Opinion Polls Are Not Destroying Democracy



“Poll driven panic has produced a revolving door Prime Ministership, which can’t be good for our country, and a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.” Tony Abbott Sept 15th 2015

So it is the opinion polls and the media that are to be blamed for the perceived deficiencies of Australia’s democracy, if Australia’s former Prime Minister is to be believed.

Those same accursed polls also suggested that Tony Abbott’s minimal credibility with the electorate was one of the key reasons he was deserted by the Liberal party room in favour of Malcolm Turnbull.

Liberal backbenchers will see the latest Fairfax-Ipsos poll as a spectacular endorsement of their test of nerve. Under Abbott, February's Fairfax poll had the Coalition trailing Labor 49-51 on the two-party preferred vote; now the tables have turned with the Government ahead 56-44 on the two-party preferred vote. Up against Abbott, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was preferred PM 44-39. Now Turnbull leads by a remarkable 69 points to 18.

Nevertheless, it is also the case that many voters, and not a few commentators, blame the polls and the media for the fact that Australia has had five Prime Ministers in as many years, and for the alienation of many voters from the political process if not from support for democracy itself.

For example, Nick Bryant – for several years the BBC’s correspondent in Australia – has declared more than once that he has never seen another country whose politicians and journalists are so obsessed with polls and does much to explain the disposability of recent PMs.

However, there are structural reasons for the frequency of, and attention paid to, opinion polls in Australia that do not necessarily undermine the quality of its democracy.

And, make no mistake, politicians themselves are at least as obsessed with the polls as journalists. Every few years the electorate gives them a job interview so any information which indicates whether they are going to be retained or made redundant they reach out for like a drowning man for a lifebuoy. They will make judgments based on such data as well as the anecdotal information from their electorates to determine whether or not the leader they have chosen will keep them in work.

It is an entirely quantifiable age. Everything is measured by everybody all the time. Much of Buzzfeed’s success is down to its “listicles”, but, more seriously, look at the behaviour of the modern behemoths like Google, Facebook and YouTube with their vast banks of data and algorithms telling them exponentially more and more about those who choose to use their services. So much so, that they often seem more like outsourced intelligence agencies than anything else.

If private companies can know so much about what you buy, what you think about buying, where you are, where you are thinking of going, why would political parties be any different? They have been gathering information about their voters for decades, initially crudely and now with ever increasing sophistication. Polls are just one deposit in that data bank.

Then there is the fact that, as a federation of six states and two territories without nationally fixed election dates, Australia has elections of more or less national significance with greater frequency than most other democracies. Canada is something of an exception, but its longer parliamentary terms mean there is generally a greater gap between polls, even recognising that was not the case during the recent era of Stephen Harper’s minority governments.

In Australia, there have been 29 elections (not counting the WA Senate re-run in 2014) in the past decade, one every 4.8 months. Since the turn of the century there have been 39, increasing the frequency to one every 4.6 months.

All of the State and Territory polls have had some national consequences, notably this year’s Queensland election where one of the key reasons for Campbell Newman’s defeat after one term was the sudden disaffection north of the Tweed with the policies and personality of Tony Abbott.

This being the case, it is hardly surprising that politicians pay close attention, not only to the elections themselves, but also to the opinion polls that come before and after them.

Of all the English-speaking democracies, only the United States House of Representatives has a shorter term than Australia’s. New Zealand has three year terms, but without the complication of state or provincial elections.

This means Australian Prime Ministers really only have the middle year to develop long-term policy. In the first year, they are settling in, in the third the next election campaign begins.

Again, politicians in Australia have more reason than elsewhere to keep a weather eye on the polls and it is no wonder that, if the politicians are worried about them, journalists would and should report them.

Then there is the impact of compulsory preferential voting in Australia. The evidence is that it makes opinion polls (especially at election time) more accurate than elsewhere. Australia has few recent examples where the polls have been as far out of whack as was the case in the UK this year.

There may be signs of voters gaming polls in Australia in recent times, using them as instant referenda on the current performance of particular leaders, but that is not to deny their general accuracy.

Even if it were a sensible idea, banning publication of opinion polls would simply force politicians and journalist to rely even more on internally commissioned party research or that of interest groups and corporations, which hardly seems to be a net improvement on the current state of play.

At least published polls have the virtue of transparency.

In any event, there are always the betting markets that have a pretty good record in predicting the futures of leaders as well as election outcomes and are hardly likely to proscribed.

Rather than criticising the ubiquity of opinion polls and the reporting of them, it might be better for the state of Australian democracy if Tony Abbott were to fight for extended parliamentary terms offering leaders greater opportunity to plan for the long term as well as reducing the influence of the polls themselves.

Good luck with that.

Image credit: Phillip Long, Flickr

A correction was made to this article on 18/11/15

Jim Middleton

Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne; former Senior ABC Correspondent

Published Date
November 17, 2015