Polls and kaleidoscopes

Just as the polls early this week showed Labor clearly ahead (supposedly to an extent exceeding margin of error), so the ones released at the end of the week show the Coalition ahead by similar decisive margins. Bryan Palmer covers the latest polls here.

Does public voting sentiment really oscillate this rapidly and decisively? I severely doubt it, especially when nothing obvious had happened last week to cause people to move strongly towards Labor, and nothing has occurred this week to make them decisively choose Howard. Of course, it’s conceivable that the latest polls reveal some undecided voters making up their minds a bit earlier than expected and opting for the devil they know. But that doesn’t seem likely unless they’re AFL-phobics who’ve been forced to think about politics to avoid ubiquitous discussion of the aerial ping pong grand final.

It’s more likely that these wild polling fluctuations reflect a public that not only hasn’t made up its mind but is massively uninspired and isn’t paying attention to the politicians’ messages in the slightest. They merely respond to the pollsters’ questions with the first thought that pops into their heads, so they can get the irritating turd off the phone and go back to dinner or the tele or the DVD they just rented.

That disengaged, uninspired psychology rather coincides with my own state of mind, even though I pay much closer attention than the average punter (if only so I can think of something to write on the blog). Currency Lad encapsulated the campaign mood so far:

When the Prime Minister called the election for 9 October I thought we would probably see what would amount to the great Cancel Out Campaign of 2004. ‘Nothing Really Matters’ was one description that came to mind. One party would announce an expensive fix-all policy that would be so complex and politically contested as to influence no-one, in and of itself. Then the other party would counter with an initiative of its own, no less complex and no more electorally penetrative.

Yes, that describes the give and take of most campaigns in any era. Not infrequently, however, past elections have risen to some crescendo or critical mass. The difference with this campaign – and I include the pre-Yarralumla phoney-war phase – is that everything – debates, indiscretions, policies, backflips – is washed up and out of political discourse over the course of no more than a few news cycles. Remember Mike Scrafton, the Dirt Units, Tim Howard’s spam, the 54 (or was it 45?) doctors and their condemnatory letter on Iraq, the worm, Pauline, preference deals? They’re irrelevant already. Next week no-one will be talking about pre-emption or branch-stacking or Tony Windsor.

Of course, the campaign intensity will lift once this weekend’s AFL denouement is complete (I’d like to see Port win their first flag, although I wouldn’t mind at all if the Lions enter the history books and make it four in a row). The parties will blitz us with a much greater intensity of political advertising in a bid to “cut through” once voters are more focused on their almost-imminent choice, and I imagine both still have a couple of policy announcements up their sleeves to put a positive counterpoint to the slagging. But is it likely to make any real difference to the overall confusing kaleidoscopic impression the campaign period has generated to date? I doubt it. In fact the ad blitz is likely to make the whirl and confusion even worse. The undecideds will still make up their minds on whether they’re reassured enough to desert the tired, tawdry but safe Howard and risk a real but not-very-exciting-sounding change with Latham (the direction and nature which isn’t at all clear to them), or stick with the devil-you-know-in-prosperous-but-dangerous-times. Although I continue to live in uninspired, hesitant hope of the former, my head still tells me the latter is much more probable.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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