Essential Report

Polls don’t kill people, people kill people

Dec 21, 2010

First Published on The Drum 21/12/2010

If our politicians are feeling bloody and bruised after a torrid year of spills and thrills, spare a thought for the one group on the national stage that had a harder time of it in 2010 – the humble pollster.

This was the year when hand wringing about the malign impact of political research became a national sport; if there was a problem with politics, political research was the cause. We were to blame for the uninspiring election campaign; for the dumbing down of political reporting; for robbing the ALP of its soul.

So as a purveyor of the Dark Art I want to end the year with a plea for understanding for the minority group I am part of, stealing the catchcry of the Shooters Lobby in the 1990s to proudly declare ‘polls don’t kill people, people kill people’.

Before doing so, I will readily admit that political research can be put to poor use – running focus groups to get ‘permission’ from the electorate to pursue particular policies is to misunderstand the point of such research.

We conduct focus groups because we recognise that those at the centre of the political process are not like normal people – they engage in the detail of policy and can wrongly assume others share their passion and command of detail.

Focus groups accept that those at the centre of the debate are freaks who are not like regular humans and need to run their arguments through average people before unleashing them on the world. A bit like test-driving a new car. Yes, this can be done by diligent local members engaging their community, but to continually test your assumptions about the Australian public in a structured manner is a basic discipline.

More fundamentally, focus groups used properly can provide guidance in driving policy agendas; helping to understand not just the views, but the values of the people you are representing in order to develop ways to take them along the policy journey.

There is no real trick to this; having sat through hundreds of focus groups for a range of non-party political clients all I have learnt is the trick is to leave your ego at the door, listen and respect the views and the wisdom of the electorate. When you do so you can’t help but learn.

As for polling – and the increasing cycle of polls that can create an almost immediate feedback loop – all I can say is that this is a tool that can provide incredible insights if you are prepared to go beyond viewing it as a horse race.

Looking over this year’s Essential Report, a national online omnibus of 1,000 people we have conducted every week, provides a rich telling of Australian politics in 2010.

2010 Two Party Preferred

Rudd’s Fall – While some have argued that polls killed Rudd, the reality is they illustrated the loss in his personal authority within the wider community over a very short period of time. The moment Rudd took what seems to be the politically popular move of scrapping an ETS in late April saw an eight-point shift in Two Party Preferred vote over just two weeks. While he stabilised the show in the following weeks, his leadership never recovered, with his personal ratings heading into net negative for the first time in his prime ministership.

Coup Disgrace – We were lucky enough to have a focus group scheduled on the night Julia Gillard toppled Kevin Rudd. The mood in the room was one of shock and anger – people just did not know that this could be done – wasn’t it their job to chose a PM? Our poll backed this up, with 40 per cent of voters – including nearly a quarter of Labor voters disapproving of the decision to replace Rudd. This was not a clean kill.

Abbott Won The Campaign – A simple look at the chart above shows what most of us felt at the time – that like him or loathe him, by running a disciplined campaign while Labor turned on itself, Tony Abbott and the Liberals won the campaign. It’s worth noting that all the major polling companies (including Essential) were within margin of error on election eve.

No New Paradigm – For all the talk of a new era of cooperation, once the minority government was formed politics became more partisan than ever before. An early indicator of this was out September 13 poll that picked up strong disapproval from Liberal voters for the decisions of the independents and the Greens. There was a level of anger you rarely see in polls and made clear from early days that New Paradigm was well-intentioned hot air.

Asylum Seeker Lies – While the debate over boats ranged from Dad’s Army graphics to a Darwin gunboat, our research told us that the whole debate was based on misinformation. A quarter of voters believed that more than 25 per cent of Australian’s annual immigration intake was made up of asylum seekers. That would equate to about 50,000 asylum seekers arriving by boat – the real number is under 2,000. Until politicians are honest about these facts – along with the little detail that there is nothing ‘illegal’ about seeking political asylum – they have no right to claim the national interest on this issue.

The Gender Divide – The split between male and female voters is now official and jumping over traditional demographics. Women are much more likely to support our first female PM and as I noted here a few weeks back. Men meanwhile are increasingly moving to the negative column. In the other corner, women have never really warmed to Tony Abbott, and while his family play in the election softened those differences, he still is the beneficiary of a strong blokes vote.

The Shrinking Threat– By the election climate change – the issue that had been a centrepiece of the 2007 election campaign, was ranking a lower tier issue, with just four per cent of voters saying it was their number one priority. Meanwhile, climate denial went from a fringe sport to a mainstream phenomenon, with the number of people accepting climate change is happening falling below 50 per cent. Indeed, while Labor is talking up its commitment to a price on carbon next year, there is a sneaking suspicion, backed by these numbers, that the moment for decisive action may have passed for a generation.

Kitchen Table Concerns – Further to the above, our recent poll on economic issues suggested that the focus of most voters is turning to the household budget – and in particular energy and fuel prices. This places further pressure on the campaign for a price on carbon. The reality is as long as the Opposition runs negative a tax will be political poison.

A New Aussie Hero – While the Government cast him as a sinner, the Australian public can’t get enough of Julian Assange. After weeks of headlines, a Stieg Larsson-style court case and condemnation from the PM and other world leaders, Australians say they approve of the release of the WikiLeaks material by a factor of 2:1. There is also disapproval of the Government’s handling of the issue and a belief that if charges are laid the government should support Assange. Here is a classic case where the attitudes of the public are relevant and enlightening, an opportunity to see how an issue of national import is being viewed in the community.

Faith in NBN – Finally, some good news for Labor. The public are broadly behind their big reform of 2011, the NBN. The test here will be to roll it out competently and demonstrate it is about more than fast movies and digital TV quickly. Stand by for new applications in e-Health, online education and business to business. And if that means less need to hop on planes to burn carbon to fly for face to face meetings, that will be one good thing to look forward to in 2011.

In closing, let me make this simple point: polling did not create any of these issues – that’s the job of politicians. But for those with the humility to listen to the public rather than just talk,  polling and focus groups do provide a compelling backdrop that helps contextualise the events of 2010.

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC


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