23 June 2004

It's neck and neck, but on paper they're still polls apart

Thirteen million Australians are eligible to vote. Therefore, any opinion poll that claims, in a period of just two weeks, the Government went from 390,000 votes behind Labor in primary votes (ALP 44 per cent, Coalition 41 per cent) to 1.3 million votes ahead (Coalition 47, ALP 37), and then, a further three weeks later, to lose 520,000 votes while Labor magically regains 780,000 votes (Coalition 43, ALP 43), is massively kidding.

In other words, the Newspoll of three weeks ago couldn't possibly have been anything but a cock-up somewhere. You don't get huge voting shifts like that, back and forth, in just a matter of a few weeks. Newspapers, though, aren't going to admit it. Thus we get silly stories that get overexcited in the first place and then, when the next poll comes along and voting trends regain credibility, we get equally silly stories that pretend there has suddenly been a huge turnaround in public sentiment.

It is just the most grievous twaddle.

Far more reliable is the long-term trend. And this shows that in each of the past four elections (1993, 1996, 1998 and 2001), newspaper polls invariably, in their research in the months before election day, underestimated the Labor vote and overestimated the Coalition vote, sometimes quite markedly. The political parties know this and so do those analysts who know what they're talking about.

And if you take a line from the last election, then understand Labor's primary vote, say both public polls, has gained between four and five percentage points (between 520,000 and 650,000 votes) since the last election, while the Government has gained nothing.

Think hard about that. You can bet the Prime Minister does.

Ramsey says the election must be between 31 July 2004 and 16 April 2005. That is what the constitution says. I doubt the Man of Steel will want to face waking up one morning and discovering that George Bush is a lame duck. I'd place the chances of the election being held after the first Tuesday in November at zero.

There are a number of election furphies we can expect in the next few weeks:

1. The Senate does not have the most complex system of election in the world

2. The Man of Steel is not putting off the election. Howard is doing what every other prime minister of Australia does and trying to set the election date to his own advantage.

3. Polls are a wholly owned- and -operated device for increasing newspaper sales. Sometimes they're outright wrong. The trend line and the pattern are all that really tell us anything.

4. No matter who wins here and in Washington the US alliance will continue after the election.

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