A Galaxy far, far away

The Poll Bludger is not big on conspiracy theories, but it is worth noting that recent opinion polls commissioned by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph have raised eyebrows even among those who believe the world to be round. Conducted by a wholly unknown outfit by the name of OmniTalk, the very least that could be said about them is that they are cleverly taking advantage of the 10-day gap that has appeared in the cycle between a Friday Roy Morgan poll and the next Newspoll two Tuesdays hence. For an inference of more sinister motives, I shall hand the mic to Christopher Sheil at Back Pages, writing when the first such poll appeared on July 27:

The PM’s favourite newspaper, the American owned Daily Terrograph, today reports the results of a poll showing the Coalition ahead for the first time on the 2pp 51/49. Polling is important of course, and not only or even mainly because of its supposed relationship to how the parties are presently standing in the race. Polling also matters because the results themselves feed back into shaping people’s opinions. This poll was a survey of less than 1000 voters, which gives it a margin of error of 5 per cent (I think). So what do we make of a partisan newspaper popping its head up on an off-polling week, with the results of a survey it commissioned from some outfit with no track record (called OmniTalk), which purports to find the Coalition in front for the first time by a percentage well within the margin of error? Junk. Possibly suspicious and potentially dangerous junk. But junk all the same.

Asked about it at the time by Leon Byner on Adelaide 5AA, Mark Latham too said he had "never heard of this polling outfit". Two rather spectacular Daily Telegraph/OmniTalk findings released over the past two days will do little to lay suspicions to rest. First came Monday’s findings on the electorate of Eden-Monaro discussed in yesterday’s posting. Coverage from this has been spread over two days, and has even warranted its own dinkus. One day later came a sequel to the poll of a fortnight earlier, a full national survey of about 1000 respondents taken just last weekend. The result: a thumping 47 per cent for the Coalition with Labor flat-lining on 36 per cent, despite Mark Latham’s efforts on the Free Trade Agreement. On two-party preferred the Coalition led 54-46. The gaps had respectively widened by 5 per cent and 6 per cent from the poll that so excited Sheil a fortnight earlier. Collectively, the two surveys represent an overkill of positive opinion poll coverage for the Coalition from the Murdoch-owned tabloid that brings you Piers Akerman.

Regrettably, the Poll Bludger’s digging has led him to a more benign conclusion. Although the Telegraph is doing little to promote the fact, OmniTalk is a brand name of a division of market research firm Galaxy Marcoms called Galaxy Research. One of its two principals is David Briggs, who until recently was general manager of Newspoll. This fledgling agency would hardly be willing to put its reputation at risk with findings it knew would be disproved when the election came around. Furthermore, a feature of modern election campaigns is that parties compete for underdog status in order to prevent complacent supporters from lodging protest votes. Directing one’s lackeys to promote the view that one’s re-election is a foregone conclusion goes strongly against the conventional wisdom.

Certainly an innocent explanation exists for the intensity of the coverage given the Eden-Monaro poll – reporters Josh Massoud and David Penberthy have turned in excellent copy, a cut above the usual Struggle Street drivel and well worth a read for anyone able to get their hands on yesterday’s Telegraph (it appears not to be available online, unless I’m missing something). They describe their methodology thus:

Like many things in journalism, it started as a ruse to get out of the office and have a stack of fun at company expense. In the end, it picked the 2001 election result – a 10-day road trip through 10 key NSW seats in a turbo-charged 1967 HR Holden. The Daily Telegraph decided that rather than the usual "seats to watch" tedium which profiles candidates at the expense of the people who vote for them, we’d throw our coverage into reverse. We ignored the candidates and used the massively unreliable souped-up HR to conduct about 320 face-to-face interviews with voters, starting the morning of September 11, 2001. It took several hours to start the car – and we made it to Cessnock at night, in time to see the first of the twin towers collapse. When we set out the next day for the interviews, the tone was set. Voter after voter – even Labor voters – said Kim Beazley had no chance of victory. The line was repeated: "After what’s happened, why would you change now?" This time, we got a more reliable car – the Holden Eden-Monaro. And despite our success last time, we got a more reliable polling method — through polling company Galaxy, whose OmniTalk polls will appear in this newspaper throughout this campaign. The good people at Holden lent us the car and the good people at Galaxy told us how to poll properly. Galaxy did 400 telephone interviews in the electorate of Eden-Monaro, and the remaining 600 were done face-to-face by us last week. We divided up the interviews using ABS and Australian Electoral Commission data to reflect population spread and age profiles – hence 12 voters in Dalgety, 294 in Queanbeyan. We drove just over 2000km using a map with each seat tagged up with the target interview numbers, aiming for an average 120 a day. Of these 600 face-to-face interviews, 60 were with people aged 18 to 24, 110 with people aged 25 to 34, 180 with people aged 35 to 49, and 250 with the 50-plus brigade. We did 50-50 men and women.

In an already crowded market OmniTalk could well be that one opinion poll too many – News Limited already has Newspoll, after all. But that doesn’t make its findings particularly suspicious, much less potentially dangerous. Instead they should be interpreted for what they are – legitimately bad news for Labor.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.