There we were last night, political tragics scouring our computer screens looking for signs of what the latest Newspoll might show. Two weeks ago Newspoll showed a significant closing of the gap between Labor and the Coalition to a TPP of 52/48. The same result occurred last October, but because two weeks later it was back to usual levels, it was labelled an outlier. The question was whether the recent 52/48 was an outlier or pointing to a trend.
It has now become a habit of The Australian to herald the outcome of its Newspoll the night before. Two weeks ago there was an announcement on its website well in advance of the publication of a brief account of the result, which was adverse to Labor. Since some queried whether an advance announcement was a bad sign for Labor, the tragics looked last night for this portent. They were astonished to see on the Pollytics website ‘Newspoll at 9 pm’, and wondered what that unprecedented timing meant – was it a sign of disaster for Labor? It turned out to be a hoax, was quickly revealed to be so, and the tragics turned to The Oz website looking for the signs, pressing F5 regularly. But since there was no advance announcement of the time that Newspoll would be out, they reasoned that maybe it was not too bad for Labor.
Eventually, somewhere around 10.15 pm, the Dennis Shanahan summary appeared with the striking headline: Rudd hits a new low: Newspoll. In five paragraphs he pointed out that “Kevin Rudd's personal voter appeal was at its lowest since he became Labor leader more than three years ago”, that Labor's primary vote had “...dropped below 40 per cent for the first time since 2006”, “...its lowest since Kim Beazley was opposition leader”, that “...the Coalition has managed to hold its primary vote at 40 per cent for a month for the first time since the 2007 election loss”, and that support for Labor's emissions trading scheme had ‘slumped’: “In September last year, support for the CPRS was at 67 per cent but last weekend dropped to 57 per cent and those against the CPRS rose from 22 per cent to 34 per cent.” All these statements were factually accurate. He ended with a flourish: “While satisfaction with the Prime Minister is at a new low for him as leader, voter satisfaction with Tony Abbott's Liberal leadership has reached a new high.”
Pretty grim stuff for Labor and exhilarating for the Coalition! But the numerical data were scant. No TPP figures, no indication of how much Rudd’s ‘personal voter appeal’ had fallen, no figures about Tony Abbott’s ‘voter appeal’, no PPM figures; in fact the only figures were those quoted above. This left us tantalized about how bad the situation might be for Labor, and how good for the Coalition.
Then along came Lateline where Leigh Sales announced that Newspoll was ‘good news for the Government’. After reading Dennis’ piece, surely she must have made a mistake, inadvertently substituting ‘Government’ for ‘Coalition’. But no, after a tedious half-hour wait for the segment, she told us that the Government had gone up one percentage point, and the Coalition one point down to give a TPP of 53/47, reversing the recent downward trend. Given the MOE, no one with statistical nous is going to give too much credence to this small change, but since the media is not constrained in this way, giving as it does undeserving emphasis to such small movements, why was it that Dennis chose not to mention the TPP, the one aspect favourable to Labor?
Moreover, while Dennis’ assertions about Rudd’s ‘voter appeal’ are correct as far as they go, why did he chose to omit the actual figures that put the changes in perspective. Rudd’s satisfaction rating is 50%, the same as two weeks ago, and his dissatisfaction rating is up 2% to 40%. Compared with last November Rudd has certainly dropped from a net satisfaction rating of 22% to 10%, but satisfaction still sits at 50%, the sort of approval John Howard enjoyed through much of his incumbency. In the PPM stakes Rudd has dropped 3% to 55% since the last Newspoll, while Abbott has gone up 1% to 27%, just half of Rudd’s rating.
In the morning’s paper Dennis fleshes out the figures in his piece: Newspoll: Rudd hits now low. The tables accompany the piece.
On the subject of climate change Newspoll shows 73% believe it is occurring – only 22% don’t, compared with 84%/12% in July 2008; 94% believe it is caused by human activity, down from 96% in July 2008; 57% are in favour of the CPRS and 34% against, compared with 67%/22% in September 2009 and 72%/21% in October 2008. While there has been a significant fall in support for action and specifically the CPRS, support remains quite high. Dennis assesses the situation thus: “But the Newspoll survey has shown opposition is growing to the ETS, although Australians overwhelmingly want action on climate change.”
Dennis paints a more sinister scenario for Labor in his supplementary piece The trends begin to run against Labor in today’s Australian.
So what do we make of Dennis’ appraisal, so gloomy for Labor? Why did Leigh Sales say the poll was ‘good news for the Government’ and introduce that segment with “The Government appears to have halted the Tony Abbott-led resurgence for the Opposition, according to the Newspoll to be published in tomorrow's Australian newspaper. The Rudd Government has improved its position by one point on a two-party-preferred basis to be now standing at 53 points, up from 52 a fortnight ago, while the Opposition has slipped a point to 47.”? I notice though that the transcript header today is “Coalition's poll resurgence continues”, which seems to be at variance with her words. Why did the ABC use that heading?
We all have our biases, which influence the way we interpret events. We even interpret the hardest of hard data differently. But our interpretation does reveal those biases. So we can speculate about Dennis’ biases from what he writes. Why did he omit information from last night’s summary that might have given a more balanced perspective, for example the TPP? It would have taken only a few extra words. Readers might be excused for deducing that he wanted to paint as poor a picture for Labor and as optimistic an image for the Coalition as was possible from the Newspoll results.
Is it an example of Dennis looking at the Newspoll results through his own Magic Looking Glass that enables him to see almost every piece of information as a plus for the Coalition and a minus for Labor; that enables Newspoll results to mean whatever he wants them to mean? Lewis Carroll would have been proud of him.
What do you think?