Peter Brent (@Mumbletwits) casts a sceptical eye over opinion polls and the media’s obsession with them
I like Peter Brent (and so does Malcolm Mackerras) even though I disagree with his obsessive criticism of Wayne Swan and Penny Wong, both of whom I admire greatly. For those minor faults though Peter has a world of wisdom to share about politics and political science. Despite his reluctance to be labelled a psephologist he does have a very good grasp of election numbers, “the vibe” and “common sense” when it comes to interpreting polls and election results.
Me in Inside Story getting, um, meta on opinion polls. http://t.co/fwhiM9gqSM
— Peter Brent (@mumbletwits) August 7, 2014
As a party professional I have been privileged to have access and use of opinion polling and must admit that I have learnt to always treat it VERY carefully. Peter is correct in that it is often misinterpreted and misused, not just in the mainstream media. At a recent Campaign Management and Political Marketing Workshop at Sydney University one of the highlights was a presentation by Stephen Mills from UMR, in defence of opinion polls. I’ll share those insights in a future post!
Here are some highlights from Peter Brent’s latest work on opinion polls and pollsters (full text here at inside.org.au If-an-election-had-been-held-on-the-weekend) and if you haven’t subscribed to Inside.org.au yet, seriously, what are you waiting for?
“Within the political class, Newspoll is the most watched and most influential. Published every second Tuesday in the Australian, the poll results are interpreted for readers by the paper’s political writers. It’s that interpretation – captured in headlines and opening paragraphs – that’s repeated, largely unquestioned, on ABC radio news bulletins and in other media across the country. No one holds a gun to their heads to force them to follow the Australian line, but something about the news-creation process means that they do. It’s probably just the path of least resistance.”
“The routine preface to the media reporting of survey results – “If an election had been held on the weekend…” – is terribly misleading. No poll can tell us what result an election last weekend, preceded by a campaign, would have thrown up. A pollster contacts a person and asks him or her to imagine there is an election today – and how would you vote? It’s a preposterously hypothetical and artificial exercise: a silly question eliciting silly answers.”
“Even after an over-hyped Malaysia Airlines–induced “boost” in satisfaction ratings, the most recent Newspoll had Tony Abbott on just 36 per cent satisfaction and the government trailing in voting intentions after preferences 46 to 54. At the equivalent time in his prime ministership, Kevin Rudd enjoyed 65 per cent satisfaction and the government led 54 to 46. John Howard was on 52 per cent satisfaction and the Coalition was in front 53 to 47. But Rudd didn’t even make it to the next election. Howard did, and scraped back, and then comfortably won two more. The Abbott government might be performing “badly” in the opinion polls but today’s numbers mean almost nothing. At the same time they mean a lot, because political players can’t ignore the way they influence what the media sees as the “narrative.”
“Abbott would be aware that if the polls continue as they are, speculation will arise about his prime ministership. His actions will increasingly be interpreted through the polls. On the Labor side, new rules have provided institutional ballast to the leadership, but they can be easily reversed. One day the forty-fourth parliament will end, and we’ll be starting a new one, most likely with a re-elected Coalition government. The mid-2014 polls will be long forgotten, and probably, with hindsight, judged laughably unreliable.”
If you have time after reading that article above by Peter you might also want to read the one in the link below. As I said on twitter when I shared it – I don’t agree with all of it but I’m still quite keen to read part 2! 🙂
Me rating various MPs' political skills. Beginning with one Georgey Brandis: http://t.co/wnstxkKtlr
— Peter Brent (@mumbletwits) August 8, 2014
This interview is the first in a series which I had originally planned to title “Meet a psephologist” and use as a series of interesting articles about people who study, work in and write about elections. However not everyone agrees with me that there is a psephologist in all of us (or that there is a foodie in all of us), so in order to avoid scaring away potential interviewees it is now titled “Meet an election specialist” but I still have a list of psephologists (professional and amateur) as well as academics, practitioners and writers on my to-do list!
I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Australia’s second-most-famous psephologist while he recovered from some hip surgery at Canberra Hospital. Malcolm Mackerras is one of Canberra’s living legends. Anyone who is even slightly interested in politics and elections would be familiar with his writing and his famous federal electoral pendulum, which has had many imitations and which he has himself adapted for many other elections. Malcolm’s first published work on Australian politics was written in 1965, while he was working as a research officer for the Liberal Party. In 1970 Malcolm became an academic and had various posts at UNSW, RMC Duntroon, ADFA and now at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University.
Malcolm’s Wikipedia entry reminds us that he is “famous for making predictions about election results” and “he claims a ‘win’ ratio of ‘two in three’ and adds “at least I’m not boring”!
Malcolm is certainly anything but boring! He is happy to discuss just about anything related to democracy and elections and has a wide-ranging expertise on Australian politics.
I asked Malcolm a series of questions and his unedited answers are listed below:
Tell me about yourself Malcolm. Who are you in a nutshell? In academic parlance I’m a political scientist. Although I’m semi-retired I currently work at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra as a Visiting Fellow. I’m also still writing about elections and have appeared regularly to discuss politics on “Switzer” which is on SkyNewsBusiness. I had seven siblings, including a fraternal twin Colin Mackerras, a leading China specialist at Griffith University. I was born in 1939, worked on my first campaign handing out How-To-Vote cards at a referendum in 1951, joined the Liberal Party when I was 16 in 1955 and have followed every election and by-election in Australia ever since. My academic career started when I became what was then known as a “Research Scholar” at ANU in 1970. By-elections are fascinating. Did you know we had 10 by-elections in Australia between 1951 and 1954? Nine were caused by the death of the local member. These days healthcare has improved so much that we rarely have deaths in political office and most by-elections are caused by resignations.
Where do you live/work/study/teach? I live in Campbell (Canberra’s inner north) and work mainly from home. I have an office at ACU where I still teach occasionally.
What motivates you to write and research about politics? It fascinates me! I’ve also been fortunate to be in the middle of many interesting political contests. In 1975 I had an article published in the Canberra Times which I’d written 10 days before. I had speculated in the article that the political stand-off in the Senate was getting to the point where Kerr may have to sack Whitlam to break the deadlock. 10 days after I wrote the article it was published. Later that morning Kerr sacked Whitlam. I was actually on radio at 11am prior to the dismissal answering questions about the article and heard afterwards what had happened. That afternoon I was flown to Melbourne to be interviewed about the article and the dismissal an appeared on the TV news that night. It was my best prediction ever! I was also the only psephologist who predicted Howard would lose Bennelong.
I also believe that our Constitutional Monarchy is a unique and beautiful democratic process. Australia has been very fortunate to inherit such a good system of government and also fortunate that it has been modified and evolved so well. Our system is one of the best in the world and I still believe the Republican argument lacks a compelling case. Both our houses of parliament are relatively well populated with good representatives and both function well. The senate is genuinely semi-proportional and serves an important role as a house of review. We have a symbolic head of state (the Queen) and a constitutional head of state (the Governor General). Since 1930 when Jim Scullin established the current rules, the Prime Minister effectively selects the Governor General. This system allows an unsatisfactory Governor General to be replaced easily, as has happened, and this is a model of common sense. A popularly elected President or even one elected by a Parliament, would be very difficult to replace. Australian democracy has worked very well compared to other democracies and we shouldn’t change too much without very good reason.
Is there anything you don’t like about modern politics? There is far too much excessive partisanship in modern Australian politics, with the current Prime Minister being most to blame for it. He is in my opinion the most partisan PM we’ve ever had. Abbott is far more partisan than Howard or Fraser and has damaged the office as a result. The PM’s position should be statesman-like and it should not be as partisan as Abbott has made it.
Compulsory or voluntary voting? Definitely compulsory voting. It makes the results more reflective and representative and if it aint broke why fix it?
Do you have a favourite writer? Paul Kelly
What are your favourite websites and news sources? I still read three newspapers each day: The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. My favourite websites include Crikey, Antony Green’s blog, Peter Brent’s Mumble blog on Crikey and William Bowe’s Pollbludger website. I also enjoy watching Insiders on Sunday mornings.
What’s the first thing you do each morning? I’m an early riser. I read my newspapers after I pick them up off the driveway. The Canberra Times usually arrives about half an hour before the SMH and Australian.
What is your one recommended must-read for aspiring psephologists? Read Mumble. Peter is good as a psephologist and he also does political commentary well. Peter calls a spade a spade and his dry cynicism can be entertaining.
What’s your favourite political movie/book/documentary/TV series? The Victory was entertaining. The Stalking of Julia Gillard by Kerry Anne Walsh was also a very good book. I recommend both. The book Battlelines exposes Abbott’s dishonesty. He’s clearly a centralist, yet he used federalist arguments to recently argue against and abolish the mining super-profits tax.
Is there a funny or effective political ad you’d like to share? I thought the anti-workchoices ads from 2007 were particularly effective.
What are you currently reading or working on? I’m working on a book collecting all my writing, beginning in 1957 and I’m about a quarter of the way through. I also wrote two recent articles (in the Australian and Canberra Times) opposed to the Electoral Matters Report on Senate Elections. I disagree with the recommendation to do away with party tickets. The Senate system currently works quite well and I think the main arguments are being made by the government because it doesn’t like the result of what happened in the Senate race in 2013. In the 2013 federal election Labor lost 17 seats, all of which went to the Liberal or National parties. However in the Senate there were six seats lost. Of the seven Senate seats lost in 2013, three went to PUP (one each in Qld, Tasmania and WA), one went to Family First in SA, Rickey Muir picked up a Liberal Senate spot in Victoria (which was meant to be won by Kroger), one Liberal Democrat was elected in NSW and one Green in Victoria.
Thank you for your time and frank answers Malcolm Mackerras!
If you’d like to read more from Malcolm then check out some of the links below:
…and here’s a photo from last year which gives me some real cred as an authentic psephologist’s groupie.
As mentioned previously, I’m not alone in thinking about how professional Australian politics has becomes over the past few decades. For several years since I started a thesis, which is now on a back-burner due to work, family, life, etc.
A couple of years ago I read the ad below and it got me thinking again …then I was distracted by the small matter of helping a government get re-elected and managing a party office…. Now I’m thinking again. If a 20-something Senator in the Greens can advertise such a well-defined professional campaign position why aren’t there more Australian books, blogs and forums on political campaigning and campaign techniques? Where does one go to get qualified for such a well-paid job?*
Then around October last year at a media conference in ANU I heard that Greg Jericho was heading up the new “Political Communications” degree training at UC – great stuff!
CAMPAIGNS & COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER – Position Description Senator Sarah Hanson-Young
Campaigns & Communications Manager SENATOR SARAH HANSON-YOUNG
26th July 2012 2:46 pm
The Campaigns & Communications Manager (CCM) would suit a highly motivated person with a strong history in managing large-scale campaigns in a political environment, and who possesses highly developed strategic and communications skills. As part of a small team the CCM will be responsible for the overall management of the Senator’s re-election campaign along with management of strategic communications and campaign priorities of the Senator’s various portfolios. The CCM will work closely with the Senator’s Chief of Staff and Media Advisor to ensure day-to-day communications are strategic and effective. The CCM will also work with the Senator’s Electorate Liaison officer on campaign priorities and election preparations.
Roles and Responsibilities
1. Primary responsibility for coordinating the Senator’s re-election campaign.
2. Develop and manage the Senator’s communication strategy.
3. Work with Media Advisor to ensure all communications are clear, effective and strategic.
4. Develop and maintain effective working relationships with relevant internal and external stakeholders;
5. Develop and support key campaigns on key portfolio priorities.
6. Work closely with internal and external stakeholders to ensure consistency and co-ordination of the Senator’s strategic direction, communications and campaign priorities.
7. Identify campaigning opportunities that support parliamentary work and parliamentary opportunities that will support ongoing campaigns.
8. Help manage and coordinate Senator’s media appearances and requests as required.
9. Manage the production of communication materials produced and authorised by the Senator’s office.
10. Represent the Senator on internal election campaign committees and working groups.
11. Represent the Senator at official events, party functions, community meetings and public engagements if required.
A salary within the range $60,827 -69,216pa will be determined commensurate with relevant skills and experience. In addition, an allowance in the range $14,319-$17,898 is payable in lieu of overtime.
Applications addressing the selection criteria and the names of two referees should be forwarded to: email@example.com by 8 August 2012. Position Description Senator Sarah Hanson-Young Campaigns & Communications Manager
If you’ve read my earlier (now slightly dated) literature review or discussed political campaigning with me over a few beers (I apologise for everything I said after the third beer) you’ll know I often lament about the relative lack of professional and academic interest in political campaign training in Australia. Well it’s clear I’m not the only one, because this week in Sydney there’ll be an inaugural event that brings many academics and practitioners together to discuss this very thing!
Check out the website: http://www.cmpm2014.org/ for “The 2014 Australia New Zealand WORKSHOP ON CAMPAIGN MANAGEMENT & POLITICAL MARKETING”. As far as I know registration is open to all those with an interest in this field, academic or otherwise.
As the website explains: “In 2014, the University of Sydney’s Graduate School of Government will play host to the second Australia-New Zealand Workshop on Campaign Management and Political Marketing. The workshop will bring together academics and practitioners for an in-depth discussion of current and emerging trends in campaign management and political marketing, and generate new networks and opportunities for further trans-Tasman and international research. The workshop will particularly focus on the intersection between research and practice, and is open to academics, party representatives, political consultants, research students and civil society campaigners.”
As well as a series of panels and discussions about many aspects of campaigning the highlights will include some discussion of Stephen Mill’s new book The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia I haven’t read the book yet, but if it’s anywhere near as good as his brilliant 1986 book “The New Machine Men” I will probably read it a few times and ask him a few questions about it afterwards! 🙂
Stephen has been busy promoting his book in the media recently. Here are some links to recent articles and interviews:
Here’s a short summary:
Political polling, door-knocking, the targeting of marginal seats and swinging voters. They’re terms all Australians are now very familiar with as elections continually roll around. But that wasn’t always the case. Academic and author Stephen Mills examines how politics in Australia has been shaped and influenced in the newly published The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia.
That’s not Stephen, it’s Liberal Party National Director Mr Brian Loughnane, one of the many interviewees featured in Stephen’s new book. Do yourself a favour and buy it.
If you want to see what Stephen looks like and learn more about his amazing work then you should check out his website! http://www.stephen-mills.com.au/