As a professional researcher, I have a long term and well founded set of doubts about the capacity of quantitative polling to reflect or predict public opinions. The problem with this type of research is that people express views, tailored to the question, that may well be neither deeply held nor likely to affect their voting. Asking people, for instance what their views on Lilliputian refugees is likely to get a similar response to Afghanis.

There is a long history of anti immigration responses to polls, even right through the post war immigration boom. In fact, my arrival in 1948, as a refugee, was despite polls in 1947 that showed majority opposition to bringing in Jewish refugees. The Chifley Government showed leadership, as did Malcolm Fraser with the Vietnamese decades later and the origin of some levels of bi-partisanship so governments could bring in the immigrants that have deeply benefited Australia.

Polls, particularly those done for media consumption, don’t really measure opinions, they ask certain questions at times of their choosing which usually parallel media coverage of particular issues they deem as controversial. The coverage affects the polls, the polls become part of the coverage and the cycle continues. The simple responses cover a range of viewpoints from the deeply green who would prefer an unpopulated Australia to the rabid racist who wants white ones only. The bulk of respondents will be relatively disengaged but will answer what they are asked, including an unknown percentage of respondents who just made an instant decision on what they thought, and then maybe stuck to it.

How these responses affect voting behaviour is even more obscure. Even asking people what issues are likely to affects their voting is no guarantee of accuracy in predicting actual behaviour at the ballot box. My suspicions, as a long time researcher observer, is that those likely to change votes will do so on a mix of feelings, including attitudes to party connections, the personality and character, what others might do, and maybe a preference for the devil you know or a desire for something new.

The importance of individual policies is over-rated. Because the policy names and positions mostly fit easily into usable questions, they can be used in polls, rather than the more complex questions of viewpoints. The questions are usually precoded to make them easily countable, and become published percentages. These become news, and are read by politicians, strategists and minders who often translate the figures into potential votes, and may be used as triggers for policy changes.

Therefore the influence of polling on an election is much more complex than just recording the public’s views. The pushing by media of particular populist moral panic questions and responses presumably gains audiences and advertising. Stories about public views, particularly negative ones, on topics such as ‘boat people’, Indigenous crises, dole bludgers, population growth and immigration are guaranteed wide coverage and interest. They can be used to put the conservative views of threats of human iniquity and sins higher on the political agenda, by encouraging the fears and anxieties in the population that make humane civil and ethical policies less likely.

There are serious dangers to social well being when mixtures of polling and some overly directed focus groups become players in setting policies. Poll driven ways of deciding priorities mirror the marketing of products and contribute to making voters consumers looking for the best buy. This trumps good government that acts ethically in the interest of citizens even if the policy isn’t instantly popular.

The changes in politics over the past couple of decades from offering the electorate clear choices of diverse party platforms to marketing politicians to the presumed desires of voters is creating endemic levels of distrust of political processes. The moves by both major parties to the political centre results in little policy differentiation so may drive more irrational emotive voting, leaving social scars in divided social groupings.

There are wider dangers in simplistic populism. Those engaged with public opinion knows the emotive button pushing issues that are guaranteed to stir the possum of public anger. We need to question the legitimacy of parties or pollsters who use these for their own benefits. The current election in shaping up to be nasty on these questions, such as the current move on boat arrivals indicates.

Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid user of polls, statistics and other forms of research. It is my professional skill and I have taught students how to read and do it over a long period. I use poll results in the only way they should be used, as an indicator whether relative positions and views are shifting, when polls are repeated. They are good indicators of the interests of those who can afford to pay for polls and research projects but often fail to reflect the views of those who don’t have these resources. This allows areas like good social policy to be ignored as there are many poll questions on tax and economic issues, but few on what people feel are the real issues that affect their quality of life.

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