We need to get over our poll addiction
Australia really needs to do something about its addiction to opinion polls.
The week following the election, just like the weeks that led up to it, was dominated by polls.
First came the local ones in the rural Independents’ electorates, which some interpreted as a new set of riding instructions to Messrs Katter, Windsor and Oakeshott.
And then there was one which showed that 1 in 10 people questioned would have voted differently if they’d known there’d be a hung parliament.
Very helpful. But what if half of them changed their mind one way, and the other half went in the opposite direction? Back to square one.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have just had an opinion poll – one with the biggest base and lowest sampling error possible – and it came out even. Which part of that did you not understand?
No amount of polling is going to change the reality, that the vote in the General Election was pretty well fifty-fifty, and that the number of seats in the House of Representatives reflects that.
That means we just have two choices: to work with what we’ve got, or do it all again.
Despite the conspiracy theories, I think we should discount the idea that either of the major parties secretly wants to go back to the people.
They are all exhausted, and perhaps more importantly their coffers are depleted. Neither has a war-chest big enough to go back on the road again with a full campaign now, and neither could guarantee the result if they did (Most of the media organisations that follow them, incidentally, would like a break as well,; elections cost a fortune to cover).
That leaves us with option (a): working with what we’ve got, and the resulting uncertainty is what’s making a lot of people anxious.
Part of the problem is our tendency to believe that what is, is the same as what has always been.
We happen, in Australia, to have had well over half a century of government by parties which have been able to hold together and form solid majorities.
So we think that that is the natural order of things.
It’s not – not in the rest of the world, and not in the history of democracy.
Covering Europe for the ABC intermittently over two decades, I was constantly made aware that very few governments work the way ours have tended to, and yet most western European countries were stable and consistent democracies.
I lived in Belgium for a while, a country in which politics is always divided by ethnicity and language as well as ideology. The result is a series of patchwork governments, and sometimes no government at all for months on end. Belgium did not – does not – collapse into anarchy or ethnic bloodshed.
In Italy, too, the so-called ‘revolving door’ governments which ran the place from 1945 until the 1990s were actually nothing of the kind – they were more like a single government, in which the alliances happened to shift a little every year or so. The personnel changed, but government itself continued, and as Malcolm Fraser pointed out on Q and A this week, Italy became a European design and technology powerhouse on the strength of it.
Ah, you say, but those countries have different traditions, including proportional representation; they’re not like us, with our distinct inheritance from the Westminster system.
But that’s a fallacy too. There’s nothing in the Westminster system that dictates the division of the lower House into two parties. It’s a creation of time and convenience.
At the time Australia was being founded and settled by Britain, the Parliament at Westminster was a far more motley and shifting assembly than most would imagine.
Through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the era’s most successful Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, actually called himself an Independent Whig, and disapproved of the party system.
His method was to lead by policy, and to get his votes through (though often opposed even by some of his own Ministers) by persuasion and deal-making, not by solidarity and the use of the Party Whips.
MPs of the time like Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke were resolutely against any constraints on the MP’s conscience, and Burke formulated this in its purest expression by telling his own voters that they had no right to instruct him how to vote:
It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But, his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
By this standard, (and I’m told that Rob Oakeshott, at least, has been known to quote from this speech), the Independents’ role is clear: to do what they think is best, at the time and on the facts.
Burke’s description of what Parliament ought to be may well give us the picture of the Parliament that’s about to govern us.
Parliament is not a Congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an Agent and Advocate, against other Agents and Advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative Assembly of one Nation, with one Interest, that of the whole; where, not local Purposes, not local Prejudices ought to guide, but the general Good, resulting from the general Reason of the whole. You chuse a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament.
This is, of course, a sort of Platonic ideal of Parliament, which conveniently skates over factors like sectional interests, personal enmity and ideology.
Is it too starry-eyed, though, to imagine that, for a few years at least, the Independents could force our Parliament to consider issues on their merits , in the national interest, and according to their conscience? To some extent, every MP should be an Independent. Focus groups are not a substitute for focussed thinking.
If it doesn’t work, then in three years’ time we can get rid of this lot and start again.
But in the meantime, Australia, please stop fidgeting and worrying about the opinion polls.
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