The release of Mercury-commissioned ReachTEL polling about the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill and its impact on state election voting seems a good time to write something I've been meaning to put up here for some time. There's a view doing the rounds, among some of the green and gullible, that the last time this proposal was about, a huge body of credible polling showed very strong opposition to it. As well as discussing the current poll, this article takes a little trip down memory lane and points out why we never knew as much about public views of the pulp mill as some of its more ardent opponents told us that we did. It also includes a few of my own thoughts on the "issue" of the proposed pulp mill.
Anyway, here is the new pulp mill poll result:
I'm not totally at ease with the question design for this one. I would have preferred "the proposed pulp mill", because the actual question design might load in favour of the assumption that the pulp mill is a real thing with very tangible prospects, which might in turn favour a "more likely" response. A tiny percentage of respondents might not even realise this is about the former Gunns Bell Bay proposal, and might think it is about some other pulp mill; one that actually, er, is real. So I think the question is just a teensy bit conducive to a positive response, but I've seen worse. Much worse, in fact, as we're about to see.
But even taking that into account, it is a fascinating finding in terms of the urban myth (spread by opponents) that polling repeatedly showed strong opposition of Tasmanian voters to the pulp mill in the past. It hardly contradicts that claim (since views of the mill may be rosier now because of the state's desperation for development, or because people have forgotten arguments made against the mill) but it does take the rug out from under the feet of those who assert that the mill has always been unpopular and always will be.
The Leaky TAP
Or it would, if the rug wasn't scrunched up in the corner and looking pretty threadbare already. An often-mentioned resource concerning the view that the mill is strongly rejected by Tasmanian voters is the Tapvision list of pulp-mill polling, which provides results of 23 polls supposed to demonstrate lasting and overwhelming opposition to the mill. (Note that the document itself doesn't claim to be confined to Tasmanian polls.) TAP Into A Better Tasmania and similar groups are very big on "due diligence" ... but apparently not when it comes to opinion polls. Their list of polling was loaded with results that are "critically non-compliant" with proper polling process, or at least critically irrelevant to the claims they use them to support.
Of the 23 polls aggregated and averaged by TAP to supposedly show support or opposition to the pulp mill, three were elector-polls that only represented the views of those voters who vote in council elections (and in specific areas at that). As council election voters are a self-selecting and not necessarily a representative sample of the whole electorate, such findings are of limited use. That leaves twenty.
Six (Win TV, Wentworth Courier, ABC, SMH twice) were opt-in "polls" (online or phone-in) prone to motivated response, orchestrated stacking, and in cases multiple voting. Passing off such exercises, which are often explicitly disclaimed as "unscientific", and aggregating a 99-1 result from the Wentworth Courier along with the rest is the sort of stunt that would make John Gay ashamed. Fourteen remaining.
A further four (Morgan, Essential and two by Galaxy) were national and useless in gauging support in Tasmania. Ten green poll bottles left.
Three more were confined to support for specific aspects of the issue, such as government or bank funding, somewhat contradicting TAP's claim "all measure the level of support or opposition to Gunns’ proposed pulp mill." These were the Mar 2008 EMRS poll (confined to the question of ANZ bank funding for the mill), the Jan 2008 EMRS (confined to "support for further state or federal government funding"), and the 1 Aug 2010 TAP self-administered poll (confined to whether a voter would be more likely to support a party intending to use government funds to support the mill.) We're down to seven.
A further three of those seven fail due diligence because they were what I call skew-polls. A skew-poll is a poll in which extensive leading "information" is provided, or prior questions used, that can skew the main poll result in favour of one side of the debate or the other. The survey design is typically chosen at the instigation of the sponsor of the poll, not the pollster. A skew-poll may also be a push-poll (in that the point of the poll is to convince the respondents of a claim made about the issue) but for the most part skew-polls are used by those commissioning them to misrepresent voter intention to the greater public, rather than to alter the views of those sampled. Another purpose of skew-polls was frankly admitted by one senior anti-mill figure: they provide a method of convincing the media to publish the commissioning group's ambit claims about the issue.
The following were the three skew-polls:
* EMRS 8 Aug 07 commissioned by "Investors for the Future of Tasmania". The poll first asks a question about what is called "the Government's fast-track process" before asking about views on the mill. Asking the first question draws attention to a possible argument against the mill (that it has been approved by a "fast-track process", and is hence implied to be shonky) and may skew the response to the second.
* EMRS 7 Nov 2008 commissioned by The Wilderness Society. This was the wording of the poll:
The question asked - Should the government allow the planned pulp mill to go ahead if it results in foreign control of Tasmanian water, land and forests?
The impression I have overall is that in late 2007 Tasmanians were slightly opposed to the pulp mill proposal, given that the industry released no commissioned polls showing unequivocal support, but that there wasn't all that great a deal in it. Aggregating these four possibly valid polls gives a 36.5-50.9 yes-no result (contra TAP's 27-63), but I reckon it was a bit closer than that. And here, several years on, is a public poll with only a slight wording issue that reckons the mill is much more popular now than when Newspoll conducted similar polling about impacts on vote in the leadup to the 2007 federal election. (For more on that see an oldie but a goodie: The shrinking pulp mill backlash.)
This debunking of TAP's polling claims is not the only time I've rumbled them for sloppy scholarship. A few years ago, a claim by the group to have conducted a comprehensive study of the impacts of plantation forestry fell apart when someone formerly involved with TAP very kindly sent me a copy of their diagrammatic "study".
Electoral Impact ... and my views
Opponents of the mill imagined that it would totally transform the politics of Bass. In fact it produced very large swings in Tamar Valley booths in Bass and Lyons at its first big test, the 2007 federal election, but the overall swing to anti-mill candidates and apparently driven by the issue in each electorate was only several points (my old booth analysis is fossilised somewhere here).
Anyway, even if a slight plurality of voters say they're more likely to vote for the mill than against it, we can safely assume it will make little difference and (following my cynical pet rule of taking the difference between "more likely" and "less likely" and dividing it by five) the couple of points the issue might be worth will only vanish into the noise. There could be some strong local effects though, in the West Tamar. And the NIMBY factor is probably why Bass and Lyons voters give the mill a lukewarm thumbs-ups of +15.3 and +11.5 ("more likely" minus "less likely") while economically struggling and anti-Green Braddon loves it (+39.3). Franklin is equivocal (+1.7) and The People's Republic of Denison (-10.4) really isn't impressed.
My overall impression of the whole "pulp mill" debate in this election campaign is that supporting the pulp mill has become an issue of ritual obeisance for the major parties. It doesn't matter that the mill shows no sign of being remotely profitable and that no living company appears to want to build it. Rather, "pulp mill" has become a totemised code for being pro-development, with a perception by both parties that if you are not ardently for the pulp mill, you are failing to soothe the feelings of blue-collar communities looking for jobs and what remains of the forest industry, and open to attack on that front. It fills a similar abstract role to the veneration for budget surpluses in the recent federal election.
Liberal attacks on the Palmer United Party for being all over the map on the pulp mill are designed to firm up the Liberals' base, as the Liberals are probably more worried about a big PUP surge depriving them of their majority than anything that tired old Labor has left to throw. At the same time, I think there are some voters who will actually find PUP's middle-of-the-road confused message on the pulp mill refreshing, because it acts to defuse the idea that the whole thing even needs to be taken so seriously. The idea that the pulp mill proposal should be a prominent election issue is, in my view, almost as absurd as a lot of what PUP comes up with.
And no, we shouldn't have a referendum on the mill proposal (or, as recently proposed by the Greens, on "doubt removal" legislation relating to it); that's silly too. If it's not worth wasting public money on, then that includes the hefty cost of a public vote about it. Of course, I understand why the Greens want one, because they think that they might win that vote, while they never win a vote about it in parliament with both major parties voting against them. But parliamentary democracy is a package deal - voters determine their votes across a range of issues, and of all those voters who oppose the mill, the proportion who will shift their vote to an anti-mill party because of it is eternally small.
Indeed, most of those who very strongly oppose the mill were likely to vote Green even before the mill idea existed. Over the last few decades the Greens have been able to use their power in various hung parliaments to get quite a lot of stuff that would have gone down in a screaming heap in any referendum through. A move long ago towards a more directly "democratic" system, such as Citizens Initiated Referenda or Voters Veto (both ideas I'm deeply wary of) would have delivered the Greens a lot more losses on issues that they won, than wins on issues that they lost.
My own view is that the proposed pulp mill is a pollutant. Not of skies and seas and seals and seabirds, but of political discourse; an endless source of false frustrations, pointless diversions, empty symbolism and false hopes. At the risk of repeating the plantation diagrams piece, the original Gunns argument for a fast-track process was that the original assessment process was taking too long. But even with the fast-track in place they couldn't get the thing done, and there is not much reason to believe anyone else can either, especially not from a solely plantation estate. It's well past time to kill it off, or move it, or say that if anyone can really make a go of it they are to do it properly from scratch with their own money. The recent "doubts removal" legislation was hardly progress in the right direction on the issue (much as I like seeing a Confrontation Trust court challenge to pretty much anything get shut down), but I doubt it will amount to more than parliamentary theatre, and a pretext to throw the Greens out of Cabinet (for all the good that did.)
Meanwhile the related plantation debate has come full circle in a hilarious way. Eucalyptus nitens plantations, once so deeply hated by the Greens' support base for their wildly exaggerated environmental deficiencies and low-grade cash-crop product, now apparently need saving from the pulp mill because they are high quality timber that is too good to pulp. Next we'll be being told nitens forests have substantial ecological and threatened species values too (which is actually sometimes true, and was known to be such fifteen years ago when those who will soon say it were vehemently denying it.) Or listing them as World Heritage, assuming that has not already happened.
Yes, the pulp mill debate is a grand Tasmanian four-party farce. And perhaps the most farcical thing of all is that now when there is so little reason to take the issue seriously, it's finally been polled credibly ... and the result has come up positive.
Update 8 March: The Examiner has also now commissioned polling on the pulp mill, asking firstly the general question "Do you support the construction of a pulp mill in Tasmania?" This gets a positive response with 51.4% support, 33.8% opposed. The second question is "Do you support a pulp mill at Longreach, near Bell Bay?" Support here is more lukewarm (43.4-36.6).
Neither of these questions really test support for what was the Gunns pulp mill proposal, though it is debatable whether that proposal still really exists beyond the permit recently renewed. But the second question at least shows there is not clearcut opposition to a pulp mill being built at the Longreach site (except from Denison voters, who are nowhere near it and who oppose a mill in general).
Differences in the net approval rating (support-oppose) for the mill and the net approval rating for the Longreach site by electorate are revealing:
As with most of this week's polls, Denison is the odd electorate out and Franklin is becoming more like the other three. In Denison and Franklin the location of the proposed mill makes little difference. In Bass and Lyons there is slightly greater opposition to the Longreach site, probably driven by the NIMBY factor in the Tamar Valley (which is included in both electorates). But in Braddon there is opposition to the proposed site because the job-desperate electorate wants the mill for Braddon (presumably at Hampshire).
It does not necessarily follow from all this that Hampshire is the most popular site, since no specific question about the Hampshire site was asked. Some voters in Bass especially might approve of the local site and disapprove of Hampshire.