Rogue poll, rogue media

Wednesday, 11 November 2009 

OK, this is starting to get weird. A week after having recorded the biggest shift in voter sentiment for 15 years, Newspoll goes and does another poll on asylum seekers, split by voting intentions, but doesn’t tell us what those voting intentions are! Surely given how newsworthy last week’s poll was, the follow up would be as well. Instead we have no follow up from Newspoll. How strange.

Yet it is perhaps understandable that a polling organisation would attempt to protect its reputation and even that The Australian, which owns and understands Newspoll, would be trying as well. The Australian is beating a retreat both with polls showing how unimpressed the electorate still is with the government’s handling of the Oceanic Viking and a sly little ‘insider’ piece about how Labor polling is not seeing any swing. Representatives from both organisations have at least indicated that it may have been a rogue poll. Anyway, The Australian is not too worried. It clearly sees its market positioning as a high profile critic of the government as it seeks to extend its franchise beyond the nation’s airport lounges.

But what about the rest of the media? After all, they had several polls to compare the Newspoll one to, Essential Research and Morgan, which came at same time and which both showed Labor as popular as ever. Yet they were ignored over one suspicious poll. It would be too easy to say that the media’s focus on the errant Newspoll over all the others was a result of pro-Coalition bias. The handling of the poll by Insiders, for example, shows that other factors were in play.

Over recent months there have been two trends that have gone to make Insiders somewhat more entertaining, but also more irrelevant. The first is that the ever-changing panel and its host are becoming increasingly wrapped up in their own agenda and detached from what anybody outside the media is actually thinking. What is entertaining is that it is also becoming more fractious between the panel members as some of them become increasingly involved in the political process, especially the ‘reconstruction’ of the right.

The detachment of Insiders especially comes out when it comes to discussing what is turning out to be one of the most high-polling governments and probably the most popular Prime Minister since the war. To listen to the program, you would think Rudd is stumbling from crisis to crisis. There is no doubt that the government has programmatic weaknesses, but it is the political strengths of this government, and especially its leader, that completely pass the panel by.

Last Sunday the insularity of Insiders was on full display. After mentioning that he had received e-mails begging him not to forget the other polls (probably from viewers anticipating what was coming) he and the panel promptly did so, as they went about explaining why the Newspoll was confirming what they knew all along, that the asylum issue would damage the government.

Yet the one who clung to the poll most was not from the right, but from the left. For David Marr, the Newspoll confirmed the deep and ‘savage’ racism of the Australian electorate and how they could be so easily manipulated by an unscrupulous politician. David Marr has been banging this drum for some while and finally he seemed to have evidence to confirm that we were once again seeing the Tampa effect.

But was there really a Tampa effect the first time? It is interesting to look at Newspoll from that year. The Howard government started 2001 in a dreadful state, polling some of the lowest of any Coalition government as it floundered around with petrol prices and implementing the GST. Through the year however, its polling steadily rose, helped by the usual Howard backflips and a spendathon in Costello’s budget. By the end of July, the Coalition had clawed back to a four point lead over Labor on the primary. Over August 2001 its support slipped back to level pegging with Labor at around 40% but when the Tampa came into view at the end of August and Howard ordered the SASR to board the boat and turn it back, the government increased its support by five points.

Interestingly, despite common myth, Labor’s vote remained fairly steady at around 39-40%. Tampa itself was not the body blow to Labor as commonly thought, with the Coalition mostly picking up support from minor parties. There was strong support for what Howard did, but not enough to cause the mythical Howard battlers to switch away from Labor. By the end of the first week in September there was a slight move back to Labor taking the two parties back to where they were at the end of July, before the Tampa arrived.

What did show a drop in Labor’s support to the government’s favour, however, was the subsequent poll taken after 9/11, where in Australia, like everywhere else in the world, voters looked to their governments to deal with security. There is no doubt that Howard linked the asylum seekers to the terrorism threat, but there is no poll evidence to suggest that the asylum seeker issue itself was what made the difference. As it happened, the Coalition’s lead whittled away during the election campaign, leaving Howard with a modest gain of only two seats from Labor and a swing of 2.0% on top of one of the lowest bases from which any government had sought re-election.

The 2001 election was a significant election for the media, however. It marked a temporary break from the elections of the previous decade, all of which had been defined by the exhaustion of the major parties’ programmes. The Coalition lost the 1993 election because they tried carrying on the reforms with an economic programme that had no social base, Labor lost the 1996 election with a ‘big vision’ that had the same problem. By 1998, the most dismal one of all, we had two exhausted parties limply flailing each other over a non-issue like the GST. No wonder the only striking result of the election was the arrival of that expression of dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties, One Nation.

The 2001 election allowed all of that to be forgotten. Suddenly the media could ignore the exhaustion of the major parties and pretend the game was still on. The major parties were only too happy to oblige. The Coalition could kid themselves that Howard at last was starting to ‘resonate’ with the values of the Australian electorate, especially (always a conservative fantasy) Labor’s traditional blue collar vote. The left, needing an excuse for their feeble performance, were only too happy to go along, even it wasn’t terribly flattering to the Australian electorate, and so the Tampa myth was born.

It is no surprise that when the asylum issue returned in April both sides of the fence in the media were ready for the Tampa hysteria to return. Rudd managed to shut that down, pushing the explosion off Ashmore Reef off to a police investigation. However, the stuff up over the Oceanic Viking has left the issue in the air longer and the media have been in paroxysms waiting for the Tampa effect to return. How cruel, and how naughty, then of Newspoll to do a rogue poll!

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 11 November 2009.

Filed under Media analysis

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6 responses to “Rogue poll, rogue media”

  1. kymbos on 11th November 2009 10:42 am

    It makes much better copy to ignore the boring truth and to fan the flames. Sensationalism sells!

    Another good piece.

  2. Lyn on 11th November 2009 2:39 pm

    Another excellent, interesting piece of writing, thankyou Piping Strike.

    OK, this is starting to get weird for sure.

    What did that rogue poll equate to, was it 2 million voters against the government in 2 weeks.

    The media bias is just becoming more obvious by the day. David Speers on Sky News Agenda, tries to get anyone he can on his show to knock the Government and Kevin Rudd. As for the Insiders, used to be a decent show but now I can’t even see it through.

    Morgan and Neilson polls, after the rogue were pretty much ignored in most of the reporting

  3. Tad Tietze on 11th November 2009 7:43 pm

    PS, I reckon I agree with the broad outline of your analysis here. I remember as an activist that there was not a kind of scariness about the political mood until the weeks after 9/11—after all, we’d had months of refugee-related news hysteria leading up to the Tampa without Howard enough in the polls to really give himself a clear run at the election.

    I see race as ever-present in the Australian electorate, but it is rarely (in isolation) a major vote swinger in the centre of politics. Even Hanson had to extend her popularity through economic nationalism rather than the race hatred of some of her core supporters.

    I think the sad thing is that the media is so obsessed with this. But then my general analysis is that they see appeals to nationalism and militarism as so “natural” they cannot see these as potential vote swingers. For god’s sake, Australia went to war in October 2001 but the media act like all that was going on was asylum seekers.

    This probably explains why the media ignore the fact there is majority opposition to the Australian deployment to Afghanistan. It would be unnatural to report something that so contradicts their own view of the world, one which is endorsed by both sides of politics.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 11th November 2009 9:46 pm

    I think this a classic case where the weakness of the political class ends up being turned around into a problem of racism in the electorate, in this case Labor having no real response to prevent Howard digging himself out of a hole during 2001, and especially no real response to the War on Terror.

    When race does come up, such as the acceptance of a child abuse panic in the NT, there is usually such a strong consensus from left to right, that it is rarely an open political issue.

  5. Cavitation on 12th November 2009 10:27 am

    The weaknesses apparent in our traditional political parties, and the collapse in their ideological foundation, is causing the media to take up the slack itself apparently. Media organisations are increasingly getting directly involved in the political process, instead of just manipulating indirectly. In the USA, the “Fox News” coterie have practically taken control of their Republican Party. Here, the punditocracy in “The Australian” seems to be trying the same approach, but as the dynamics of our society are different to the US, there isn’t the same ability to gain as much influence. But increasingly the media, especially its Murdock branch, wants to make the news, rather than just report on it. This is a somewhat puzzling strategy, now that the internet has removed the mainstream media organisation’s gatekeeper role in distributing information. Much of the media’s intrinsic value seems to be in its reputation for objectivity, tarnished tho this often is. What will happen to the News Corporation’s share price when its media campaigns for one particular party fail to pay off, or when it becomes apparent that their climate change denial is just wrong. Once they trash their reputation, it can’t easily be restored again.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 12th November 2009 4:36 pm

    I’m really in two minds on this. Fox News is trying to position itself against all the Obama lovin’ in the media and it is working, their numbers are up. But then Fox had already broken ground by positioning itself as a right wing alternative against CNN and MSNBC and Obama’s attacks may only add to its right-wing credibility.

    In Australia things are different. There is not the tradition of an openly partisan press as in Europe, and now the US.

    Mitchell’s defensive reaction about being “centre-right” v “right” and reminding us of the reporting they did on children overboard and AWB suggests there are difficulties in adopting the same model here, in my view.

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