CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Close election still likely
, October 6, 2001
The volatility of opinion polls is causing both sides of federal politics considerable heartburn and consternation in the lead-up to the announcement of the date of the Federal Election.
The shock Morgan poll, which put the Coalition in a 60-40 lead over the Opposition, created a mood of impregnability among Coalition backbenchers, and despondency among ALP MPs.
Other polls, including the authoritative Newspoll, published in The Australian
, and the Fairfax-run AC Nielsen survey showed similar election-winning leads for the Coalition.
Based on those results, Kim Beazley's Labor Party could go backwards - even falling beow the low point the party reached at the disastrous 1996 election. Almost immediately after the Morgan findings were published, the Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley moved to describe it as an aberration.
And the pollster himself, Gary Morgan, broke with convention by publicly seeking to discredit his own findings. No one knows exactly what game the canny Morgan was playing at by publishing the startling poll, and then subsequently repudiating it.
The Morgan poll is unique among the major pollsters in that it is undertaken by face-to-face interviews rather than over the phone. The first Morgan poll was a snap phone poll taken soon after the horrifying events in New York, and subsequent face-to-face interviews told a different story.
Morgan is easily Australia's most experienced pollster, and is also a master publicist. There may have been some subterranean machinations going on over Morgan's long-running contract with The Bulletin
, or he may have been trying to somehow discredit the phone polling used by his arch-rival Sol Lebovic of Newspoll.
Whatever was going on with the discredited Morgan poll it had the effect of forcing ALP Federal Secretary Geoff Walsh to reassure the Caucus that they were not all about to join the unemployment queues, and that the party's campaign in the marginal seats were "on track".
The Prime Minister also had to hose down the euphoria on his backbench. Just like a Melbourne Cup contender, the last thing Mr Howard wants is to be is the red hot favourite going into the November poll.
The underdog status is coveted by both sides in Australian politics because it takes the pressure off the leader and allows people to register a protest vote. In most Australian elections where 5 to 7 per cent of voters in key seats can decide the election, garnering enough protest votes can prove decisive.
No one thought Labor's Steve Bracks had a chance of winning against Jeff Kennett in Victoria at the last Victorian election. Similarly, in Western Australia Geoff Gallop's underdog campaign based on a clever preference strategy also helped the Labor Party sneak over the line against all expectations to defeat Richard Court.
While more people are beginning to question whether Kim Beazley has what it takes to be Prime Minister, the fact is the election is still likely to be close. Labor has not lost a seat since the 1996 Federal Election.
It has been able to chip away at the Government's majority in by-elections and gather a coalition of disgruntled voters who have been alienated by the Howard Government over a variety of issues.
There are two areas of caution about the latest polls which need to be considered by those jumping on the Howard "third term" bandwagon.
Firstly, the polls are always a rear-view mirror of the public's mood. These latest results reflect the emotion-charged atmosphere immediately after the horrifying events in New York where many people were gripped with fear of a rapid escalation of violence and a possible declaration of war against Muslim states.
In fact, any serious conflict is likely to take months to fully develop and the national mood of fear and anger is likely to subside somewhat as other issues closer to home re-emerge.
The second point is that it could well be that much of the pro-Howard sentiment is actually occurring in Labor-held city seats where there is a high ethnic vote.
This is not based on any qualitative evidence, but Labor MPs have reported an extraordinary response from their electorates where migrants are strongly supportive of the Government's strong stance against asylum seekers and queue jumpers.
It is worth noting that 13 ALP seats are held by margins of 20 per cent or more, compared with just two Coalition seats held with such comfortable margins. A further nine ALP seats are held by margins of between 15-20 per cent, compared with six Coalition seats.
So it is conceivable that there could be still a substantial swing toward the Government in Labor's heartland without Labor losing any seats at all. Yet with a smart grassroots campaign Labor could still conceivably win in the key marginals seats.
When the election proper gets underway other issues such as health, education and tax will subvert the Tampa
and illegal immigrants as the key issues and many people will vote accordingly.
In short, unless Kim Beazley implodes under the pressure, the result is likely to be much closer than polls now anticipate, and in a two-horse race anything can happen.