Imagine that last Thursday an alien arrived from Mars. He picked up the papers and read that the leader of this nation is under threat of losing her position. He wondered why. He is surprised that she is female.
He speaks to a normal-looking local. For the sake of this piece, let’s imagine the alien from Mars is male [bold type] and the normal looking local is female [italics]. What has she done? Has she made a heinous error? Did she say something unbecoming for a national leader? Did she make a blasphemous or libelous accusation against a religion or an opponent or a citizen? Was she absent without leave? Was she neglecting her duties? Had she committed treason? Did she insult so many in her party that they viciously turned against her? She must have done something awful, something so serious that it warranted grave questioning of her capacity to lead.No, none of the above. She hasn’t sinned in any of these ways. Why then the frenzied talk about her leadership?
The answer astonishes the Martian. She is deemed to be in deep trouble because of opinion polls. Opinion polls? You don’t know opinion polls? Really, let me explain. We have organizations, usually owned by newspapers that make a business of asking people how they would vote. How do they do that? Well, most of them use telephones to call up people. They call people with landlines because it’s too difficult and too expensive calling mobile phones; we have both you know. I understand, we have mobiles too; every youngster has one. But doesn’t that mean that those with mobiles miss out – doesn’t that leave out a lot of younger people? Yes, I know it distorts the sample, because young people vote differently from the old, but that’s the best pollsters can do. How do they pick those they phone? They take random picks from the telephone book but they try to select what they call a representative sample from all over the country and all age groups. How many? It varies from as few as 400, to as many as a thousand or two. The more the better, you know. That doesn’t seem to be a lot. No, but it’s too costly to call up a bigger number. How do you know the number they choose is enough to be accurate? They have ways of calculating that, but with the usual numbers phoned, there is the possibility of error. For around a thousand phoned, the error can be around 3% too high or 3% too low. That doesn’t seem too precise. Well no, but it’s the best they can do without going broke. What’s more, it only the statistically minded that worry about error – they call it the ‘margin of error’ – most don’t know or care about that; they take the figures as gospel. But I still don’t understand why these pollsters are asking people how they would vote – are you having an election? No, not for six months. Then what’s the point? Wouldn’t it better to wait until they actually vote in six months, then everyone would know exactly how people voted? Well, you’re right, but there’s a lot of money to be made out of asking beforehand. How’s that? I know it sounds crazy, but there are a lot of people who think they can predict the election outcome from these polls, and there’s a lot of money to be made out of prediction – it sells lots of newspapers, fills countless TV and radio bulletins, and gives lots of journalists a job writing endlessly about the polls. It’s about the easiest job in journalism, but I suppose it keeps them in work. Well, CAN they predict the outcome of elections? No they can’t. Then why on earth, if a Martian is allowed to use that phrase, do they do it? Good question. The answer is that there are lots of people, in fact the majority of people, who, because they know nothing about polls or statistics, believe that polls do accurately predict events that are months away, even years away. It seems then that they are being conned. Yes they are, but those doing the conning, the media proprietors, are making a packet out of this. No con artist is going to give up his act unless he’s hauled before the courts, and that’s not going to happen – the media moguls are too powerful. So do you mean to tell me that although polls are unable to predict the future, the pollsters still do them and the media still publishes the results, and write about what they mean? Afraid so. I don’t blame the pollsters – they all agree that they are not predictive, but the media makes so much money conning the public they are predictive, that they go on, week after week, month after month, year after year. They sell papers, make great headlines, excite political journalists, and help to keep the print media moguls afloat at a time they are steadily sinking, because people are switching to online media.
In fact, only the other day, Peter Lewis, who runs a weekly poll, Essential Report, said on TV: “A poll can never predict the future”, and “Anyone who says they know what the future holds is deluded.” All pollsters, and all who study polls, say virtually the same. In fact, a couple of days ago one of the few journalists to write rationally about polls, John Watson, managed to get a column in one of our major newspapers titled: ‘Penchant for picking a winner is poll waffle’ that concluded: “One might hope commentators learn from past predictive follies and leave fortune telling to the charlatans and crackpots.” Unfortunately, no one will take any notice of him or what the pollsters say, because it doesn’t suit their case. That sounds to be a monumental con job. I’ve never heard of anything like that! Actually, it’s even worse than it sounds. Politicians themselves have fallen for the con. They are so convinced that the current polls are accurately predicting a devastating defeat for the party in power at present that even members of that party believe they need to change the leader to improve the polls. And practically every poll, and every commentary, reinforces this view. Which brings us back to where we started!
Our female leader is condemned because a series of opinion polls of voting intention of the national electorate have shown that her party is not doing well and she is not popular. So some of her own party have turned against her and have been agitating for her replacement by a previous leader. It’s been going on a long while, and came to a head over a year ago when the previous leader and his supporters mounted a challenge, but he lost, getting only a third of the votes of the party. Everyone thought that would be the end of it, even the pretender, but he, and his supporters, were so convinced of his messianic attributes, so convinced that elevating him to the throne would improve the party’s polling, that they continued to sabotage the leader, month after month, leaking damaging tidbits to political journalists, who were hungry to devour every morsel of it because they, and their editors and proprietors, wanted to get rid of her party and her with it. They published column after column predicting her political demise, thereby adding fuel to the fire, a self-perpetuating cycle of doom and gloom they hoped would be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The Martian scratches his head. You know that polls of voting intention six months before an election are worthless, indeed worse than that, they are seriously misleading. You know that they can’t predict who will win. You say that pollsters know that, but media outlets find the polling game so lucrative that they continue the charade, and even the politicians, whom might be expected to know they were being conned, go along with the charade, and worse than that, use polls in an attempt to get rid of the leader by saying she can’t lead them to victory at the election because the polls say so, and therefore the old leader needs to be brought back. Bizarre! Well, he was popular once, but that popularity slipped and the opinion polls went down, so his colleagues lost faith in him and threw him out for the current female leader. I don’t understand. If they lost faith in him, why would they want him back? Because of the polls. They say he is now more popular with the people than the female leader, and the polls also say he would be more likely to win the election. But you said the polls are not predictive of what will happen at an election. So why would you rely on them, indeed use them to change leaders? Seems to me you are backing an outcome, but you have no idea of the odds? You have no idea at all that changing leaders will make things better or worse, and if you did, by how much. Yet, you tell me that intelligent people want to do that. How come they think in this wacky way? You might well ask. But don’t expect me to give a sensible answer! It defies reason and logic. Frankly, I think emotion has got the better of their brains. They are so upset at what the polls commentators are telling them: that the party is doomed and that they will lose their seats in parliament; they are so scared, that they are acting on emotional autopilot. They are so convinced there is train wreck ahead (the commentators remind them of that every day), that they are frantically pulling levers, trying to put on the brakes, mindlessly shouting orders, and covertly working on plots to oust the leader, the female leader. They are in a state of panic. Anything might happen.
I see you are open-mouthed, but this is for real. In one of our papers, The Global Mail, Chris Wallace wrote an article called ‘ALP Noir: Serial Leader Slaughter’ that began: “Opinion-poll-fuelled bloodlust is the common factor. Opinion polls don’t kill politicians, politicians kill politicians, right? Just like guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Well, I don’t buy that line from the National Rifle Association in the US, and I don’t buy it in relation to opinion polls in Australia, in relation to the serial political slaughter that’s gone on here in recent years, either.” Later she says: “Our polity has become absurdly sensitized to opinion polls, aided and abetted by bored journalists for whom only regicide and elections amuse the jaded palate.” ’Regicide’ is a pretty strong word. That’s not how we Martians imagined Earthlings would behave. Sorry to disillusion you, but that’s the reality! They are talking of urgent action, even perhaps today, to kill off the female leader. Politically of course – we are not complete savages! I guess I’d better stick around. This could be interesting.
FOUR DAYS LATER. What happened? You won’t believe this, but the saboteurs in the ranks that have been undermining the leader reckoned they had enough of their mates on side to topple her, so one of them took it on himself to demand that the leader declare vacant her position, and that of her deputy, and have a secret ballot, but he didn’t bother to tell the pretender to the leadership. Then the female leader caught them all short by announcing: “OK, let’s have the ballot this afternoon”, in just over two hours!
Now this is bizarre! The guy who wanted to be leader again seemed to be caught off guard. He quickly got his troops to count the numbers, but despite their best efforts, they came up short of a majority. Now he was scared witless of getting knocked off again, so he said he wouldn’t stand. He wanted an absolute assurance that he would win this time, and when he knew he couldn’t, he chickened out.
So they all went into the meeting, the leader and deputy leader’s positions were declared vacant, nominations were called, but the only nominations were the ones already in those positions! So there was no ballot, and both the leader and her deputy were appointed again, unopposed. It was all over in a few minutes. I’m gob-smacked. What an weird way of doing business! You’re not wrong. But there’s more. The guys who were trying to topple her were soon spitting chips. As it turned out, they got only six more votes than last time, nowhere near what they needed, although they kept telling everyone that it was ‘very close’.
Naturally they felt embarrassed, annoyed, let down by the pretender, and with much egg on their face – not actual egg of course, that’s just one of our odd sayings for making a very big mistake.
They were so mad, so humiliated, that they came out, one after the other, and resigned – that’s the British way of doing it when you’ve stuffed up – very honourable!
So the female leader found others to replace them. There’s a feeling around that she’ll be better off without the saboteurs and able to get on with her job without having to look over her shoulder the whole time. Anyway, time will tell how it all works out. So you’re telling me that all this extraordinary behavior, all those astonishing moves, all the plotting, all the sabotage, and the meeting that did nothing and changed nothing, came about because of opinion polls. Yet these polls don’t predict the future, don’t tell anyone who is going to win the election in six months. I can’t get my mind around that. That’s right. And this charade has been played not just by the politicians, but aided and abetted, day after day, by the media, its journalists jostling with each other for the juiciest story, the exclusive, the scoop, the brilliant prediction of the time and place of the leader’s political demise. And they were all wrong. And are they furious! They regard themselves as the pundits, the insiders, but once more they have been caught short, and played for suckers. We are waiting to see upon whom they will vent their spleen. Well, as I believe you say here on Earth, ‘you could knock me down with a feather’.
Seems to me that polls poison politics, and everyone caught up in their tentacles. Why on earth do you have them, literally? I told you – they are money spinners for the owners, easy copy for languid journalists, great entertainment for poll watchers and sharp tools for subversive politicians. They are pointless, but there’s no way we will ever get rid of them.
Here on Earth it is true to say: “Polls perpetually poison politics”. Twelve months ago Ad Astra wrote ‘How opinion polls poison politics’. Sadly, since then polls have poisoned politics even more profoundly. OK, but I still don’t understand; there must be something wrong wih my Martian brain. No, it’s not your brain, it’s ours!If you decide to ‘Disseminate this post’ it will be sent to the following parliamentarians: Anthony Albanese, Sharon Bird, Chris Bowen, David Bradbury, Gai Brodtmann, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Bob Carr, Jason Clare, Greg Combet, Stephen Conroy, Simon Crean, Michael Danby, Mark Dreyfus, Craig Emerson, Don Farrell, David Feeney, Joel Fitzgibbon, Julia Gillard, Gary Gray, Andrew Leigh, Richard Marles, Shayne Neumann, Graham Perrett, Amanda Rishworth, Bill Shorten, Tony Smith, Stephen Smith, Wayne Swan, and Penny Wong