polling newspoll
(Image: AAP/JAMES ROSS)

If you believe today’s Newspoll and the write-up from Simon Benson, the government suffered a slump in its fortunes over the last three weeks, with its 53-47% two-party-preferred (2pp) dominance over Labor reduced to a 51-49%lead.

Benson was at a loss to explain this slump. “The poll was conducted during a period in which the political contest had cooled, with the federal parliament on a six-week autumn-winter break,” he acknowledged. But he offered some ideas: it included a period when “Angus Taylor came under pressure over his alleged failure to declare family business interests as required”. There were also concerns about the economy and the trade war and Australia’s resistance to acknowledging climate change at the Pacific Islands Forum.

The broader problem is Newspoll itself: as INQ explored in its polling series, not merely was Australia’s most influential poll — the poll that decides the fates of prime ministers — wrong before the election, but it has the least transparent methodology of the major polls. This week’s result should no more be believed than its election-eve poll predicting a Labor victory — and until YouGov allows greater transparency about Newspoll, that scepticism should remain firmly in place.

But Benson’s efforts to explain a shift since the last poll points to another problem (one I too was guilty of myself back in the Essential poll days, even though we tried to downplay the 2PP result). Benson is an experienced enough political journalist to know that pretty much nothing has happened that will have caught the attention of voters in the last three weeks. But to make a yarn out of it he can’t say that either the shift is within the poll’s margin of error (so doesn’t likely mean anything), or that the entire Newspoll methodology has been demonstrated to be flawed.

Polling must always reflect some change in the electorate in response to what’s happened in Canberra — otherwise why bother reporting them?

This is the weird conspiracy of the governing class about polls — political and media elites jointly insist that polls reflect shifts in electoral sentiment from week to week. Except, they’re the main victims of this conspiracy too. The electorate doesn’t care. The average voter doesn’t even know who Angus Taylor is, or that there was a Pacific Islands Forum. A large swathe of them completely ignore the media’s political coverage. Any change in sentiment take months to happen, unless there’s a high-profile event like a change of leader.

But politicians and political journalists tell themselves and each other that the electorate is obsessing over politics as much as they do. It’s a complete delusion.

Peter Fray

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