Here’s my latest weekly campaign column for ABC’s The Drum.
Forget cigarettes. Forget alcohol. Forget the secret stashes of mini Toblerones or Kit Kats that dwell in desk drawers all over the country.
Australia is in the grip of an unhealthy obsession that has nothing to do with these temptations. Our nation is addicted to something far more insidious, brain-numbing and soul-destroying: we’re addicted to opinion polls.
In the 15 days since the federal election was called voters have, by my reckoning, been willingly subjected to 22 opinion polls. More than half were national polls, while the rest focused on individual marginal seats. And yet there are still three weeks of the campaign to go.
The reason for this survey cornucopia is that opinion polls sell. The prospect of knowing who’s winning seduces us into buying newspapers, giving up hard-earned cash to peer behind paywalls, clicking links on online news sites, and tuning in to television and radio programs.
These are challenging times for media organisations. They’re grappling with the tendency of consumers to shop around online for news and often bypass traditional news providers altogether. These organisations have noted that publishing exclusive opinion polls and news stories based upon them is a proven way of winning those consumers back, even if it is for a brief period.
And so news organisations galore have decided they must have their own opinion polls. As a result, at least once a week if not every couple of days we’re subjected to the latest survey from one of eight polling houses emblazoned on newspapers, online news sites and television news stories.
Are media organisations providing voters with a valuable service by propagating these surveys? Do opinion poll stories help to make us informed voters or enhance our democracy in any way? Well no; not any more than the arbitrary scorecards handed out at the end of each campaign day or week announcing who ‘won’ the past 24 hours or seven-day period.
The horse-race approach to reporting is nothing more than the political equivalent of empty calories: it might satisfy a short-term need (to feel knowledgeable about the campaign) but ultimately it leaves us unsatisfied (because it tells us nothing about which party will best deliver on our policy needs).
More often than not, stories on opinion polls aren’t even actually news. No opinion poll is perfectly accurate and all have a buffer within which their numbers should be viewed. If any single poll moves only within that buffer, or margin of error, then it’s not considered to have actually moved. Newspoll for example has a 3 per cent margin of error, meaning that any increase or decrease of less than 3 per cent in one Newspoll is not really a change at all. So if the ALP primary vote increases by 2 per cent – it’s not news. If the Coalition primary vote decreases by 2 per cent – it’s not news either. And yet we see and hear such ‘news’ stories almost every day.
If voters really wanted to be informed voters they’d eschew all opinion poll stories that report movements within the margin of error and only pay attention to those that report opinion poll trends. The direction in which a party’s votes are trending over more than just two or three polls is where the real news stories are to be found.
But why do voters even care who’s won any particular day or week during the election campaign? Are we so superficial and fickle that we can be swayed by an opinion poll? Well yes, according to someacademics: the bandwagon effect can lead to voters choosing the side that looks most likely to win, while the underdog effect can produce the opposite result. Undoubtedly both of the major parties have incorporated this into their campaign tactics.
Scores more polls will be dangled before voters eyes over the campaign’s remaining weeks, but the choice between hollow superficiality and satisfying substance is entirely within our hands.
Will we continue to indulge our obsession by wasting time and thought over next-to-meaningless blips in the polls? Or will we direct our efforts to determining which party will form the government most capable of serving our country’s best interests?