Of swings and misses: episode two

Talk of a new industry body to oversee polling standards gathers pace, even as international observers wonder what all the fuss is about.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – or the Herald/Age, to adopt what is evidently Nine Newspapers’ own preferred shorthand for its Sydney and Melbourne papers – have revealed their opinion polling will be put on ice for an indefinite period. They usually do that post-election at the best of times, but evidently things are more serious now, such that we shouldn’t anticipate a resumption of its Ipsos series (which the organisation was no doubt struggling to fund in any case).

This is a shame, because Ipsos pollster Jessica Elgood has been admirably forthright in addressing what went wrong – and, importantly, in identifying the need for pollsters to observe greater transparency, a quality that has been notably lacking from the polling scene in Australia. In particular, Elgood has called for the establishment of a national polling standards body along the lines of the British Polling Council, members of which are required to publish details of their survey and weighting methods. This was echoed in a column in the Financial Review by Labor pollster John Utting, who suggests such a body might be chaired by Professor Ian McAllister of the Australian National University, who oversees the in-depth post-election Australian Election Study survey.

On that point, I may note that I had the following to say in Crikey early last year:

The very reason the British polling industry has felt compelled to observe higher standards of transparency is that it would invite ridicule if it sought to claim, as Galaxy did yesterday, that its “track record speaks for itself”. If ever the sorts of failures seen in Britain at the 2015 general election and 2016 Brexit referendum are replicated here, a day of reckoning may arrive that will shine light on the dark corners of Australian opinion polling.

Strange as it may seem though, not everyone is convinced that Australian polling really put on all that bad a show last weekend. Indeed, no less an authority than Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has just weighed in with the following:

Polls showed the conservative-led coalition trailing the Australian Labor Party approximately 51-49 in the two-party preferred vote. Instead, the conservatives won 51-49. That’s a relatively small miss: The conservatives trailed by 2 points in the polls, and instead they won by 2, making for a 4-point error. The miss was right in line with the average error from past Australian elections, which has averaged about 5 points. Given that track record, the conservatives had somewhere around a 1 in 3 chance of winning.

So the Australian media took this in stride, right? Of course not. Instead, the election was characterized as a “massive polling failure” and a “shock result”.

When journalists say stuff like that in an election after polls were so close, they’re telling on themselves. They’re revealing, like their American counterparts after 2016, that they aren’t particularly numerate and didn’t really understand what the polls said in the first place.

I’m not quite sure whether to take greater umbrage at Silver’s implication that Antony Green and Kevin Bonham “aren’t particularly numerate”, or that the are – huck, spit – “journalists”. The always prescient Dr Bonham managed a pre-emptive response:

While overseas observers like Nate Silver pour scorn on our little polling failure as a modest example of the genre and blast our media for failing to anticipate it, they do so apparently unfamiliar with just how good our national polling has been compared to polling overseas.

And therein lies the rub – we in Australia have been rather spoiled by the consistently strong performance of Newspoll’s pre-election polls especially, which have encouraged unrealistic expectations. On Saturday though, we saw the polls behaving no better, yet also no worse, than polling does generally.

Indeed, this would appear to be true even in the specifically Australian context, so long as we take a long view. Another stateside observer, Harry Enten, has somehow managed to compare Saturday’s performance with Australian polling going all the way back to 1943 (“I don’t know much about Australian politics”, Enten notes, “but I do know something about downloading spreadsheets of past poll data and calculating error rates”). Enten’s conclusion is that “the average error in the final week of polling between the top two parties in the first round” – which I take to mean the primary vote, applying the terminology of run-off voting of the non-instant variety – “has been about five points”.

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.

2,078 comments on “Of swings and misses: episode two”

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  1. nath @ #2041 Sunday, May 26th, 2019 – 10:43 pm

    Sunday, May 26, 2019 at 10:41 pm
    The Melissa Price thing – yeah, no one will care about her not keeping her job, but is it too much to ask for Morrison to be quizzed over the fact that when he said she was going to be environment minister it was either a blatant lie or he was just making shit up?
    Frank Underwood thought he was going to be Secretary of State. Shit Happens.

    I love the way you wave away Coalition mendacity as if it were a mere bagatelle. I also know how loudly you would be squawking if we had a Shorten Labor government now and the same thing had happened.

  2. Just watching the election night footage of the 1997 UK General Election (AKA the Blairslide) on Youtube and am struck by just how little election night commentary has changed in the last 20 years.

  3. Confessions @ #1991 Sunday, May 26th, 2019 – 8:08 pm

    Our democracy doesn’t mean much if we start judging politicians based on their religious beliefs.

    How about when those religious beliefs start having an anti-secular influence on govt policy?

    Then you focus on the latter thing rather than on any one person and their particular religion.

    Labor can win by advocating a secular government with clear separation between church and state and religious freedom for all.

    Labor loses if they think the way to do that is to say “look at the PM, he’s an idiotic Christian fundie and that’s dangerous”.

  4. C@tmomma
    Sunday, May 26, 2019 at 11:23 pm
    nath @ #2041 Sunday, May 26th, 2019 – 10:43 pm

    I love the way you wave away Coalition mendacity as if it were a mere bagatelle. I also know how loudly you would be squawking if we had a Shorten Labor government now and the same thing had happened.
    But we don’t have a Shorten government. You should look at the bright side, now you’ve got another 3 years of banging away on the keyboard at all the horrible things the Libs are doing. Enjoy.

  5. The Liberal Party has always had close ties to the non conformist Protestant community so nothing new going on here except instead of being Baptists or whatever, their pentecostals, because the old denominations have largely faded away.

  6. nath @ #2054 Sunday, May 26th, 2019 – 11:47 pm

    Sunday, May 26, 2019 at 11:23 pm
    nath @ #2041 Sunday, May 26th, 2019 – 10:43 pm

    I love the way you wave away Coalition mendacity as if it were a mere bagatelle. I also know how loudly you would be squawking if we had a Shorten Labor government now and the same thing had happened.
    But we don’t have a Shorten government. You should look at the bright side, now you’ve got another 3 years of banging away on the keyboard at all the horrible things the Libs are doing. Enjoy.

    And you continuing your snark for 3 more years. Oh frabjous joy. 😐

  7. I’ve also been cleaning my desk up while I waited…as I looked for an earring I have lost somewhere. Plus Mr Sheened my printer and turned over my air diffuser sticks.

    I did the cleaning because the bright light I put on to look for the earring showed up all the dust, grime and crumbs from my food. Plus my bedroom smelled because my other son cooked liver tonight. 😐

  8. BSA Bob says:
    Sunday, May 26, 2019 at 8:13 pm

    And no mention from the ABC of Morrison’s broken promise about Melissa Price. Just the doublespeak about a “new challenge”.


    And as far as our craven mainstream media and pusillanamous Canberra Press Gallery is concerned, the last six years of dysfunction, disunity, waste, corruption and maladministration never happened.

    It’s as if this venal gang is starting with a new slate, no MDBasin and questionable water buybacks,no GBR handouts, no Michaelia Cash lawlessness, no climate denialism, just for starters.

    Scott Morrison has cowed this bunch of “professional” journalists into slavishly swallowing his bullshit. Ask a tough question and you will be ostracized. And if you work for Murdoch or Costello’s 9, you might be looking for another job.

    Someone should collect transcripts of media doorstops, pressers and press conferences and identify those rare instances of questioners that hold this gang to account. I’m hoping that some journalism school somewhere is compiling this information and analyzing the performance of the media over the next three years.

  9. That was good stuff Millenial thanks for that, It would be interesting to know the phon preference flows in the various seats.

    From memory I think Labor got about 30% of their preferences at the last state election.

  10. There is not much joy for the progressive movement in the EU. Elections. Note that this is from exit polls only. Results cannot be realeased until voting closes at 2300 German time (2200 British summer time).

    I blame Scandinavia. They must be waiting for sunset!

    Unfortunately the march of the far right continues, with only a few bright spots in places . Alternative fur Deutchland do not seem to have made many gains.

    The Greens have done well in Germany, doubling their vote to 22%. On the downside that vote seems to have largely from collapse of the SPD – the social democrats. So, it probably means that the progressives may as a whole may have gone backwards.

    However, as the Guardian says, exit polls come with the usual health warnings 🙂

  11. Also, thanks to those who said they were happy to read my posts from the other side of the World. Like us all, I post because I actually enjoy the discussion here, and posting helps me clarify things in my own mind.

    Waiting now for the comments from the silent majority telling me to piss off!


  12. Craig Thomler @craigthomler
    48m48 minutes ago

    Appointing current Senators as diplomats before their terms end & then replacing the casual vacancy with someone who wasn’t voted in but the Coalition hand picks (at state level) is an interesting tactic for the Coalition government to use #auspol

    One way to get rid of awkward politicians who don’t ‘fit’ the new regime. Cuts off the career diplomat’s rise to the top, too.

  13. This is the craziest fashion ever. People hang on to water bottles and suck them like dummies.

    Bores, originally issued for irrigating crops or watering livestock, are being cheaply converted to commercial extraction permits, allowing land owners to extract millions of litres of groundwater a year for the booming $700m bottled water industry.

    Pat Miller lives about 800km north of Sydney in the fertile northern rivers region of NSW and two years ago he joined the Tweed Water Alliance, a group fighting to stop groundwater being trucked out of their community.

    Angry Tweed residents have compiled a dossier of complaints about water tankers operating day and night through the rural tropical fruit and sugar cane growing region.


  14. I am gutted by the murder of Courtney Herron.

    Every murdered woman (far too many) is horrible, but the fact that a woman with mental illness was turned away from help of any sort, and then had no option but to sleep rough, and then was brutally murdered needs to be met with outrage! 30 years ago, there was help for people with a mental illness, including inpatient care.

    What has gone wrong Australia, that mental illness is seen as a moral failing deserving of people needing to sleep rough, and be exposed to this sort of danger – grrr.

    Poor Courtney Herron. Despite what some are saying, it IS relevant if she had issues with mental heath, and was sleeping rough. Marginalised women are at higher risk of violence, it is not progressive to disguise this, it is progressive to do something about it.— Lisa Pryor (@pryorlisa) May 26, 2019

  15. One of the Libs’ most effective lines was “Labor can’t manage money so they’ll come after yours.” Labor’s eternal vulnerability on the money question is why it would be folly for it to lay most of the blame for its failure at the feet of its one money man who does command the respect of econocrats, economists and business people, Chris Bowen. All the people who wanted to win votes by promising to spend big on education and health, scapegoating the poor blighter who had to find ways to pay for it all.

    Similarly, when Labor relegates to a junior role a highly regarded former economics professor, Andrew Leigh, simply because he’s not a member of any faction, it reinforces voters’ suspicion that Labor members put their own careers ahead of the country’s good governance.


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