April 15, 2015

Peering through

By Malcolm Farnsworth
On opinion polls and other props of political theatre

Take four examples of politics as ritual and performance.

This week we’ve had Tony Abbott sitting on children’s play equipment, delivering a homily on his “no jab, no play, no pay” vaccination policy.

In New York, we saw Joe Hockey ringing the bell to close trading on Wall Street. He joked about being more of a dingo than a wolf, as the cameras captured the requisite images of jostling traders.

In the lead-up to the budget – the ultimate ritual of political words and images – Peter Costello emerged to take a pot shot at the government. The former treasurer said the government’s tax policy was a “morbid joke”. His comments dominated Tuesday’s news. In New York, Hockey took issue with the criticism.

And Bill Shorten. The Opposition leader acted as foil to the leading players. The government has no Plan B, he told the cameras outside a school. Or was it a factory? It may be a morbid joke but the electorate stopped laughing a long time ago, he said. Zing. And by the way, we’re going to make the multinationals pay …

Meanwhile, over in the west, Premier Colin Barnett showed a somewhat rudimentary grasp of American history – and conjured a picture of iron ore dumped in Fremantle Harbour – with the declaration that his state would turn to Asia in their version of the Boston Tea Party.

Familiar pictures. They fill our screens time and again, the same locations, the same set-piece moments. The caring leader. The travelling treasurer. The disgruntled predecessor. The opportunistic opponent. The mendicant premier. The names and faces may change but the caravan rolls on.

There’s always a support cast. The former Howard minister Nick Minchin flanked Hockey at the New York Stock Exchange, smiling broadly as the reunion of former colleagues performed for the [Australian] cameras. Shorten brought the standard ensemble of shadow minister and local MP, both nodding determinedly in the background as their leader delivered his monologue to the cameras. Little children cavorted in the playground, providing a backdrop for the prime minister.

It all ends up on the nightly news, usually in identical form on the commercial channels and not looking significantly different on the ABC. It’s the political equivalent of ambulance chasing, offering little to the viewer in the way of information, let alone insight.

In truth, much of politics is prosaic. Meetings and minutes. Committees and conferences. Bureaucracy and beadledom. Ingratiation and inveiglement. More meetings. Two steps forward, one step back – or worse.

Substantive politics goes on behind closed doors, in Cabinet, party rooms, all manner of sub-committees and endless encounters with those euphemistically named “stakeholders”. It’s here that policy confronts budgets and electoral imperatives. Ideology competes with pragmatism. Dogma battles reality. Public statements often mask a myriad mix of positions and motives. Preferment and ambition are ever-present.

Most of this is rarely shown or explained to the public, not even to the interested minority who hunger for it. The infrastructure of politics and the media militates against it. Simplicity rules. Everything is black and white. Villains and heroes come and go, trading places in the manner of Eurasia and Eastasia.

Sometimes revelation comes in the form of memoirs or a good work of history, but mostly the interested must peer through the fog of public performances and try to discern the real from the illusory.

How do they find out what Hockey was really doing in New York? Is Costello motivated by a wise elder’s altruism or burnishing his political reputation? Is he a stalking horse for Abbott’s internal opponents? Is Barnett blustering? What can he do about his GST distributions?

It’s a public display of politics conducted in code, where the twee performances are a kind of ambit claim designed to shape an agenda. We might like to think the media could interpret that code, but it is utterly complicit in the charade, dependent on a flow of pictures and grabs. Witness the coverage of pointless and trivial spats on social media. “Content”, anyone?

Try the opinion polls published by Fairfax and News Corporation on Monday. Major national newspapers published details of polls on the front page as if they were news. If the news criteria are who, what, when, where and why, surely opinion polls are news where none exists.

The Australian’s Newspoll had the ALP leading the Coalition by 51–49 two-party-preferred, unchanged from its previous poll. At Fairfax, the Ipsos poll showed Labor ahead 54–46, although this stretched to 55–45 if you considered the preference allocations of the poll respondents instead of the numbers from the last election.

Both polls had Abbott’s disapproval ratings at 59 and 60.

Newspoll showed the ALP’s primary vote declining for the third consecutive poll, down now to 36%. Ipsos had it increasing marginally to 38%, while the Coalition fell three points from 42 to 39.

In its reporting, the Australian chose to say Labor was stumbling, based partly on an improvement in Abbott’s approval rating and a decline in Shorten’s. At Fairfax, the Ipsos poll was interpreted as a slapdown for the government, not just for the PM but for his travelling treasurer. 

Newspoll says its margin of sampling error is “plus or minus 3 percentage points”. So Labor’s 51 could really be 54, or maybe just 48. The Coalition could be well behind on 46 or comfortably ahead on 52.

Ipsos says its margin of error is 2.6%, so Labor’s 54% could be 56.6% or 51.4%. The Coalition could be on a disastrous 43.4% or knocking on the door at 48.6%.

It’s all more than faintly ridiculous. Two polls, basically saying the same thing, both within standard statistical variations, and yet reported so differently by media companies obliged to stand by their investment.

In fact, the two polls simply confirm what we’ve known for at least 14 months, a period in which the government has been consistently behind and Abbott’s approval rating has been relatively low.

But the fog of statistics is part of the bi-weekly coverage of politics. It creates a day or two of stories constructed out of not much at all. It dovetails neatly with the artificial stories created for the cameras. It obsesses the media and many of those doing the actual politics.

The politics and media theatre works smoothly, but I’d prefer to be shown what’s happening backstage.

Malcolm Farnsworth

Malcolm Farnsworth publishes AustralianPolitics.com

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