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.

Bellwether report

Two polls released yesterday have given Labor still further cause to pray that Mark Latham’s FTA manoeuvre and the public statement by former diplomats and department heads critical of the Iraq war will provide them with a circuit breaker. The Daily Telegraph published a remarkable survey conducted by OmniTalk of no fewer than 1000 respondents in the New South Wales electorate of Eden-Monaro, which has famously gone the way of the victorious party at each election since 1972. The poll had Liberal incumbent Gary Nairn leading Labor 46 per cent to 40, interestingly echoing last week’s Newspoll which had the Coalition one point lower. A strong flow of preferences from the Greens’ 8 per cent could still save Labor from this position, but it’s hardly where they would like to be heading into the campaign.

Even worse for Labor was the monthly Westpoll in The West Australian (which now demands subscription for full access, the publishers apparently having heard that there is money to be made from pictures of pretty girls on the internet), surveying 400 voters in Western Australia. The poll does not distribute the 17 per cent undecided vote, so the Poll Bludger has done it for them to produce an outcome of 55.5 per cent for the Coalition (compared with 42.4 per cent at the 2001 election), 35 per cent for Labor (compared with 37.1 per cent) and 6 per cent for the Greens. This represents a 6 per cent fall in Labor’s vote on the previous month and an even worse performance than that in the May survey, which strained credibility at the time.

A few qualifications should be added here. Newspoll’s geographic and demographic analysis survey, operating off a somewhat larger sample, had the Coalition’s lead at 44 to 38 per cent in June, narrowing the gap from the previous quarter by 4 per cent. The West Australian’s reporting inadvertently exposes some poor past form for Westpoll in noting that Labor’s worst-ever performance in the survey came one month before the November 2001 election, at which Labor managed to win seven of the 15 Western Australian seats. Taken together, and with the Westpoll findings treated with due caution, it suggests a very tight race in the Labor marginals of Stirling (1.6 per cent), Hasluck (1.8 per cent) and Swan (2.1 per cent) and an uphill battle for Labor in the Liberal marginal of Canning (0.4 per cent). For more detail on the state of play in Western Australia, see this earlier posting and this piece in The Australian from Edith Cowan University politics lecturer Peter van Onselen.

The family that prays together

It is little wonder that reporters covering the South Australian state election in February 2002 failed to anticipate the success of the Family First party. Long renowned as a haven for lecherous drunks and Godless communists, the profession of journalism effectively quarantined itself from the new wave of evangelical religious fervour that was taking hold in the less fashionable suburbs. The phenomenon was politically activated in September 2001 with the launch of Family First by Andrew Evans, a senior national figure in the Assemblies of God church and pastor of the Paradise Community Church in north-eastern Adelaide, which boasted a 4,000 strong congregation including future Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian. Tapping into a ready-made base of organisational and electoral support the party polled 4.1 per cent of the vote for the Legislative Council, enough to win Evans a seat at the expense of the much more fancied Greens. Not surprisingly, Evans’ success has encouraged the party to broaden its horizons. Yesterday saw the launch of Family First as a national entity with plans to field candidates in most lower house electorates and for each state in the Senate.

Having demonstrated that the electoral market gap that Fred Nile has filled in New South Wales is there to be exploited in other states, there seems every reason to believe that the party might continue to operate beneath the radar of the national media and once again surprise pundits on election night. Queensland has a large mass of disaffected voters who have been left looking for a new home with the decline of One Nation. Religious conservatives in Western Australia have long had no obvious option. The Democratic Labor Party in Victoria has never reached beyond the Catholic community. And Brian Harradine’s electoral base and Senate seat are up for grabs in Tasmania.

With One Nation effectively out of the picture it had seemed safe to assume that the non-major party vote would return to its traditional pattern of favouring Labor on preferences to the tune of 60 per cent or more. This could be jeopardised if Family First proves successful in harvesting a substantial share of the minor party protest vote. While their preferences are unlikely to have a decisive impact on the House of Representatives, for which many voters make up their own mind about preference allocation, they could play a crucial role in the Senate, where 95 per cent of voters accept the party’s nominated preference distribution by exercising the above-the-line voting option. Excluding independents and micro-parties, Family First’s preference order for the South Australian Legislative Council election in 2002 ran Nationals, Liberal, Labor, Greens, Democrats and One Nation. Unless the party has a substantial change of heart for the federal election, this could provide a substantial boost to the Coalition’s chances of gaining a blocking majority by controlling half the Senate. One could even fantasise about them achieving this despite losing government, in which case Mark Latham might find himself emulating his mentor Gough Whitlam in a manner he would have preferred to avoid.

If Boothby told

Regular reader and one-time Labor candidate for Sturt Phil Robins got rather carried away recently when dropping a line to point out a factual error in the federal election guide entry for the Adelaide seat of Boothby. In so doing he constructed a commendably thorough outline of the electorate’s history that deserves better than to rot in the Poll Bludger’s inbox forever.

Labor’s Egerton Lee Batchelor was elected the first member for Boothby in 1903. Batchelor had been the only Labor MHR elected in South Australia in the nation’s first federal election in 1901, when the whole state was one multi-member electorate. Before entering federal politics, Batchelor, a former railway engineer, had established his reputation as Minister of Education and Minister of Agriculture in the Holder government from December 1899 to 15 May 1901. The Labor Party supported his serving in that Liberal government so that the public could see that a Labor man could do the job. In 1903 Batchelor was offered the safe Labor seat of Hindmarsh but in the interests of the party opted for the riskier seat of Boothby, where he polled 55 per cent to defeat former premier and fellow foundation MHR Vaiben Solomon. In 1904, Prime Minister John Christian (Chris) Watson selected Batchelor as Minister for Home Affairs in the world’s first national Labor government. Batchelor was unopposed in Boothby in 1906 and served as Minister for External Affairs in the Fisher Labor government from 1908-10. He was easily re-elected in 1910 but died suddenly in 1911 and Boothby fell to the Liberals in a by-election that year.

Another Labor man, the German-born butcher George Dankel, won Boothby back in 1913 and retained it in 1914 but naturally, given his heritage, did not contest the wartime election of 1917, when the seat fell to the Nationalists.

Labor’s next victory in Boothby was in 1928 when the stone-mason John Lloyd Price scraped home by 84 votes. He boosted his margin in 1929 but then got caught up in the big Labor split over how to deal with the Great Depression. He joined the Independent Australia Party and held Boothby in 1931 as a candidate for the anti-Labor Emergency Committee. He was re-elected under the Liberal and Country League banner in 1934 and 1937 and as a United Australia Party member in 1940, dying in office in 1941.

Sir Archibald Price (no relation to J.L.Price) won the 1941 Boothby by-election for the UAP but was turfed out by Labor’s Tom Sheehy in the general election of 1943. Sheehy, a building contractor, trailed on primary votes but got over the line largely on the preferences of the popular Communist candidate, Dr Alan Finger. Sheehy improved his winning margin in 1946 but apparently did not like the subsequent redistribution and switched to the new seat of Kingston, which he lost narrowly in 1949. The Liberals won Boothby in 1949 and have not been seriously challenged there ever since.

One day in September

A recent burst of speculation surrounding a September 18 poll has prompted a revision to the Poll Bludger’s federal election calendar, which had given the date short shrift on the grounds that it coincides with school holidays in three states. However strong performances for the Coalition in Tuesday’s Newspoll (up 2 per cent to 45, with Labor steady on 40) and last Friday’s Roy Morgan poll (Labor down 4 per cent to 42 but the Coalition somehow stuck on 41.5) prompted excited talk that the Prime Minister would call an election at the earliest opportunity after the current session of parliament. This time though speculators had the sense to qualify their comments thus: "Federal Parliament resumes on Tuesday and Mr Howard will use the fortnight of sittings to put the political blowtorch to Mr Latham and then weigh up whether to call an election for September 18" (Phillip Hudson in The Age), and "the Prime Minister will use these two weeks of Parliament to assess whether to call an election at their conclusion – for September 18" (Louise Dodson in the Sydney Morning Herald).

At the end of the first week of the parliamentary session, the Government has worked itself into a surprising muddle through its rejection of Labor’s proposed Free Trade Agreement legislation amendment concerning pharmaceuticals patents, which it went from describing as merely unnecessary on Tuesday to disastrous on Wednesday. While the Government had calculated that a take-it-or-leave-it approach would prompt a Labor backdown reinforcing perceptions of the party as vacillating and anti-American, the effect has been to give oxygen to the Opposition Leader’s effective soundbites about cheap drugs played off against the Government’s arcane technicalities about patent law. Dennis Shanahan of The Australian, the only journalist to debunk the August 7 hypothesis well in advance and a man renowned for the quality of his Coalition sources, concluded yesterday that "as each day passes with drugs on the agenda, the likelihood of a September 18 election recedes".

Recognising its difficulty the Government is reportedly working towards a compromise measure that will clear the issue from the headlines at the cost of a short-term political victory for the Opposition. A week being a long time in politics, the Prime Minister may still be keeping open the option of a September 18 election announced next weekend, but the more likely scenario is another session of parliament from August 30 to September 9 followed by the announcement of an election for October 16, 23 or 30.