Opinion- 29 May 2007


pdf file-available from Australasian Science



Harry Robinson on the Chequerboard of Polls and Polies

The polls are very bad for us -- Prime Minister Howard -- who later said the election could "annihilate" the coalition.

"If an election were held tomorrow the government would lose n seats," -- ABC commentators.

John Laws to Kevin Rudd: "A Doomsday poll says you will gain scores of seats." Rudd: "Pigs might fly."

Yes, and Pish and Tosh! No scientist would place much weight on a poll result. No pollster worth his/her salt will say that poll results are sure predictors of future events. The most a pollster will claim is that the figures produced by a survey give a fairly accurate indication of what the voting public were thinking and feeling on one weekend. Anyone is free to use those indications to predict a real election but they do so at their own risk.

Who needs to read polls and how should they use them?

It's pretty clear that the ed-sci community needs to know which way political winds are blowing since ed-sci needs money and elected governments hold the power of the purse strings. Since this stuff is out of scientific courts, where should scientists look for enlightenment? To the media commentariat? Newspaper and air media columnists and pundits? Alas, those worthies are weak reeds. Their working lives are so many messes. They begin with their personal viewpoints, their employers' viewpoints, the information they can scrape from political contacts, loaded advice from political manipulators and revelations on their personal roads to Damascus.

You may see the results on ABC TV's Sunday morning program "Insiders" in which a veteran political warhorse name of Barrie Cassidy holds sway over three or four practising pundits. (The audio is later broadcast on ABC NewsRadio.) Cassidy has the advantage of experience and controls the proceedings. The younger participants spend their lives reading political entrails, worrying about what they don't know and striving for The Answer. They work up from caution to high excitement to high pitched declamation. It's all enough to make a cool headed scientist shrink.

Curiously, online bookmakers are the best predictors of election results and have been for several years. You can go to their websites and see how the punters are betting. These are far more accurate than poll respondents for a good reason: poll respondents are free to tell a pollster anything without fear of loss. They can airily say they will vote for party A, knowing they can change their minds often between poll date and voting day. Punters, on the other hand, must have harder heads. They are risking their money. They take their soundings from the real life around them rather than from the artificial life of the commentariat. And they won't bet out of political prejudice. Money is the discipline.

Online bookmakers have a funny way of quoting their odds. Last time I looked the Howard coalition was quoted at around $2.15 while the Rudd insurgency was around $1.79. This meant that Labor was a marginally better chance to win. But not a runaway victor.

This reflected Kevin Rudd's remark: "I don't take a lot of notice. Election night will be a nail biter with the result going 51 to 49 and we will hope to be on the higher side."

If it all sounds like a festival of flim flam, it is, but it is flim flam that will eventually decide who gets how much funding -- if any.

It may be more profitable to look at the mechanics of elections. The overall idea is to express the will of the people on a particular day which is a comforting thing to say but a devil of a game to play. Some pointers --

We do not elect governments. We elect members of the Reps on a seat by seat basis, and we use preferential voting for the reps. We elect senators on a state by state basis and we use a proportional voting system for the senate. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) runs every election and gets little thanks for its integrity and efficiency. It is a stand-alone agency which does not answer to any department or minister - it reports directly to Parliament. It's an almost silent service but it is grateful when people take notice of it and ask questions. How do you count votes? Why do you do it this or that way? How do we know you get all the details right?

The AEC sees to collecting and counting votes but it does not try to form governments. That happens once members are returned to Parliament. They -- the members and the senators -- decide who will take the government benches and who will be sentenced to the agonies of Opposition.

Getting all that sorted out is akin to a Chinese puzzle. Still, it is done.

Not surprisingly, members view their seats differently from the way people at large see them. A private member cannot rely on the party to win a nice high percentage of the national vote and receive the pro rata benefit. Party B might win overall, but Smith MHR might lose the seat because of a purely local issue. When Kim Beasley made his first tilt at the Prime Ministership his party won a clear majority of the national vote but lost the election because too many ALP votes were recorded in safe Labor seats and not enough fell in marginal electorates.

A good member knows the local electorate backwards.

I recently asked a Liberal member how she saw her prospects. She did not think about her party's chances but about her own. "I had a majority of eleven per cent last time," she said and I will lose about 3% because of a redistribution. That leaves me with a good head start." All hunky dory? Not quite. Her smile faded, "But I am not sure of the 18 to 25 year olds. They could give me trouble. On the other hand, they might boost my chances."

'Tis all a chequerboard of nights and days, where destiny, with politicians for pieces, plays -- but it is a chequerboard where ed-sci people will do well to see and understand the moves. Without much reliance on polls or media commentators.


Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.