Saturday, December 20, 2014

Poll Reporting Unfair To Hockey

A few knives are out for Treasurer Joe Hockey, who is repeatedly rated one of the government's poorest performers, and whose political fate seems very much tied to a Budget that received the second-worst ratings in the past 29 years. Hockey this week announced revised forecasts with deficits over the next four years nearly two and a half times what was expected little over half a year ago.  Not just his economic competence and consistency (given that in Opposition he railed against Labor's supposed debt addiction but seems powerless to escape it himself any time soon) but also perceptions of the Treasurer as a surly communicator are coming into the spotlight.  Admittedly, he has had a difficult time with many savings measures being blocked by the random rabble of crossbench Senators, but most Senates of times past would have done the same thing.

It may seem difficult to argue then that Hockey deserves much sympathy at all, or that any pain he experiences in the role is anything but self-inflicted.  But today I've got to do it.  This report in the Australian by Troy Bramston declares Hockey is regarded by the public as "the worst Treasurer of the last 40 years".  The poll on which the article is based shows absolutely no such finding.  The sensationalised and fallacious reporting of the poll is quite surprising - Bramston, unlike some at said paper, is far from a serial offender for this sort of thing. It is in no way the pollster's fault - rather it is just a case where a journalist uses a poll to say something it doesn't actually say. 

The poll, by Essential Research (see link above for tables), asked voters who they would rate as Australia's best treasurer of the past 40 years.  Options provided were Peter Costello, Paul Keating, John Howard, Wayne Swan, Joe Hockey and Don't Know.  Costello romped in with 30%, with Don't Know second with 28 (high undecided rates are a hallmark of Essential issues polling*), and then came Keating with 18, Howard 12, Swan 8 and last was Hockey with 4.  There were the usual partisan effects: 78% of Coalition supporters went for a Liberal treasurer and 11% for a Labor one, while Labor supporters split 48-23 for one of their own.  (Greens supporters were 39-21 for Labor treasurers and Others supporters were 50-18 for Liberal ones).  A similar Essential poll in August had figures of 30 for Costello, 23 for Keating, 8 for Swan and 5 for Hockey, with Howard not included.

(* I had some feedback on this, so to clarify: I believe the online format - which requires a pollster to offer "don't know" on the same level as other choices or not at all -  leads to higher don't-know rates compared to live interviewing. Live interviewing has the option of not offering "don't know" as an answer, but accepting it if the respondent is clearly undecided.  Tentative respondents who will offer views in phone polling are more likely to say "don't know" to a computer.  I suspect it is an issue endemic to the online method rather than necessarily a particular pollster using it.

Poll does not support conclusions drawn

The first problem in drawing conclusions about who is considered the worst treasurer is that the poll did not ask that.  It asked who voters considered the best.   You cannot conclude from a treasurer being rarely rated the best that he is commonly considered the worst - it might just be that he is generally considered mediocre or that there are few strong opinions on him. 

In Hockey's case this isn't terribly likely, and in a poll that asked voters to pick the worst he might well score very highly indeed.  I'd expect voters to show both a strong partisan bias and a strong recency bias on such a question, so that Hockey and Swan might be the top scorers.  I'd be surprised if Hockey didn't top such a poll and poll at least 30% in so doing.  However, that was not the question that was asked.

Imagine if voters were instead asked who they thought was the best performed member of the current Cabinet.  Probably someone harmless, low-profile and competent would score the lowest (and score rather lower than Hockey), but would that make them the "worst" member of Cabinet?

The second major problem with this poll - as an indicator of who is the worst Treasurer - is that it does not include the full set of Treasurers of the past 40 years. Not even close! In the last 40 years, all the following have served as Treasurer of Australia: Jim Cairns, Bill Hayden, Phillip Lynch, John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke (for 1 day), John Kerin, Ralph Willis (twice), John Dawkins, Peter Costello, Wayne Swan, Chris Bowen, Joe Hockey.  Thirteen in all (the tenure of Frank Crean ended 40 years and two days before the poll started being taken, so I shouldn't strictly count him.)

Of these, it makes sense to exclude Hawke, who held the post for a day as a pure formality, and probably also Hayden and Bowen, whose governments were defeated before they could do all that much.  But the remaining five Treasurers excluded from the poll (Cairns, Kerin, Lynch, Willis and Dawkins) are a different story.  Dawkins, for instance, was the Treasurer who brought down the classic "horror budget" of 1993, which received a worse poll reception than even this year's.  (See graph.)

Kerin's stay as treasurer lasted only six months (mainly because he wasn't up to it), Lynch had to resign following a tax-minimisation conflict of interest, and Cairns' tenure covered the turbulent period of the Khemlani and George Harris loans scandals.  Ralph Willis may not have met such a colourful end as these, but he was treasurer for over two years, and much more recently so than Howard.

In any reasonable assessment of the worst Treasurers of Australia, a political historian would look especially closely at those whose tenures had ended in quick and self-inflicted disgrace.  Yet they're excluded from this Essential poll, precisely because the public would have forgotten about them, and that in turn is often precisely because they were so bad. 

So even if we grant that Hockey has been shown by the poll to be a worse Treasurer than Costello, Howard, Keating and Swan (which he hasn't), there are still eight other Treasurers to whom the poll has not even compared him.  Those to whom he's being compared were the long-term survivors, who were in the role for almost 31 years between the four of them.  No matter how good Hockey was (assuming he actually was good) he would struggle to scrub up after just a year and a bit.

The third problem with this poll is that some of its respondents are confused.  John Howard rates fairly well in the poll, but his reign as Treasurer ended with the economy in a parlous state with double-digit unemployment and inflation and high taxes.  However, this was much more a result of Malcolm Fraser's economic views than his own - Howard claims he considered resigning in 1982.

Whatever the merits of Howard's treasury, the strangest result of this poll is that 13% of respondents aged 18-34 rated Howard the best Treasurer.  The very oldest respondents in that age bracket would have been three and a bit years old at the end of Howard's tenure, and most of them wouldn't have been alive.  Very few of them would have made a detailed study of Australian political history - it's clear that many of those picking Howard as the best Treasurer are doing so not on account of their memories of his performance as Treasurer, but on account of his years as Prime Minister. (I also suspect some rosy nostalgia for Howard-as-PM among the 16% of 55+s who opted for him.)

Hockey vs Bowen

The other - and more useful - finding of this poll is a matchup between Joe Hockey and Chris Bowen on the question of who voters would trust to handle the economy.  It shows Hockey trailing 27-29 compared with leading 34-23 in August and 33-27 in May.  (Note that the May sample was pre-Budget.)  The don't-know rate is very high, so it's hard to read a great deal into it, but at best it's severely unflattering.  That said, in the context of the government's current polling position, it's also more or less to be expected, and doesn't show Hockey to be any deeper in the mire than Tony Abbott.  A Minister would have to be doing a rather good job to have any kind of lead over their opposite number while their Government is trailing as heavily as this one.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Poll Roundup: 2014 Year Review

2PP aggregate: 53.7 to ALP (+0.3 since last week)
ALP would easily win election "held now"

We're just about at the end of the federal polling season, an end which for the government can't possibly come soon enough.  If last year's polling is any guide, we may get one more ReachTEL at the end of this week and then that would likely be it until Morgan and Essential started up again in mid-January with the rest following a few weeks later. I thought I'd summarise some stats about this polling year, but first a quick look at this week's polls so far.

I should note first that a significant event this week - the Martin Place siege - could affect voting intention to some degree, and that incident was not reflected in any of this week's polling.  The past history of this government is that its polling improves temporarily and modestly when national security is in the spotlight.  Because of the scarcity of polls over the holiday season there may not be a lot to look at by way of evidence, and it remains to be seen whether this disturbing incident will be perceived as a terror issue as much as a run-of-the-mill failure of the domestic justice system. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Poll Roundup: One Year Behind

2PP Poll Aggregate: 53.4 to ALP (+0.4 in a week)
ALP would easily win election "held now"
Coalition has trailed on smoothed aggregate for one year

Usually this would be an "off week" for the poll roundup series as it is not a Newspoll week, but the presence of Ipsos and Galaxy justifies squeezing in an article amid all the postcount chaos going down in Prahran and Fisher.  Another reason for putting something up now is that this week the Abbott federal government celebrates an unwanted anniversary.  It is one year since it lost the 2PP polling lead to the Labor opposition. 

Aggregates have now and then fleetingly shown the government back in front or nearly so.  My own showed it leading narrowly (50.3%) for a single week in mid-February, and Bludger Track has produced a weekly reading of exactly 50:50 three times (mid-Feb, early April, early October).  But when any kind of smoothing is applied to weekly figures to tone down the effects of the odd stray inaccurate poll, these blips have disappeared.  Both the smoothed version of Bludger Track and my own more primitive smoothed version now show the Coalition to have been behind for one year.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fisher, State By-Elections and Federal Drag

Nat Cook (ALP) provisionally won, defeating Dan Woodyatt (Ind) by 226 votes at the critical exclusion point then Heidi Harris (Lib) by 23 votes.  This is currently being recounted, with Cook defeating Woodyatt by 219 in the recount and defeating Harris by nine votes. Cook will now take her seat and Labor will have an outright majority.

The win may well be challenged in the Court of Disputed Returns.  In this case Labor will hold the seat until such time as the court decides the case.  The court could confirm the win, order a by-election or declare the Liberals to have won the seat.  

Postcount Introduction

This article follows late counting in the South Australian Fisher by-election.  As at the close of counting on the night this seemed like a very likely win for the ALP who had a 52.1% two-party preferred lead against the Liberals.  Even with a very large percentage of prepolls such leads are very rarely caught.  Although there was still some threat from the independent Dan Woodyatt, I thought I should place the at that stage apparently likely ALP win in its historic context.  That was the theme of the original article. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Poll Roundup: "Deeply Unpopular By December"

2PP Aggregate: 53.1 to Labor (unchanged in two weeks)
Labor would easily win federal election "held now"

This week's federal poll roundup title is brought to you by an AFR article entitled Abbott on the nose in regions. The article was published in mid-April, just before the Budget, at a time when the government had recorded a 48% 2PP in a Nielsen poll (remember those?) and was just starting to head south from a borderline winnable 49:51 position it had been locked in for five months.  The final paragraph of the article was:

"Those who are aware of the severity of some of the budget decisions that have been made, are warning that the [polling] situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. The Coalition is bracing to be "deeply unpopular by December" said one source."

It's December now!  So how did that prediction go?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Victorian Election Postcount: Lower House

Seat Total ALP 47 L-NP 38 Green 2 Ind 1
(Green win of Prahran subject to recount)

This post (work in progress) will follow the remaining Lower House seats that are of interest.  In all of them the lead is currently substantial and I do not expect any of the leads to be overturned on late counting, but maybe one or two will.  The most interesting seat is the three-cornered contest in Prahran which has its own post (Postcount: Prahran).

Note that Pollbludger has some figures on number of remaining votes.

In the other seats there is probably a perception that large leads on Saturday night could be pulled down on post-poll counting given the vast number of prepolls and the tendency for postal voting to favour the conservatives.  The flaw in this logic is that many of the postals are already counted so on average the postcounts should be more similar to the main game than usual.  But we are already seeing some surprising differences to 2010, and also that the differences are varying by seat.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Victorian Election Postcount: Prahran

(Correct prediction posted to . Notice date.)


UNDECIDED SEAT: Prahran (Lib, 4.7%) 
SUMMARY: Contest between Clem Newton-Brown (Lib) and either Neil Pharaoh (ALP) or Sam Hibbins (Green)
RESULT:  Hibbins (Green) wins seat - awaiting formal declaration

This article followed the post-count in the undecided seat of Prahran, won by the Greens (subject to official confirmation) on preferences from third on primaries after eleven days of counting, including a recount.

The original (after reworking) article appears at the bottom of the post with updates scrolling to the top.  However, there was a surprise in the prepoll count - Labor did much better than projected on within electorate prepolls, which I'm told they targeted heavily - so much of the original modelling for questions 1 and 2 soon became irrelevant.  The modelling for question 3 turned out to be slightly pessimistic for the Greens compared to the reality.

The results of the three key questions, after recounting, are being reported unofficially as:

1. Does Pharaoh stay ahead of Hibbins?  Hibbins knocked out Pharaoh by 31 votes.

2. If the final count is Newton-Brown vs Pharaoh, who wins? Newton-Brown led by 25 based on the quick throw.  This margin remains to be confirmed (and is presently irrelevant.)

3. If the final count is Newton-Brown vs Hibbins, who wins?  Hibbins has won by 277 votes thus apparently winning the seat.

Assuming these results are now officially confirmed, Hibbins has won the seat for now.  It is possible that there will be a court challenge, but even if there is one Hibbins will be able to sit in parliament until such time as a court might decide otherwise.

The result is a major success for the Greens, who have unseated a Liberal in a single-seat electorate for the first time in any Australian state or federally, who have won both lower house seats they targeted, and who will hold more than one seat in an Australian parliament elected under a single-seat system for the first time.  Indeed, they have only previously won four seats in single-seat elections (one of them twice) and two of those wins were in by-elections.