks of renewable energy” having “become clearer.” But it offered no evidence that those costs and risks had become clearer to the public — not surprisingly, since these too were things about which Newspoll had not asked.

Leveraging the Newspoll result to predict that “most Australians would back a move to small scale nuclear power,” the headline in the online edition of the Australian ignored another distinction — not between strong and weak opinion but between polls that showed un-mobilised opinion and polls that showed mobilised opinion; so, too did Sky News. Any “move to small-scale nuclear power” would be politically contested, and once contested opinion might shift.

Subsequently, Benson ventured a more sober assessment of the Coalition’s prospects of carrying the day. “For Dutton to win the argument,” an argument that would take “courage” to mount, “any Coalition energy policy must be framed in a cost-of-living context that can demonstrate how nuclear power will deliver cheaper and more reliable power into the future,” he wrote. For Dutton to position nuclear power as “a central component” of his energy policy, Benson declared, was “as big and brave as it gets.”

Others went further. In a rare note of dissent within News Corp, James Campbell, national weekend political editor for Saturday and Sunday News Corp newspapers and websites across Australia, called the idea of Dutton “going to the next federal election with plans to introduce nuclear power” as “stark raving mad.” One thing the Coalition should have learnt from the Voice referendum was that “support for anything radical in Australia shrinks the moment it hits any sort of concerted opposition.” And, he added, “there’s the unity problem. Do you really think Liberal candidates in ‘tealy’ places are going to face the front on this?”

Benson, meanwhile, had back-tracked. Pointing again to the distribution of opinion among eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds, he advanced a quite different assessment: “the onus is now on Labor to convince Australians why we shouldn’t have nuclear power.” Chris Kenny, the Australian’s associate editor, thought “the nuclear argument could play well in the teal seats where there is an eagerness for climate change and a high degree of economic realism.”

If Benson was right the first time, however, and the Coalition needs to take care over how it frames the debate, then the Savanta data suggest that it may face a few challenges. Asked what impact nuclear energy would have on their “energy bills,” about a third (35 per cent) of its respondents said it would make their bills “much cheaper” or “slightly cheaper,” less than a third (28 per cent) thought it would make them “much more expensive” or “slightly more expensive,” but more than a third (38 per cent) said they either didn’t know or thought it would make “no difference.”

In the Essential poll, conducted around the same time, respondents saw little difference in “total cost including infrastructure and household price” between three energy sources: “renewable energy, such as wind and solar” (38 per cent considering it the “most expensive” option; 35 per cent, the “least expensive”), nuclear power (34 per cent considering it the “most expensive” option; 34 per cent, the “least expensive”), and “fossil fuels, such as coal and gas” (28 per cent considering it the “most expensive” option; 31 per cent, the “least expensive”).

Supporters of nuclear energy may also have to address some of the concerns Benson didn’t mention. In the Savanta study, 77 per cent were either “very concerned” (45 per cent) or “fairly concerned” (32 per cent) about “waste management”; 77 per cent were either “very concerned” (47 per cent) or “fairly concerned” (30 per cent) about “health & safety (ie. nuclear meltdowns, impact on people living nearby)”; and 56 per cent were either “very concerned” (23 per cent) or “fairly concerned” (33 per cent) about the “time it takes to build.”

In another poll, this one conducted by Pure Profile in the first half of 2022, respondents were asked how they would feel if a new nuclear power station were built in their city. Around 50 per cent said they would feel “uncomfortable,” more than a quarter “extremely uncomfortable”; just 7 per cent would have felt “extremely at ease.”

It would be reassuring to think that any newspaper that wanted its polling taken seriously would need to commission better polling than the polling the Australian was so keen to promote. But the Newspoll results were taken seriously by a rival masthead. “The Newspoll published in the Australian,” the political editor of the Australian Financial Review, Phillip Coorey wrote, “found there was now majority support for the power source.”

A week after its poll was published, and its results — with a nod to the Coalition — described as “powerful,” the Australian’s front page led with another “exclusive,” this time courtesy of the Coalition: its “signature energy policy” to be announced “before the May federal budget” would include “a plan identifying potential sites for small nuclear reactors as future net zero sources.” The following day, Benson wrote that Newspoll had “demonstrated strong support for the proposal that Dutton is working on announcing soon.” But the policy Dutton was working on, apparently, was not the policy Newspoll had tested. “The Coalition energy plan,” Benson revealed the same day in another front-page “exclusive,” was “likely to include next-generation large-scale nuclear reactors — not just the small-modular reactors.”

A newspaper that has a position on nuclear power and thinks of polls as an objective measure of public opinion should make sure that the questions it gets (or allows) pollsters to ask, and the results it gets journalists to write up, look fair and reasonable to those on different sides of the debate. In effect, this was the discipline George Gallup placed on himself when he signed up newspapers with divergent views.

Even if a newspaper wanted to use its polling to gee-up its preferred party, it might also think about using its polling to identify some of the risks of pursuing a policy it backed — risks that no party wanting to win an election could sensibly ignore — not just the opportunities to pursue that policy.

Whether Michael Schudson left polling out of his account of objectivity because it didn’t fit with his argument about objectivity as an ideology, or because he didn’t think it a part of journalism — neither journalism nor market research being a profession in the sense that law or medicine are professions — or simply because of an oversight, is unclear.

Better, more comprehensive, polling wouldn’t end the political debate or the debate about the objectivity of the polls. Nor should it. Nonetheless, it might be a good place from which to progress these debates.

Of course, for those who don’t want to foster a debate about the policy or about the polls, any plea for do better is entirely beside the point. •