Two national opinion polls in two days. ACNielsen yesterday showed Labor ahead, 53-47 (two-party-preferred). This morning, Newspoll
gives the Coalition the lead, 51-49. A bit of a difference, and more so
when you consider that in recent times (especially around the last
election) Newspoll has tended to err on Labor’s side and Nielsen on the
Coalition’s.

The best way to get some perspective on this is to look at the graphs maintained by Bryan Palmer at his Ozpolitics
site. They show that both Newspoll and Nielsen, despite this week’s
divergence, have the same medium-term pattern: the underlying trend is
mostly flat, but moving slightly away from the government. Palmer says
“My best guess is that today’s Newspoll was more noise than signal.”

But media commentary is something else again. Dennis Shanahan in The Australian
opens his report on Newspoll by saying “The Howard Government has
opened an election-winning lead” – a brave call for a 51-49 result in
just one poll.

It’s easy to make fun of Shanahan, but this is a
serious business because his comments are frequently taken up by others
who don’t bother to read the numbers themselves. As a result, they set
the tone for a debate in which perceptions matter more than reality. As
Peter Brent at Mumble said on last week’s Newspoll, “Dennis’s interpretation of Newspoll results ripples through the day’s commentariat.”

Today
Shanahan tells us “The result coincided with John Howard’s decision to
dump his contentious migration laws, rather than watch the bill be
defeated, and announce substantial subsidies for families to convert
their cars to LPG to sidestep rising petrol bills.” But both those
things happened yesterday, while the poll was taken from Friday to
Sunday; they coincided with the “result” only in the sense of when the
poll was released, not in any way that could have influenced it.

It seems that The Oz
wants us to take away the message that the government is bravely
surmounting its difficulties. That might indeed be true, but so far the
polls are much more equivocal.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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