With a minority CLP Government still possible up in the Northern Territory, Saturday’s election was terrible for Paul Henderson’s ALP — but even worse for the pundits. We’re not quite in “Dewey Defeats Truman” territory — everyone knew Labor couldn’t sustain its 2005 election result — but no one picked the extent of the swing.

The bookies came off worst. So much for the notion that betting markets somehow tap into a greater electoral wisdom than mere polling. The CLP’s odds lengthened during the campaign  and on Friday morning Centrebet had the CLP at 7-1 and the ALP at 10-1 on.

By Saturday morning CLP had widened to $8 and Labor shortened to $1.07 and Centrebet’s Neil Evans was claiming the “death knell” had sounded for the CLP: “there’ll have to be a full moon … and some bizarre turnaround, for this to become a political contest. It’s rather embarrassing. In fact, it’s a punting ambush.” Embarrassing indeed.

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The experts did better, but not by much. A circumspect Antony Green previewed the election by declaring that Paul Henderson had “given his Labor government its best chance of securing a third term in office.” . Crikey’s Charles Richardson thought Labor was a certainty.

ANU’s Norm Kelly in The Canberra Times declared Labor “long odds-on”. Malcolm Mackerras — coming off a brilliant early call about the federal election last year — did best, predicting “a Labor win — but close one” with the Government reduced to 14 seats.

The commentariat had Labor pegged as certainties. The Oz’s man in Darwin, Paul Toohey, thought “Hendo’s” Government would be returned to power “at a gentle canter” . The Oz offered a lachrymose editorial on Saturday about how the “pressing issues” had not been tackled in the election campaign (are they ever?) and lamented “given Clare Martin’s landslide win in 2005, when Labor captured 19 seats, the CLP four and independents two, only a cataclysmic shift will dislodge her successor, Paul Henderson, and his team today.” The Age’s Darwin correspondent Lindsay Murdoch  thought a CLP win was a “herculean” task. Adjective inflation was setting in.

The only one really on the money was Paul Henderson himself, who said “a handful of votes in a handful of seats” would decide the election. But then again, he would probably have said that if there’d been 25 uncontested elections.

Now, of course, we’re all wise after the event.

The Federal Opposition says it shows Australians are tired of incompetent Labor Governments. Warren Snowdon blamed Henderson for calling an early election, and The Australian agreed with him. Trish Crossin said the ALP put too much emphasis on the Inpex gas deal. A Territory Labor insider reckons August is party month and it’s not a good idea to hold an election during a party. Others say the early election led to a low voter turnout, which maximised the protest vote effect.

Really, it was an inevitable result. “For the Country Liberal Party,” the Oz editorialised today, “Saturday’s result means it is back in business after some commentators were predicting its possible demise.” Some commentators?

Meanwhile, Possum Comitatus writes:

If you were to look at the betting markets for the NT election last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ALP had a greater chance of being abducted by the latest outbreak of NT UFO’s than they had of being beaten by the CLP. Yet, with no major pollster running pre-election surveys in the Territory, should we be at all surprised that the markets got it so wrong in terms of the chance of Labor retaining government?

As much as political polling is scorned as reducing important political issues down to little more than horse race commentary, it fulfills one fundamentally important role — it stops people talking sh-t.

From politicians to columnists, from reporters to your average Joe – political polling encourages all but the learned types at The Australian to keep it in their pants.

With no major polls in the Territory election, information about the election itself was dominated by party propaganda on the one hand and political commentators staring deeply into their navels on the other – usually finding little more than lint as a result, but lint dressed up as profundity none the less. Without polling information, election campaign analysis becomes an exercise in either wishful thinking or what ought to happen — and as we’ve seen in the Territory, theories on what ought to happen were well formed, plentiful, but mostly wrong. There is no substitute for the type of empirical reality that only polling can provide.

It’s a pretty simple rule — you can’t really analyse what you don’t really know.

What makes betting markets valuable is their capacity to aggregate all available sources of information to predict a result, but without polling information anchoring the market to some semblance of reality, without that knowledge of what people are actually thinking on the ground, the betting markets were left drifting in the breeze, ostensibly being guided by lint powered column inches telling us that Labor was a shoe in because, well, that’s what ought to happen.

So should we really be surprised that without political polls running in the Territory campaign, the markets were so out of whack with the result? While the markets may have gotten the end result right, the magnitude of the victory will probably come down to a few hundred votes — hardly the landslide that was predicted, and certainly not justifying 1/14 odds that some markets were offering.

Good information makes good markets, and there is no better information than good, independent polling. It provides far more than fodder for horse race political commentary, it provides certainty and knowledge and evidence for observable reality. And at the end of the day, isn’t observable reality what all good political commentary should be about?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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