Monday, July 6, 2015

Polls, Damned Polls and Statistics

A strange anomaly of opinion polls in Australia is that, since the big one on September 7 2013, the Australian Labor Party has enjoyed a 5.5% swing to them in 26 consecutive Newspolls.

By any reasonable metric, a sustained swing of this magnitude should indicate that whatever strategy the leader of the party has adopted up until now, more of the same should be done.  And yet there’s a strenuous debate about Bill Shorten’s continuing leadership.

The Opposition Leader is “enjoying” some of the most invidious and irascible attention from the political commentariat that a leader should endure.  Rather than lauding a series of remarkable poll results, his very future as Federal Parliamentary Leader of the ALP is in serious doubt.  Well, it is with media commentatariat.  (Aside from a few loud and proud warriors on social media, there’s scant indication from the folks that actually matter – members of Federal Labor Caucus, for instance – that there is even the remotest risk to Bill Shorten remaining in the top job.)

In the latest Newspoll, the Opposition Leader’s satisfaction among voters fell by seven points and his dissatisfaction level rose by 10 giving him a net satisfaction rating of -28 points.  (Incidentally, his nemesis has a net satisfaction rating of -27 points – not statistically different - yet the cacophony of the commentariat regarding Mr Abbott’s leadership tenure seems to have died down in recent weeks.  Clearly not from any turn around in the polls.)

These are unquestionably poor figures but they do not reflect the obvious success that the ALP is enjoying and consistently maintaining, poll after poll, from pollster after pollster - an election-winning lead over the Coalition.

Optimistically, a theory regarding this anomaly could indicate that the electorate is looking for other points of differentiation between the two major parties.

Arguably, for good or ill, there is a “struck match of emphasis” between the centre-right and centre-left positions on fiscal policy, general economic management, the role of the reserve bank in determining economic performance and all those other middle-of-the-road policy settings that aren’t reflected by a diversity of public opinion.  (What Tariq Ali would describe rather dramatically as the “Extreme Centre”.)

Yes the ongoing background noise that is the dichotomy between Keynesian verses free market economics is important.  But it only remains so where there is a wide divergence in how these philosophical positions effect the everyday of economics like cost of living, income disparity and personal income tax.  Day-to-day the philosophical basis of economic policy probably doesn’t rate in public perception.  Generally there is little significant difference because that is not what fires up the electorate.

What does resonate are issues like justice, fairness and equality.

And we can see this in spades in the debates surrounding marriage equality, asylum seeker policy, indigenous recognition and domestic violence.

The problem for the Opposition Leader, though, is that the cacophony of opinion about his popularity feeds perceptions among that part of the electorate, who only keep half an ear on the machinations of federal politics, that his hold on the leadership is temporary.  It then becomes inevitable that his hold on the leadership will slip – a self-fulfilling prophesy if you will.

No doubt this perception will be playing on Bill's mind as he faces the Trade Union Royal Commission this week and prepares for the up-coming ALP National Conference at the end of July.
Various, largely unsolicited I imagine, testimonials surrounding Bill’s time as AWU Chief testify to the fact that Shorten oversaw some of the most successful industrial relations deals in Australian union history.  Successful for both employer and employee alike but this will likely, and not surprisingly, be a feature in omission in the work of Jeremy Stoljar SC on Wednesday.

Shorten, like Gillard and Rudd before him, will front the Royal Commission and provide his evidence and I have little doubt that, like Gillard and Rudd before him, he will have no case to answer.

The Royal Commission appearance will have little long-lasting effect on Bill Shorten’s standing within the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.  A poor performance may well be used by Mr Abbott to justify an early election but remember, those 26 consecutive polls show the Coalition is consistently up to 5 points behind the ALP.  It would have to be a revealingly bad performance from Bill to kick that can down the road.

National Conference, on the other hand, presents a more useful platform for Shorten to cement his position at the apex of the party leading up to a 2016 election.  A nuanced concession to the left on asylum seeker policy, the correct attenuation of party rules for the right and a compelling Leader’s Address aimed squarely at those points of differentiation that actually matter to the electorate and the background noise of bad personal poll numbers will fade.

And the commentariat?  They’ll be looking for the next bright shiny thing -maybe an MP misleading parliament would be a worthy subject.

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