Bob Ellis may be considered slightly eccentric by some. But I remember on the night of Kennett’s defeat, Ellis was being interviewed as to why he’d come to Victoria. He predicted that it’d be a hung parliament and that he wanted to be there to see the end of Kennett. The tone of the interviewers seemed to suggest that although the man was insane, it was at least some entertainment on what was to be a boring election night with Kennett being re-elected in a landslide according to some polls.
I turned to my wife and commented that they shouldn’t mock too much, because on the early figures coming in, Ellis could be right. At an election night party, I kept checking the result because I’d noticed that nothing was happening to prove Ellis wrong. Every time someone came up to me and asked how it was going, I’d tell them that Labor might win. They’d nod as though I’d had too much red wine, and then tell me exactly why Labor had stuffed up the election, which shadow minister was an idiot or why Bracks would never be Premier. Suddenly, sometime after ten, people began to crowd around the TV. “Told yas,” I said, in between singing, “Ding, dong the witch is dead” and explaining that I was perfectly capable of standing and that I didn’t need a chair just some red shoes so I could get back to Kansas.
Needless to say, neither Bob Ellis nor I got much credit for being right.
Bob’s gone out on a limb here with a bold prediction. I put $10 on Labor to win more than 70 seats at 10-1 a few weeks ago on Sportsbet, and $5 to win between 61 and 70 seats at 7-1. I suspect I’ll wish I’d put on more.
I was going to start with a little story but I read a column in “The Age” today. And I’m pleased to say that after last week with their column from Nicole Flint calling Abbott the “thinking woman’s candidate” and their editorial calling on Gillard to stand down, they’ve restored some balance: They have an article from an ex-Labor State MP… calling on Gillard to stand down. But they’ve balanced this by another opinion piece saying that Labor shouldn’t put their hopes in Rudd because he’s too flawed.
Of course, I’m all too aware of the irony of writing a blog about how we’re all sick of people talking about the topic of this blog, so I thought I’d start will a story that has nothing to do with politics.
Once upon a time, Keith and Leanne were a couple, but someone stole Leanne away. Keith was bitter and started saying things, behind their back. Eventually, Keith made an attempt to win Leanne back, but this was unsuccessful. At this point, he said that he wished them well, and that he was going to get on with his own life. About a year later, a friend to both Leanne and Keith said that it was obvious that Keith wasn’t getting on with his life and that Leanne’s current relationship wasn’t working out. So Simon arrange for Keith to meet with Leanne. Keith didn’t show. When asked why, he said that there were no circumstances under which he would be getting back with Leanne. A few months later, Keith starting to help organize Leanne’s engagement party. Some people said that this was Keith’s way of getting Leanne back. When asked about this Keith replied, I’m just helping out and I already said a few months ago that I didn’t believe there were any circumstances under which I’ll get Leanne back. The gossips who’d been repeating all the things that Keith had said, now started to say that there was a BIG difference between the two statements, and Keith’s denial was further proof that he was still after Leanne.
Ok, I’d like to deny that the above story is an allegory where Keith is Kevin Rudd and Leanne represents the leadership. Simon is, of course, a made up character. And…
Yes, that’s right. You don’t believe me. It’s clear that I’m not telling the truth. But let’s just look at the story as a story for a second, and asks ourselves the simple question, what if Keith is telling the truth? What if he has decided that he has no chance of getting back with Leanne?
I – like everyone else – think that Rudd would like to be given the opportunity to be PM again. And I think that if he had the numbers, he’d challenge. But let’s just consider the possibility that there is no challenge this week. Everything he has said publicly is consistent with him working toward a Labor victory. And we’re very much in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario here. If Rudd campaigns, he’s undermining Gillard. If he sits back and does nothing, he’s refusing to help.
Yes, we all KNOW what Rudd is thinking. The media tells us all the time. And yes, the polls say that he’s much more popular than Gillard. But will responding to bad polls so close to an election just make Labor looking poll driven and lacking in a clear vision.
Gillard may well lose. And maybe Simon Crean had the right idea a few months ago when there was time to give people the idea that Labor had “united” under Rudd. But it seems to me that Labor’s best hope is to be able to into the election saying these are things we’ve achieved, these are the things we hope to achieve and we’ve stuck to our principles against all attempts to divert us from what’s important.
The cliche “the only poll that matters” does have a certain truth. But I also think that elections are not just about winning. They’re sometimes about presenting a clear view of how you see the future. When the Liberals lost in ’93, several of them said it was a mistake to let the public in on what they intended to do. I disagree – if you get elected the public find out anyway. If you don’t, at least they know what you’re arguing for. But there’s one poll that I think is relevant now, and I’ve framed it so that Abbott should be a shoe-in.
One of the big problems with polls is that people have no idea what they mean. A few months ago, there was a poll showing that Howard was the most popular PM in the past twenty five years. He got a whopping 35%. Impressive? No, not when you consider that he was the only Liberal PM in the survey. It’d be like doing a survey and asking whether you’d prefer to see Gillard, Rudd, Dreyfus, Shorten or Abbott as PM. One would expect Abbott to win that one. Howard actually received a lower percentage than the Liberal Party did in 2007 election. So, in other words, many Liberals preferred one of the Labor leaders. Yet this was written up as Howard being the most popular PM in the past twenty five years.
The other problem with polls is that they don’t distinguish between the possible, the probable and the impossible.
Ok, let’s imagine I’m preparing a dinner for a hundred people and to give myself a guide for the menu, I use the following poll:
The vegetarian option is liable to be very accurate. Most people who identify themselves as vegetarians aren’t liable to change in between now and the dinner. If it’s particularly appealing, on the night, a few extra may order it, but I’m not likely to need less than the poll estimate. But when it comes to the other three options, there are all sorts of things which may make a difference. For example, news of an outbreak of food poisoning associated with chicken may mean that very few people order the chicken. Similarly, rumours of “mad cow” disease may reduce the number of beef eaters considerably.
These things may change what a person initially indicated. And that’s even before, when presented with the final menu, we discover that the beef comes with brussel sprouts because they’re good for you. (“Yuk, brussel sprouts – think I’ll get the seafood after all!”) Or before the anaphylactics discover that the chicken is covered with a peanut sauce.
When it comes to political polls, the media conveniently overlooks that most elections get decided by the people who only start to pay attention in the final few weeks. So when we start hearing about polls meaning this or that, we should be given more information about the circumstances of the poll. Was there an undecided element, and how large was it? How random was the poll? Did the sample include a range of ages and occupations? What state(s) was it taken in? Were there differences between the states? In determining the result of the Federal Election, these things will be more significant than the actual 2-3% fluctuations that the media obsesses over – even as they acknowledge that a 2% swing is in the potential margin of error, so it may not even exist. I’ve even heard, after an improvement of 1%, commentators hypothesise about the reason for the “improvement”.
Polls can create their own momentum. If everyone else thinks this Government is bad, who am I to disagree? But they can also create a backlash. “I’m not sure that I want to re-elect this Government, but I’m concerned that the Opposition will get too big a majority like in Queensland.” The question for the coming election is which of those is likely to happen.
In short, the poll doesn’t tell us who are the committed vegetarians and who will only be deciding after seeing the menu. We’re encouraged to believe that it’s all done and dusted, that the election campaign counts for nothing and that Julia Gillard should hand Tony the keys to the Lodge. (Barry Cassidy doesn’t believe that she’ll lead Labor to the election. Or was that last week?) But I’d still like to see a poll which asked whether the person was sure of their voting intentions, or whether they were still to make up their mind. Now, THAT might give us something interesting to discuss.