Monday, 3 June 2019

An Unlosable Election?

     I was just as amazed as everybody else on the evening of the May 18th Federal election to see the Coalition returned to office. Whether I was elated or appalled is beside the point; it wasn't supposed to happen - not if the opinion polls were to be believed. Since then there has been endless soul searching: firstly with the pollsters, who turned out so wrong, and secondly by the Labor Party which, like the American Democrats, feel "We was robbed!" Well, I have no intention of revisiting and analysing the various policies, but I do intend to elaborate on normal voter behaviour, and show that the results weren't so extraordinary after all.
     Firstly, there's an old adage but true that oppositions don't win elections; governments lose them. If you are a party member, or a party supporter, try to drop your ideological stance and put yourself in the place of the people who matter: the swing voters. By definition, they are not ideologists; they could jump either way. That means that they more or less accept the status quo. This is true whether the status quo is Liberal (as, for example, the Howard years) or Labor (the Hawke years). However, they will abandon the government under two circumstances:
  1. It does something they really don't like. The corollary is that if you alienate enough groups, you are likely to make permanent enemies, and you will be in opposition for a long time.
  2. It is seen to be incompetent, or to have lost the plot. Often this is a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the government sees they are losing support, and start squabbling among themselves, and trying to pull rabbits out of hats in order to regain support, but only further demonstrating that they have lost the plot.

"Time for a new leader!"
    Conservative parties know this intuitively. Their promises are always: "We'll keep the ship of state sailing smoothly" (if in power), or "We'll clean up the mess" (if in opposition). Normally, they have to wait until the mess is obvious. Parties of the left, however, always come out with grand schemes to reorganize society. They can't help it; it's part of their DNA. They want to win government on their own merits, not merely allow the government to fall due to its own failings. What they don't realise is that, if they win, it will be in spite of the grand scheme, not because of it. Indeed, it might even frighten voters off.
     I could supply quite a few examples from past elections, both state and federal, but instead I shall concentrate on the last election. Even his opponents (especially his opponents!) agree that Scott Morrison (ScoMo) ran a very strong campaign. Conversely, I was amazed at how pathetic had been Malcolm Turnbull's campaign in 2016. The man he replaced, Tony Abbott would have done a much better job. Indeed, I could have done a much better job. If he had still been in charge in 2019, he would have gone down in a screaming heap, bringing the Coalition with him.
     The fact was, Turnbull was good at gaining power, but poor at managing it. He was all tip and no iceberg. If you had asked the swinging voters why they were turning against the Coalition, they would probably have been hard pressed to nominate a policy which was really bad. What was wrong was that it was drifting in disarray. As Peta Credlin put it, it had "lost control of the narrative".
     But suddenly, at the last moment, a dynamic new leader arose who took back control of the narrative. To the swinging voters, the new status quo didn't seem so bad after all. Not so the opposition's grand scheme, which had enough policies to scare off the waverers.

What about the polls?
      I'll always remember a cartoon where a pollster asks a couple: "Have you ever been polled? Do you know anybody who has been polled?"
     Many commentators note similarities with the Trump and Brexit elections, which went against the pollsters' predictions. The U.S. polls, indeed, were not only wrong; they were all over the place. However, they involve a factor not present in Australia: many of the respondents might not have voted at all. But when voting is compulsory, the polls ought to be more accurate.
     It has been pointed out that the final result was within the margin of error of the polls. Just the same, the polls were consistently against the government for most of the previous three years. By chance alone sampling error should have favoured the government for many of those polls.  In my opinion, the polls weren't far wrong, but many people definitely changed their vote in the last few months. Even so, I gather that exit polls also favoured Labor, which indicates some more basic problem with the polls.
     It is not so easy to extrapolate the opinions of just a couple of thousand respondents to the whole country. Once pollsters called people at home on their telephones, but now mobile phones are more in use, and their numbers not listed. Many people will be hard to reach, and some do not want to respond. Not only that, but for several decades I have noticed that the polls tend to overestimate the Labor vote, whether they win or whether they lose. Something is fundamentally wrong with the way polls are taken.
     One thing is certain: it will be a long time before the polls regain their authority.