Thursday, April 6, 2023

Voice Referendum Polling: Yes Is Well Ahead But It Is Getting Closer

I've been meaning for some time to put up an article about the already very often polled issue that is the upcoming Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum, not so much to talk about results of specific polls but to cover general issues that are important in framing discussion of the polling and the outlook for the first referendum since 1999.  Following the release of the question wording and the Coalition's announcement that it will support a No vote to the current wording, now seems as good a time as any (the truth being up til now I simply haven't had the time!)

Some basics: referendums in Australia have a well-known record of mostly failing (8 successes out of 44) but as noted by Peter Brent the record is even worse if introduced by Labor (1 out of 25).  Referendums introduced mid-term are especially prone to being treated like by-elections and thus drubbed.  A mid-term referendum introduced by Labor and lacking bipartisan support is historically the kind of horse whose prospects are summarised in form guides with the word "No."  Can the Voice referendum defy these odds?  

A general trend in polling of referendum-type measures is underestimation of the No vote in final polls, and we saw this most recently here with the same sex marriage postal survey.  But not only can final polls underestimate the No vote, it is also the case that support for referendum measures can decline, sometimes very dramatically, over the course of the debate.

There are a few reasons for optimism that the Yes case might buck the historic trend.  Firstly, partisanship is declining; the Coalition's opposition speaks to a voter base that was barely over a third at the election and is probably not over a third now, whereas once upon a time it was closer to half. Voters are also less inclined to let even the parties they vote for tell them what to do (as is seen with how-to-vote card rates).  The Coalition is in sorry condition at the moment, having been trounced in the Aston by-election and with internal division over its position on this issue; it may be that fewer people are listening to it and that general goodwill can carry the government across the line if the Albanese government continues its long polling honeymoon.

The second reason which I think could be the more significant one (or not) is that this referendum is different.  Unlike measures to change the electoral cycle from three years to four, or break the House-Senate nexus, or put local government in the Constitution, it concerns an emotive politically-charged subject that many left-of-centre (and a few right-of-centre) voters will have strong attachments to.  A barrier for the No campaign, that No campaigns on other referendums mostly won't have faced, is the perception that opposing the Voice is racist or at least an act of callous indifference to the plight of Indigenous Australians.  So far, polling does not suggest all that many Yes voters are a firm Yes (around half), but it will be interesting to see how the No campaign goes with trying to drag another several percent of currently intending Yes voters into the No camp.  

While polling at this very early stage is not likely to be predictive of the result, I think it is useful to look at its general properties.

One important thing to take into account here is that some polls are presenting answers in a yes/no format, either as a result of employing a forced-choice question or as a result of redistributing the undecided.  Other polls including Newspoll are releasing raw results including a figure for undecided.  The graphic on the Wikipedia page devoted to this issue lumps the Yes/No polls and the Yes/No/Undecided polls, as a result of which its current estimates sum to 110%.  The graph shows Yes as being relatively stable, but what has happened in recent months is that the sample space has been increasingly dominated by Yes/No polls, and this is creating a false appearance of stasis in the Yes vote.  On a two-answer preferred basis, what is going on is different. (The graphic is also missing the February JWS which had Yes on only 42% to 28% for No.)

The following is my graph of all the results I am aware of on a two-answer preferred basis, since the 2022 election, except for two Australia Institute results which I excluded for skewed wording*.  (Most of the poll data are compiled on Wikipedia and I don't propose to reproduce that service here.)

The polls are colour-coded:

Red - Newspoll, Orange - YouGov, Magenta - Resolve, Yellow - Essential, Dark blue - JWS, Light blue - Freshwater, Black - Morgan.  

It's very rare for me to use a polynomial for a trend line but in this case a straight line didn't do a good job of capturing what seems to have been a faster rate of decline since the start of this year.  All of the poll series that have polled more than once clearly support the trend of decline with the exception of Newspoll, which is consistent with it.  

It is notable that Newspoll, which has had lower two-answer Yes values than other polls, has polled only in the last few months of the above polling period.  However its Yes values are no different on a two-answer basis to polls surrounding it.  There are various things that could be said about the question and answer methods of the various polls but in the absence of evidence of strong house effects from anyone, I think I'll leave that til another time.

It may turn out that this referendum is different for the reasons noted above, or that this downhill trend will soon stabilise.  For the time being Yes is perhaps 58-42 ahead, having lost almost half its lead since August.  This is still a healthy lead on paper but in a form of polling that tends to overestimate Yes on a two-answer basis and with a very long way to go.  Given the historic fragility of such leads, I think that people who are predicting the impending doom of the Liberal Party off its currently out of touch opposition to a popular position ought to check back in a few months and see how things are going then.

The Yes position's case is obvious.  For the No position the challenges are to license as many voters as possible to vote No by making a No vote widely acceptable, such that it ceases to attract the stigma of racism.  Attempts will come in two main forms: that one supports action but not this particular action because it is too radical or has unintended defects (an unconvincing position from the Coalition specifically since it did nothing to legislate a Voice in office).  Secondly, in a (at this stage) minor echo of the "direct election" No campaign in the 1999 Republic vote, there will be Lidia Thorpe style objections that the Voice is tokenism that could even obstruct more radical change (these may well be appropriated by some of the less sincere actors on the right.)

State breakdowns

State breakdowns are important for this referendum since Yes needs to win not only nationally but also in at least four states.  The recent Newspoll aggregate over the past two and a bit months and based on over 4700 responses found Yes ahead of No in every state and above 50% on a Yes/No/Undecided basis in every state bar Queensland.  Morgan's poll in December had the same broad outcome.  Queensland was widely misreported as a No in the Newspoll sample, though any state with Yes below 50% even while leading must be considered unreliable given the history of such things.  

I'll be following this subject again from time to time through the year, especially if we continue to see such a good volume of polling.  


* The Australia Institute's question is "The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) peoples. This would require a referendum to set up a representative First Nations body to advise the Parliament on laws and policies affecting First Nations peoples. In a referendum, would you vote to support or oppose including a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the constitution?"  The opening sentence is an argument for supporting the referendum and also an argument from conformity and obedience; there are no arguments against so I dismiss the question as skewed.


  1. I could see the referendum failing in Queensland and at a stretch Tasmania, however with the support of State Parties it should get over the line in a majority of states.

  2. The opening sentence of the Australia Institute's question is a factual statement of the background, essential to understanding why the government has proposed the amendment in the particular form that it has done.

    1. No it absolutely isn't essential for polling purposes. It is perfectly possible for a person to support or oppose the Voice - and even to express that view in the referendum - without having any awareness that the Uluru Statement From The Heart exists or what said statement is (indeed even after seeing this preamble the respondent still does not necessarily know that). The purpose of primary polling on the question is to sample opinions in the community based on whatever level of knowledge that people have at the time they are polled. Causing the respondent to understand the background is itself distorting because many respondents will not understand the background. When a preamble gives the voter extra information - even if it is not an argument for one side - it distorts the sample into one that is not representative of the community being polled. There is nothing wrong with attempting to measure how opinions change when people are exposed to arguments for or against or to relevant information but that poll did not do this.