24/02/2017 - 11:37

There’s only one poll that counts

24/02/2017 - 11:37

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OPINION: The polls appear to be tightening ahead of next month’s election, with renewed interest also in which minor parties may hold the balance of power.

Labor is promising to revive manufacturing by building rail cars in WA. Photo: Attila Csaszar

OPINION: The polls appear to be tightening ahead of next month’s election, with renewed interest also in which minor parties may hold the balance of power.

Opinion polls on voting intentions during election campaigns can have a significant impact on party morale. Morale rises if the results are good, and falls away if they are disappointing.

Polls also provide traps for leaders. When the results are favourable, it never pays to be too overconfident if asked to comment. ‘We must continue to work hard. We can’t take anything for granted’ is the considered response of a practised candidate.

There is not much room for a leader to move when polling is poor. Any temptation to throw doubt on the accuracy of the poll invites a strong response from the body that commissioned it. These days that is generally the media.

As former premier Richard Court once noted after declining to comment on a very critical headline, ‘the newspaper always has the last word’.

So the reaction is often bland: ‘There is only one poll that counts, and that’s on election day’, has been used more than once.

The recent ReachTEL poll published in The West Australian raised eyebrows when it had the Liberal and Labor parties running 50:50 after voting intentions were distributed on a two-party preferred basis. This is when the pollster takes the percentage of votes for other parties and distributes their notional preferences.

And Premier Colin Barnett had improved support as preferred premier, although he continued to trail Labor’s Mark McGowan.

The poll gave the Liberal campaign a much-needed shot in the arm. A Newspoll, published in The Australian newspaper earlier in February and showing that Labor had opened up a comfortable 54:46 two-party preferred lead, had shaken confidence in Liberal ranks. Such margins are hard to peg back, even in a five-week campaign.

Also disturbing for Liberal supporters was a judicious leak of internal polling showing a 14 per cent drop in voter support compared with the high-water mark vote in the 2013 state election – an election when everything broke the party’s way.

If the internal polling figures were repeated at the election, Labor would be swept in to power and Mr McGowan would be the new premier.

Leaking unfavourable polling is often a ploy by the governing party to try and jolt complacent supporters who may be thinking of lodging a protest vote for the other side to think again.

The major parties have now held their set piece campaign launches to rev up the party faithful for the closing weeks of the campaign, at the same time as thousands of electors take advantage of a more relaxed approach to early voting, which opened on February 20. Now, there is no need to invent or create a reason for voting early.

Both major parties will push positive and negative issues in the remaining weeks.

The positive column is headed by the parties’ proposals for job creation, with the latest figures showing Western Australia’s unemployment at 6.5 per cent, the worst in the nation.

Labor has produced a detailed job creation policy, which includes plans to revive manufacturing through, among other things, encouraging the revival of rail car manufacturing. It’s a noble goal, providing taxpayers can be assured they will get value for money rather, than just appeasing the union movement.

The Liberals are taking a different approach. While both sides will promote apprenticeships and training, they also see great potential in tourism. And the Liberals are promising a modest $50,000 lift in the payroll tax-free threshold to encourage small business to take on workers.

Both sides have an Achilles heel.

Labor’s is its big spending promises – where’s the money coming from? For the Liberals, it’s their stewardship of the state’s finances, led by record budget deficits and state debt, and the controversy over privatisation.

One issue that has received little attention is the final composition of the 36-seat Legislative Council. Just as in the federal Senate, neither the Liberals nor Labor can expect a majority in the upper house. And the Nationals haven’t always backed their governing partners.

The Greens, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers or even the Fluoride Free Party could hold the balance of power.

Predicting that result is impossible. But remember, there’s only one poll that counts.


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