More value in polls with geographic breakdowns

31 July 2015

Boredom might be the feeling that many people get when they hear or see news stories about opinion polls.  Such is the saturation of polls in today’s media cycle that countless people just tune out at the mere mention of them.  Except when parliaments are hung, meaning that no side of politics can govern in its own right without the need for support from crossbenchers and one single resignation or death could potentially change governments, why should it matter so much what the polls say, especially when no election is clearly around the corner?

On my part, I only pay close attention to opinion polls every three months or so.  The reason is that one of the main polling entities, Newspoll, publishes its findings with geographic breakdowns every three months, or on a quarterly basis in the context of a year.  Throughout the rest of the year, Newspoll will publish findings every fortnight, albeit with less detail than when it does geographic breakdowns, but reading fortnightly polls won’t matter too much.

There are three lots of findings that I like looking at, two of which are published in major newspapers.  You can read the findings from Newspoll in the AUSTRALIAN.  There are findings from another polling entity, Ipsos, in several newspapers published by Fairfax Media, and they are published as Fairfax/Ipsos polls – of the Fairfax newspapers, I go to the AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW because it includes geographic breakdowns.  And another long-running polling entity, Roy Morgan Research, used to publish its findings in print but now only publishes on electronic pages, with some geographic breakdowns in its findings.

As such, the most recent opportunity to compare findings with geographic breakdowns was in June this year.  And the Newspoll and Fairfax/Ipsos and Morgan findings made for interesting reading.  My focus for the moment is on the two-party-preferred vote, meaning whether voters ultimately prefer Labor or the Coalition, especially if their first choice for voting isn’t either Labor or the Coalition.  The findings of all pollsters in June showed a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor, thus implying an easy Labor at the next Federal election.

In the House of Representatives, where governments are formed, there are 150 seats.  The Coalition governs with a 90-55 lead over Labor, with a quintet of crossbenchers also there.  In that quintet are Adam Bandt of the Greens, Bob Katter and Clive Palmer of political parties respectively bearing their surnames, and Independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie.

Based on the results of the last election, a swing of about 3.1 per cent to Labor would cost the Coalition its majority, but Labor needs a swing of about 4.3 per cent its way to win with a majority – I refer to having a majority because this means being able to govern without the need for support from the Greens or Independents or anyone else, and the memory of the minority Labor Government from 2010 to 2013 is still fresh in many people’s minds, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Within or under the predicted swing 6-7 per cent to Labor, as per the polls’ findings, there are thirty-one Coalition seats across the country.  New South Wales and Queensland have ten seats apiece, Victoria has four seats, Tasmania has three seats, Western Australia has two seats, and South Australia and the Northern Territory have one seat apiece.  Going back to the needed swing of 4.3 per cent to Labor, NSW and Victoria would both shed one seat less, but Queensland would shed six seats less, while WA would see no Coalition seats lost.

However, at election time, swings aren’t always uniform, and often seats within range of the predicted swing actually don’t fall.  And sometimes there are varying factors in each state or region.

For example, the Morgan findings actually showed a swing to the Coalition in Tasmania, with no seats lost there.  The Newspoll and Fairfax/Ipsos findings showed a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor in Victoria, but the Morgan findings showed a swing of only 2-3 per cent to Labor and hence no seats lost there.  The Newspoll findings showed a swing of 8-9 per cent to Labor in WA, but the other polls’ findings showed a much larger swing and more seats lost there.  And while the Newspoll and Morgan findings both showed figures implying a loss of thirty-one seats for the Coalition, as would occur in a uniform swing, the Fairfax/Ipsos findings seemed to show fewer seats lost.

These findings show why more value appears in polls with geographic breakdowns, although they don’t happen very often.  But publishing them more often mightn’t be ideal, given how bored people seem with them nowadays.

Rocky road confronting the Greens

19 July 2015

Victoria looks like becoming the new power base for the Greens.  Their vote has seemed better there than in any other states, except perhaps Tasmania, and having won several Federal and State seats in Victoria in recent elections, it won’t surprise me if their centre of power ends up there.  But the road ahead for the Greens, now led by Senator Richard Di Natale of Victoria, looks rocky.

People have long thought of Tasmania as the home of the Greens, at least when former Senator Bob Brown was leader.  Brown was for years a State MP in Tasmania before he was elected to the Senate in 1996.  But before his election to the Senate, two other Greens were already there, namely Christabel Chamarette and Dee Margetts, both of Western Australia.  At the same time of Brown’s election, however, Chamarette lost her seat, while Margetts lost her seat a few years later.

The Greens actually didn’t seem entirely unified in those days.  Despite fielding candidates nationwide, past election results show that they sometimes ran under state-based banners, until about 2004.  Indeed the Greens from WA had won their Senate seats under state banners, while Brown was originally elected as a “Tasmanian Green”.  After Chamarette and Margetts departed, Brown was the only Green in the Senate for a few years.  He held his seat at two further elections, and more Greens joined him in the Senate over time.

I should point at this point that not all Senators face the voters at election time, because of how Federal Parliament has been constituted.  Usually when general elections are called, they include what are known as half-Senate elections, although this term might confuse people.  The reason is that, while there are seventy-six Senators made up of twelve from each state and two from each territory, the territories didn’t have Senate representation until many decades after Federal Parliament first opened – only the states had Senate seats, and as only of half of those seats would usually go up for grabs at election time, the term “half-Senate election” was accurate.  Although not entirely accurate now, given that the territories now have Senate seats, of which all rather than half go up for grabs at election time like seats in the House of Representatives, the description of a half-Senate election has survived.  For decades it was also common for half-Senate elections to be held separately from House elections, but this hasn’t happened for a few decades.

Only in certain circumstances, such as the refusal of the Senate to pass pieces of legislation more than once, can the Prime Minister of the day call an election whereby all Senate seats go up for grabs – this is referred to as a double-dissolution election.  It’s rare for double-dissolution elections to happen, the last of these to have been in 1987.

This means that, unless Prime Minister Tony Abbott is so fed up with his inability to get the Senate to pass legislation that he calls a double-dissolution, we can expect a half-Senate election as part of the next general election, due in late 2016.  But those Senators elected at the last election, in 2013, won’t face the voters this time – they’ll do so at the election after next, due in about 2019.

To assess how the Greens might go, it’s worth noting their record at past elections.  Using the election of Brown to the Senate in 1996 as a starting point, there have been six elections.  They were in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013.  After winning a seat in 1996, Brown next faced the voters in 2001 and then 2007, before resigning in 2012, with Peter Whish-Wilson replacing him and facing the voters in 2013.  Another Green won a seat along with Brown in 2001, and two more Greens won seats in 2004, by which time the Greens in WA were now competing under the national banner with their counterparts in other states.  After winning three seats in 2007, the Greens hit their peak with six seats in 2010, and despite a falling in their vote they won four Senate seats in 2013, giving them their current total of ten.  They also won the seat of Melbourne in the House of Reps in 2010 and held in 2013.

Those Greens elected to the Senate in 2010 will face the voters at the next election, unless it’s a double-dissolution election.  Because 2010 was their peak, a fall in their vote might cost them seats, but their vote in several states has been reasonably strong.  They’ve polled double-digit percentages of the vote in Tasmania since 2001, twice well above the required 14.3 per cent of the vote to win a Senate seat in any state without needing preferences, and they also got above 14.3 per cent of the vote in Victoria in 2010, while in other states they’ve either come close to or gone above double-digit figures a few times.  Indeed Di Natale was the Victorian Senator elected in 2010, while Tasmanian Senator Christine Milne also got a high vote and led the Greens for a few years after Brown departed.

Attitudes to the Greens may have changed over the years.  But I suspect that their vote will strong enough, despite the rocky road confronting them.  Not many Greens will be lost from the Senate in the foreseeable future.