As I reported last week, despite the opinion polls showing them with a big lead, the New South Wales ALP were “holding out defiantly against overconfidence”.

And this morning they got what they wanted, with a big Daily Telegraph splash proclaiming that “Iemma isn’t safe”, but is in fact “looking down the barrel of a marginal seat blitzkrieg”.

The culprit, of course, is “secret polling” – in this case, “Internal ALP polling obtained by The Daily Telegraph“, which allegedly shows the government behind in five of its seats and “line-ball” in two others.

There’s nothing surprising about Labor trying this sort of tactic. Peter Beattie played it a treat prior to last year’s Queensland elections, when well-placed leaks about internal polling managed to convince many commentators that the election was going to be closer than they thought. Of course, it wasn’t.

Although, as the Poll Bludger points out, today’s leak is more detailed, it is equally implausible. If the published polls are even roughly correct, the overall swing against Labor is nowhere near enough to cost it government.

 

It’s not enough to talk about “explosively volatile seats … where outcomes are localised and vary wildly.” For every unexpectedly large swing against Labor, there’ll be one going the other way.

If it loses five or more seats despite a small overall swing – which is unlikely, but not impossible – then it’s almost certain to pick up seats from the Coalition: Terrigal, Murray-Darling and South Coast are all in the firing line (the Tele’s graphic, although not the story, admits this in relation to South Coast).

Contrary to the popular myth, private polling is a less reliable guide than the published opinion polls. Firstly, private pollsters have a single client who is paying them, creating a major incentive to tell that client what they want to hear.

If they get it wrong, they only have to spin an excuse to one client (who has been carefully buttered up anyway), rather than the whole newspaper-buying public.

More importantly, the secretive nature of private polling means most of those who ever see it see only a selection – a selection made in someone’s interests. We don’t know how many polls Mark Arbib had to take to get the result he wanted. The Tele probably doesn’t know either, and if it does it’s not telling us.

While Labor’s interest is clear, one might ask why the Tele, usually on the opposite side, is playing into its hands.

The likely answer is that, whatever its political views, the Tele most of all wants to sell newspapers. It’s unlikely to do that by telling everyone that the election result is a foregone conclusion – even if that should happen to be the truth.

Peter Fray

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