September 2007

The Nation Reviewed

El pollo loco

By Mungo MacCallum

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

At the beginning of 1971 the Australian Labor Party found itself in the unusual position of having some spare money in the bank. A little over a year earlier Gough Whitlam had produced a massive swing to Labor, putting the party within easy striking distance of government the next time around, and businesses who had ignored the party during its long, bleak years in opposition were now falling over each other to show their impartiality.

With the prospect of plenty more flowing in before the critical poll of 1972, the no-longer-faceless men at head office decided to run what they called a mid-term campaign, built around their unstoppable leader. An agency was commissioned, and it came up with the idea of a newspaper series about Whitlam’s core beliefs. It would work as a sort of Q&A: Does Gough Whitlam believe non-government schools deserve federal assistance? Yes! And here’s why ...

This seemed harmless enough, and Whitlam’s office gave it the go-ahead; a few weeks later the page proofs arrived for inspection. As a staffer thumbed through the pile, his blood suddenly froze. He had come to the one which read, Does Gough Whitlam believe Australia should have its own nuclear deterrent? Yes! And here’s why ...

Hands shaking, the staffer rang the agency. Where the hell had they got this? Didn’t they understand that it was directly contrary to Labor policy, that it would destroy Whitlam’s leadership and make the party a political laughing stock for years to come? Well, no, said the agency man, they didn’t understand that. But they had done a bit of market research and the policy had proved very popular, so they’d just slotted it in. The ad was, of course, wiped: policy one, polls nil.

But in the years since then, the score has become less clear. These days both major parties generally research their policies before announcing them, and few proposals go through without being at least trimmed to suit public opinion. The process is seldom as direct as the public-opinion polls which have held politicians and the commentariat mesmerised since the start of this year; it relies not on a deliberately random sample but on the careful selection of a panel of so-called swinging voters, who are then locked behind one-way glass so that experts can evaluate their reactions during a carefully guided discussion.

Finding a suitable panel is an art in itself, and one that has overturned the conventional wisdom about the running of a campaign. It used to be thought that the swingers were the smart ones: people unmoved by family or group allegiances who followed the political debate, carefully weighed the campaign promises and then made up their minds on the merits of the arguments - leavened, of course, by a touch of enlightened self-interest.

But when the pollsters actually interview the swingers, it turns out that the reverse is the case. Most of them have no idea about politics. They barely know the names of the leaders of the major parties, and they couldn’t identify their local member in a police line-up. Other voters, who stick more or less constantly with the same party, have decided that their ideals and interests lie pretty consistently with one side of politics or the other, and if they change it is only after a long and agonising reappraisal.

A lot of swingers resent having to vote at all, and when they do it is often as a result of a prejudice or a whim; the colour of a candidate’s tie can be far more influential than the reams of unread policy pamphlets he has personally delivered for consideration. Swingers are, by and large, nongs. But there can be no denying that they decide most elections, or that their numbers, like those of the cane toad, are on the increase. Learning just which dog-whistle best summons them, and which bits of the tummy to tickle when they arrive, is now Politics 101.

In the good old days before the invention of the focus group, this was largely a matter of instinct: politicians used to say they could sense the mood of the electorate. Whether this was true or not, they at least gave themselves a chance by actually associating with the electorate, most notably through public meetings. And the meetings really were public; incredible as it may sound, the audiences were not just the hand-picked party faithful but anyone who chose to attend.

When Mark Latham tried to revive the idea in 2004, with his so-called community forums, the party apparatchiks regarded it as both too risky and too primitive, and the idea, like all aspects of Lathamism, has since been buried and forgotten. But there is no doubt that direct contact with the voters, distasteful as most politicians appear to find it, delivers the kind of feedback which even the best polling does not.

These days the conservative politicians and their media cheer-squad profess to find the polls perplexing: Tony Abbott talks of parallel universes and the Australian’s Paul Kelly of twin realities. They cannot understand why the mood for change is apparently so strong while the economy is buzzing along quite nicely and there is no serious cause for resentment of the government. Perhaps if they spent more time socialising in the local pub and less poring over the psephological equivalent of chicken entrails, they might see that the disconnect is more complex than the reflex fear and greed on which the focus groups base their findings.

But the pollsters’ findings have come to dominate politics, and in some cases not only to influence policy but actually determine it. When the Liberals’ agency of choice, Crosby-Textor, reported that attacking the states and usurping their functions might prove popular with disgruntled voters, John Howard barely hesitated. The decisions which resulted were, to put it politely, interesting. The most bizarre was the takeover of Tasmania’s Mersey Hospital, which had absolutely nothing to do with the proper administration of public health; outside Howard’s immediate coterie it was agreed to be abysmal policy. But the mere possibility that it might save the marginal electorate of Braddon was all the justification it needed. Pollsters one, policy nil.

The highly respected retired pollster Irving Saulwick accepts that the decision was a bad one, but defends the polling: as long as the finding was honestly and professionally arrived at, the pollster should not be blamed for the use the politicians and the media make of it. But this is disingenuous. The pollsters have changed the system in other ways, few of them desirable. They can, and in some cases do, not only predict how certain decisions will drive voters, but actively take part in the process. The increasing practice of push-polling, using loaded questions to influence attitudes (‘Would it change your opinion of Mr Boggs if you knew he practised bestiality?’), has changed pollsters from being reporters of the political scene to becoming anonymous and unaccountable participants within it.

The tyranny of the fortnightly public poll means that we are now in permanent election mode; it is no longer possible for politicians to take unpopular decisions without having to factor in the likely effect of an adverse opinion poll on the following Tuesday. Polling leads inevitably to populism, which is bad governance. But at least most politicians recognise something of the dangers: ‘poll-driven’ still ranks as one of the most serious political insults. If it ever loses its sting, we shall know that the triumph of the pollsters is complete.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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