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Polls Are Dumb

If you look at the polls, you'd think that Australia ws being run by Berlusconi.
April 4, 2013, 2:42am

If you look at the polls, you'd think that Australia was being run by Berlusconi. Accusations about this government have included that it's determined to undermine free speech, that it's destroyed the economy, that it's full of faceless (Mafia) men and most recently, that they are declaring war on the middle class. If polls are to be believed, the Labor Party is in a pretty bad way. And if Tony Abbott is to be believed, the country is in a pretty bad way because of it.

However, apart from the fact that Kevin Rudd wants to be prime minister, along with half of the other members of both parties, the evidence seems to suggest that we're doing just fine. Our economy is in better shape than ever, we're investing in all kinds of good things like broadband and health and education and infrastructure—it's so good that even "battlers" are earning a family income of $250,000. Poor things.


Why then are we so dissatisfied with the government? Well, not all of us are. Polls only reflect the opinions of the several hundred people that the polling companies call, and even then they only reflect that small proportion of people who answer the phone when polling companies call. These unfortunate but important Australians are the ones who have provided the fodder for a huge number of news stories over the past weeks—they don't like Julia, they don't like Tony Abbott. The answers they give led to an near-coup in the Labor Party, and the entire reasoning was that the general public likes Kevin Rudd better than Julia Gillard. Given they dumped Kevin Rudd just three years ago because the public liked Julia Gillard better, perhaps we would be better off concluding that the general public will never really like any politician. Except maybe Malcolm Turnbull.

Polls used to be conducted about real issues, rather than personality. We're now ten years on from the start of the Iraq War, and Australians were polled widely on the issue. Back in 2003 there was strong support for joining our American allies in an invasion of Iraq, but only if the UN Security Council backed the decision. Support without such an endorsement was around 25 percent. But we went ahead, anyway.

John Howard was interviewed last week about his decision, and in what should have been a frank admission that it was a mistake and that he did mislead the Australian public, he immediately returned to his impeccable rhetorical skill by claiming that he, (the emphasis being that others are not as brave), was willing to make decisions without consulting the polls. His assertion was therefore that Labor was worthy of criticism for paying too much attention to polls.


It's a bizarre argument when you consider that in the matter of the Iraq War, the public was right and he was wrong, and that if he had listened to the public, Australia would be able to claim to have had no part in a baseless and bloody war that has left more than 100,000 people dead, not to mention the American soldiers who are dead or  wounded. John Howard told us that Saddam represented a clear, undeniable threat to a Western nation such as Australia.

Despite being so wrong, and ignoring what we all thought, John Howard was reelected the following year. In fact, within a few months, as troops got to Iraq, public opinion changed. We all know from Wag the Dog that a war is the easiest way to get elected, and John Howard knew it. Julia Gillard is faced with the worst possible scenario for a prime minister—life is too good.

I keep a close eye on what the politicians are saying, and Tony Abbott is rapidly running out of fact-based insults, if he ever had any in the first place. The media reforms which were proposed and would have increased independent oversight of the media industry were an attack on free speech. This week reforms to superannuation that would mean the top 1 percent of people couldn't get tax breaks on some of their extra millions has become a class war. The government is attacked by Abbott for being in debt—something which economists all agree is a good thing. Tony Abbott's former staffer even says publicly that when you're getting such low interest rates, it's crazy not to borrow more money.

Weirdly, it's working. And the way things are going, it looks likely that we'll see an Abbott government in September. That is, unless Julia Gillard can find a war to get involved in, in the meantime.