Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Poll Roundup: The End Of Newspoll (As We Know It)

2PP Aggregate: 52.3 to ALP (-0.6 since last week, closest for nearly half a year)
Labor would win election held "right now" with small to moderate majority

There is major news in Australian opinion polling this week with the announcement that the joint venture company that owns Newspoll is to be wound up.  The joint venture's shareholders, News Corp and Millward Brown, are pulling the plug because the business is considered "unsustainable".

Newspoll will continue as a brand, but the surveys released under that brand will soon start being conducted by Galaxy.  This is a kind of full circle, since Galaxy's Managing Director David Briggs was General Manager of Newspoll from its inception in October 1985 until April 2004.

What we know so far is that Newspoll will continue to be released about as frequently as now, but how much the new version (which it is tempting to nickname either Galapoll or Newsaxy) will differ in survey design - if at all - is as yet unclear.  I very much hope it will continue asking the same regular questions with the same wording, for the purposes of historical comparison.  However, William Bowe in today's Crikey email has reported that the "telephone component" of the new offering will be conducted by robopolling, suggesting also that there will be a non-telephone component. [Edit: confirmed, online as per current Galaxy federal polling - see comments.] It looks like we are set for not just new management of the Newspoll brand but also fundamentally new methods, such that it should be treated as a new poll.

I suspect that we'll be seeing both less poll-to-poll bouncing and less inflated third-party figures from the new venture, in line with other recent Galaxy polling.  If this leads to less public commentary being based off what are often random-noise movements in a single poll, that will be a good thing.  But what is coming represents a definite and unfortunate loss in polling diversity, and means that we will no longer have a single long-established and regularly-polling live-interviewer phone-poll series.

This week's polls

An update was posted last week (Silly Lefties Oppose Senate Reform) and since then we've had three new polls, from Newspoll, Essential and Morgan.

The last five consecutive Newspolls (2PPs for Labor 57-53-55-51-51) had all appeared slightly off beam in varying directions, though the 53 started to look more plausible in hindsight.  This week Newspoll came out with a very mainstream 52:48 to Labor off primaries of 39 Coalition, 35 Labor, 12 Green and 14 Other.  The primaries, however, are again extremely high for Greens and Others combined compared to other pollsters.

Morgan showed a one-point gain to the Coalition on last-election preferences (now 53:47) though the respondent-allocated preferences moved half a point in Labor's favour (to 53.5) after an apparently odd preference sample last time.  Adjusted for house effect and the primary votes, this went into my aggregate as just 51.3 to ALP, down one from last time.

Essential put a slight damper on the Coalition's progress with an unchanged 53:47.  Usefully for interpreting possible causes of any apparent change in other polls, Essential finds very little trust for the government's handling of international relations,  negligible improvement in Australia's handling of relations with Indonesia, and a split response with negligible difference by party to proposals for action against Indonesia following the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.  I would suspect from that that the handling of the executions had little impact on voting intention in Australia.

Overall my aggregate moved .6 of a point back to 52.3 to ALP, wiping out Labor's minor gains of the past few weeks (which may have just been sample noise anyway).  While there are weekly movements up and down, my smoothed tracking graph continues to depict the last few months as a whole lot of not much going on:

Leaderships: Abbott Recovery Continues

Newspoll's approval ratings showed continuing improvement for Prime Minister Tony Abbott.  While Abbott is still unpopular, his netsat of -19 was his highest for five and a half months and his satisfaction rating of 37 was his highest for six months.  Abbott's satisfaction rating was higher than Bill Shorten's (34) for the first time in six and a half months.  Abbott was tied as "better Prime Minister" - an indicator that skews to incumbents - with Shorten (38-38), the first time he has not been behind in Newspoll's measure for six months.  (Morgan had him ahead in their most recent phone survey.)

The three-point netsat gap between Abbott and Bill Shorten (-16) was the closest it has been for thirteen months, since before the now infamous 2014 Budget.  (Shorten's rating was his second worst so far after the -18 three weeks ago).

In all Abbott has now recovered 25 netsat points over the course of the past five Newspolls, and 24 points over the past four.  It is not at all unusual for Prime Ministers to become unpopular and then recover by this amount; in the last 18 parliamentary terms, there are 15 cases in which a specific Prime Minister had their netsat fall to below -10 at least once in the term.  (This includes two different Prime Ministers doing so in both the 1990-93 and 2010-13 terms).  In eight of the previous 14 cases, the Prime Minister was able to gain at least 25 points at some point after their worst net rating slump.  Furthermore two of the six cases in which they did not do so involved Kevin Rudd, who was twice removed from office (once by his party, once by the people) within weeks of recording bad personal ratings.

So given that Abbott survived moves against him earlier this year without being immediately removed, this level of recovery is normal.  But what is more interesting is the speed of it.  Abbott's 24-point gain over the last four polls - albeit from a very low base - is one of the largest quick gains on Newspoll's record:

Large PM netsat gains in 10 weeks or less. Excludes bounces for election victory.  In cases of multiple overlapping gains the largest is shown.
Abbott as Opposition Leader also recorded larger gains than nearly all other Opposition Leaders who have become very unpopular, although it helped that his party's continual lead in polling dissuaded the Coalition from giving him the boot when his ratings were bad.

Early Election Speculation

Recently an early election scenario has been floated by some in the Coalition using the common device of unnamed sources "backgrounding" journalists.  The theory behind it is that following a "boring" budget that is well received by voters in relief that it is harmless, the Coalition at least maintains its current polling position or ideally receives a small bounce, passes Senate reform and forces a double-dissolution that (even with the reduced double-dissolution quota) cleans out most of the crossbenchers. The theory then is that the Coalition would gain ground during the campaign, as it fairly often does historically, and win.  It is doubtful that anyone is all that serious about this concept yet, as opposed to merely testing the water.

One historical comment on this came from Phillip Hudson who suggested that recent PMs who do not go to early elections after their first election wins have been removed or lose - pointing to Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Howard all going relatively early while Gillard, Keating and Rudd did not.  The relevance of most of these examples to the situation now can be questioned since Fraser and Hawke went to the polls in strong polling positions while Gillard and Keating were not newly elected from Opposition, were generally trailing badly, and lacked the excuse of needing to clean out a leftover Senate.  But Rudd certainly should have forced a double dissolution while he had the chance, and Whitlam and Howard were both rewarded for a degree of courage in going to the people for their first re-election attempts while in shaky polling positions.  It is difficult to apply such history to Abbott while his position remains worse than that of any PM who has gone to an early election, and the number of meaningful precedents is trivially small anyway.

Pretty much everyone commenting on this has noticed the obvious benefit of going early for Abbott personally: it takes leadership change out of the equation.  If Abbott remains for the rest of the year and the Coalition continues to trail, there is a high chance that sooner or later something will cause a third serious blowout against the Coalition, at a convenient time to remove him and give a new PM a year or so to become established.  Indeed it was largely that - and the uniformly bad history of leaders who have faced a spill - that I had in mind when I thought Abbott was on the way out after the Queensland election defeat.  He has recovered more quickly than previous PMs who were being circled by the sharks, so a novel window of opportunity to avoid the usual doom spiral of a troubled leadership might just be there.

However, the first complication in all this is whether Senate reform, which needs the support of either Labor or the Greens, will pass.  Despite both parties' representatives signing off on nearly all the JSCEM recommendations, things may get tricky if it seems obvious that Abbott is timing reform so that he can go to an early election.

The Coalition should also be concerned - at this stage - about the durability of Labor's lead.  When Howard went to the polls early(-ish) in 1998 he knew that his government had the ability to recover from bad polling to a position that was roughly equal, as this had already happened once.  Abbott's government, however, has now trailed for almost a year and a half, and is still yet to show that ability.

Labor's Marriage Equality Moves

There has also been much interest in Labor's handling of the same-sex marriage issue after deputy leader Tanya Plibersek called for the abolition of the party's current policy of a conscience vote on the issue.  This has been interpreted as an attack on leader Bill Shorten (who supports same-sex marriage but favours keeping a conscience vote) and a possible leadership push.  I believe this interpretation is wrong (though there might be a stake in the ground for a ballot after the next election if Labor loses), and that the real game here is trying to do something (anything!) about the increasing pressures on the ALP vote in inner-city Greens electorates.

What is interesting is that this push has been followed by a small number of Labor MPs switching to support same-sex marriage, having previously voted against it.  Even if what we are seeing is not actually the road to a mandated vote in favour of same-sex marriage at the party conference in July, the debate may be a path to pressure for steadily reduced opposition within Labor, and just perhaps to the reform passing in the next parliament should the next election be at least close. However, continued division over the issue will only shine more of a spotlight on the internal resistance from Joe de Bruyn and other Shoppies leaders, kowtowing to or even tolerating whom won't do Labor's inner-city cred a lot of good at all.  My suspicion is that very few MPs would in fact cross the floor if the price of doing so was expulsion from the party, but that there will be a lot of nervousness about any form of disunity that might be seen to give the Government ammunition.

(As noted before, I add the disclaimer that I very strongly support national marriage equality and consider all the "arguments" against it to be ludicrously bad.)

We are coming up to the release of a new Budget and I would expect an increase in the density of polls in coming weeks.


  1. "However, William Bowe in today's Crikey email has reported that the "telephone component" of the new offering will be conducted by robopolling, suggesting also that there will be a non-telephone component."

    Evidently I should have made this clearer, but the non-phone component, as per Galaxy's existing federal polling, will be online.

    1. Thanks William. Suspected that would be the case.