If you thought Dennis Shanahan was squeezing the last drop of good news for the Coalition out of this week’s Newspoll, as suggested in the last piece on TPS Newspoll through Shahas' Magic Looking Glass, take a look at his analysis of the Important Issues survey (pdf) that accompanied that Newspoll. You’ll find it in his two pieces in Wednesday’s Australian: Protest poll flags rush to Coalition and Coalition making inroads in all areas.
His theme is announced in his headlines and the opening paragraphs: “The Rudd government just lost its comfort zone, its ability to argue that everything will be fine because of its success in avoiding recession and that its lower polling is just Tony Abbott's media honeymoon. Voters have declared they prefer the Coalition, once again, as economic managers and have rushed towards the Coalition on climate change, water conservation and the environment.” and “The Coalition has recaptured popular leadership on the economy from the Rudd government, which seems to have lost political gains made on economic management during the global financial crisis as the fear of recession in Australia passes and unemployment peaks.”
Having set the scene with words like “Voters ...have rushed towards the Coalition” and “The Coalition has recaptured popular leadership on the economy...” he proceeds to amplify his claims. Referring to the Important Issues as seen by voters, he says: “The economy has also dropped dramatically as the top priority in an election year, being overtaken by health and education as the Coalition makes inroads into Labor's leads on all key issues, including climate change, the environment and water management.”
So let’s look at the figures.
In the first table, the Important Issues, the economy has dropped from first to third and is now rated 74 on the importance scale, down from 83 a year ago, but about the same as two years ago. Should this come as a surprise – a ‘dramatic drop’ as Dennis would have it? A year ago the country was in the midst of the GFC from which it is now emerging. The variation in the level of importance portrayed in the survey is exactly what one would expect. I suppose Dennis was trying to make the point that any advantage the Government thought it might have had in managing the GFC successfully is being eroded because of its fall in importance in the electorate.
In the table on who is best on economic management, 40% of those polled said Labor and 45% the Coalition. Dennis describes Labor’s rating as steady but in fact it has gone up one point from 39%, and the Coalition’s rating has gone from 40% to 45% during the last year. We know we should not get too excited about small movements in ratings, but Dennis is happy to attribute significance to them when it suits his argument. But look at the five ratings for the Coalition after the October 2007 rating (the first listed): 53, 44, 44, 43, 40, 45, and for Labor 29, 37, 34, 39, 39, 40. After the 2007 rating there’s not much movement there for either party; the Coalition has recovered 5% from a year ago, but is close to its rating for the two years before that. Does this set of figures warrant the comment: “...the public has started to move away from Labor on economic management”?
Let’s take a quick look at the other figures, that range over the period October 2007 to February 2010: On health & Medicare, education, the economy, water planning, welfare and social issues, national security, the environment, climate change and industrial relations, the Coalition's ratings were 32, 32, 45, 31, 27, 43, 27, 30, 33 and Labor 47, 40, 36, 51, 37, 34, 35, 49. You may find it easier to look at the tables. Labor is ahead on all except the economy and national security.
On handling climate change (over the period July 2008 to February 2010) the Coalition rated 18, 22, 19 and 30, and Labor 45, 37, 38 and 35. Labor is ahead but not as much as in previous years because the Coalition's rating has gone up by 11% in the last year. No doubt the Coalition will take heart from this and see it as endorsement of its Direct Action plan, at least in part.
Do take a look at the individual tables for health & Medicare, education, the economy, water planning, welfare and social issues, national security, the environment, climate change and industrial relations that extend over six surveys from October 2007 to February 2010. What is striking is how consistent the ratings have been over the years. There certainly have been small changes in the areas of water planning and the environment in the Coalition’s favour and in management of the economy. Labor is ahead of the Coalition on every aspect except the economy and national security, areas in which the Coalition has always rated well with the electorate. Dennis concedes this near the end of one of his pieces when he says: “Voters still rated the Labor Party as better able than the Coalition to handle all the electoral issues except the economy and national security -- traditionally Coalition political strengths.” Anyone reading his article to the end might have been surprised after reading the negative headings and comment that preceded that concession, and mystified by his conclusion: “This is a protest poll.”
Of course what Dennis is asserting is that there is movement away from Labor to the Coalition on so many parameters that this represents a significant turning way from Labor. It is true that the Coalition has made gains; as Dennis puts it “On every main electoral issue, including health and education, support for the Coalition rose and Labor's fell or remained static to put the Coalition in its best position since the 2007 election” He asserts that it is this movement that accounts for the changes in voter preference rather than the advent of Tony Abbott. The question is how significant the movements are given the MOE of plus or minus 3% for this survey of 1151 people. Dennis attributes major significance to them.
For those of you inclined to a deep statistical analysis of this data set, do take a look at Possum’s thorough piece on Crikey, The pitfalls of Better Party To Manage. His piece seeks to interpret the movements in the figures. Towards the end he says: "Perhaps long term relative changes in which party is best perceived to manage a given issue, perhaps we can identify if issues cease to become a strong issue for a party over a long period of time. Any sharp jump in value for a given issue that is above and beyond that achieved by other issues in that poll is also something that would be meaningful and worth taking a second look at. But for ordinary poll to poll movement, we can’t actually pull much pointy end value out at all because large parts of the variation are simply a function of generic approval of the party leaders."
So where does the truth lie? Is Dennis’ narrative a true reflection of the figures? Do his words match the figures? While it cannot be said that Dennis’ statements are inaccurate, do they paint the same picture as do the figures? Is this another example of how the mindset of the author, one that seems to be searching for positives for the Coalition and negatives for the Government, has over-ridden the objectivity that poll analysis requires, and has lead him once more to extravagant language? Is this more of Dennis seeing poll results through his Magic Looking Glass?
You be the judge. What do you think?