Fairfax media’s Matthew Knott asked the other day ‘Election 2016: The uncomfortable truth is the media got it wrong. How did we do it
’. It’s a good question.
Knott details issues such as the polls showing split results for months prior to the election yet the betting agencies supporting the view that the Coalition would romp it in on 2 July; Coalition party insiders suggesting that they would pick up ALP seats’; the ‘vibe’ that people were disappointed in Turnbull but not ready to get out the baseball bats; and even the ‘conventional wisdom’ that the eight-week campaign was a masterstroke. As Knott reports:
Leading commentators on Sky News predicted between 80 to 85 seats for the Coalition, with Peter van Onselen saying he would quit in the event of a hung parliament.
While there is some reflection on why the media got it wrong, has he left ‘the biggie’ alone? The ‘biggie’ may be they just didn’t report the news.
Political polling is based on statistics. There is considerable evidence to suggest that if a person asks a question of a number of people with certain demographic characteristics, they can extrapolate that result across a larger population with a degree of confidence. Normally in Australia, the polling companies interview around 1,500 people and can state with a degree of certainty that the response to the survey can be extrapolated across the entire population of Australia. So the result to a hypothetical question, let’s use “should pensions be increased by 50%” is 50% favour ‘yes’ and 50% favour ‘no’. Usually the polling companies will add to their media release that there is a 95% chance of getting the poll correct. There is always a margin of error which allows for the natural variations in a population.
While the headline is 50-50 support for increasing pensions by 50%, logically not everyone in the country is asked the question. Using our hypothetical example, if by some chance the pollster happened to ask the question randomly to a number of people in their early 20’s who have witnessed their loved grandparents living in poverty, the ‘vote’ to increase pensions reported amongst the ‘early 20’s demographic’ might be skewed towards increasing pensions rather than say buying more warships. Pollsters will calculate the margin of error as a percentage: traditionally in political polling around Australia the percentage is 3%. So the potential results for the hypothetical question could be between 47% and 53%.
A sales person for Apple will tell you that an iPhone is far superior to a Samsung Galaxy mobile phone. A Samsung sales person will tell you the opposite. The reality is that iPhones and Galaxy phones are both good products although the way they work is different. The media believed the spin coming from the Coalition media advisers and wrote their stories accordingly. The fact was the election was close as demonstrated by the eight weeks of incessant political polls which rebuts to an extent the margin for error argument. So the narrative that the Coalition would have an easy victory wasn’t able to be verified by facts — just rhetoric, which fed into later stories of why the Coalition was going to win. It is a never ending circle of person A writes that the Coalition will win, which influences the writing of person B and so on. You can see it happen most Sunday mornings on ABCTV’s Insiders
and similar programs on other media outlets.
So the Coalition media advisers did their job. They were wrong — but they did their job. The Coalition media advisers convinced the media who convinced the public that Malcolm Turnbull had a much better chance of winning the 2016 election outright than the facts would indicate. As Knott indicates, the media also missed the Andrews’ victory in Victoria and the Palaszczuk victory in Queensland in the past year or two. Again instead of believing the facts — the polls — they believed the ‘insiders’, although to be fair there is at least one media company in Australia that has a view that they should influence you in a particular direction. At the same time the company is wondering why their sales are falling. (In Queensland anyway, if you spend a reasonably small value at Coles supermarkets at the moment, you can purchase one of that media company’s products for half price! Hardly something that would be happening if their sales were healthy.)
History is that the election result is effectively a ‘hung’ parliament; even if Turnbull’s Coalition creeps over the line by one or two seats. The terminology is misleading: there are still 150 members of the House of Representatives and 76 Senators but the groupings aren’t the traditional Coalition and ALP working majority which is driving the, again media supported, calls that ‘we’ll all be rooned before the year is out
’ (with apologies to John O’Brien
). What the media (and politicians) should be saying is there will be a minority government, where whoever is the prime minister relies on the support of members of parliament that ‘belong’ to another political party (or no political party at all).
Minority government is not a new concept in Australia. It’s actually par for the course. Since Menzies was elected in 1949, there has been a Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties at federal level. The reason for the Coalition is that neither party would be able to govern in their own right as they almost never get the 76 seats required to do so. Certainly the agreement between them is renegotiated after each election, win, lose or in this case draw, but ultimately even in Abbott’s ‘stunning’ victory in 2013, the Liberal Party gained 58 seats, the National Party 9 and 23 were held by the LNP (Queensland) and the CLP (Northern Territory). Again you need 76 to form a government and even if you split the 23 ‘others’ seats in half (half Liberal, half National), neither conservative party had the required number. The members of the LNP and CLP nominate which party room they will meet with, as demonstrated by Barnaby Joyce when he was a Queensland LNP Senator cohabitating with the National Party.
However, for the media to retain some justification to their claim of being effective at seeking and reporting and providing analysis of the ‘insider’ discussions and deliberations, they will have to do more than just rely on the claims made by the Coalition’s media advisers in the 45th Parliament — as the Coalition’s strategy will be amended on a regular basis to ‘accommodate’ the needs or wishes of other interested parties that have a vote on the final legislation. If it is reported in a similar way to the Gillard government (which relied on independent MPs for support), it will be seen to be a chaotic mess where the only outcome is confusion and delay. The reality is Gillard’s government passed a number of showstopper pieces of legislation dealing with people with disabilities, school funding and climate change. It wouldn’t have passed if there wasn’t a consensus of the majority of parliamentarians in both houses of parliament at the time (despite the claims of Abbott and his ultra-conservatives).
To his credit, Matthew Knott asked his readers (via social media) for their views on the election coverage. The responses are interesting:
- An insistence the Coalition was on track to win (despite the polls predicting a tight result) and a consistent under-estimation of Shorten's performance;
- Overly "insular" coverage dominated by conversations with political insiders and other journalists rather than voters;
- Coverage that was too "presidential", with an intense focus on daily movements of both leaders;
- Too much focus on the colour and movement of campaigning rather than the policy offerings of the two main parties;
- A lack of co-ordination by journalists, especially in the travelling media pack, to demand answers from the leaders;
- More focus on campaigning techniques by third-party groups such as GetUp!
Ironically, the ALP’s 2016 election Medicare and penalty rates campaigns may finally result in some truth in advertising legislation that is actually applicable to political campaigns
While Senator Xenophon secured three Senate spots in his native South Australia, his overall vote was down from 2013. He believes a "misleading and deceitful" Labor scare campaign on penalty rates was part of the reason.
The ads claimed Senator Xenophon wanted to cut penalty rates — a decision that is actually up to the Fair Work independent umpire.
"It was a lie," Senator Xenophon said. "I had to put up corrective advertising, but nowhere near to the extent of their misleading advertising. Why should politicians be exempt from the sort of laws that apply to misleading and deceptive advertising that apply to corporations and individuals?"
The Greens are also planning to move amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act to incorporate truth in advertising provisions.
"Blatantly false political advertising runs counter to the public interest," Greens democracy spokeswoman Lee Rhiannon said.
If the media was doing their job, there should be enough evaluation of political claims to make political truth in advertising legislation redundant.