It will be very nice indeed in the event of a Rudd victory to read the papers reporting about what the government is actually doing, policy-wise, rather than an endless succession of stories and non-stories about polls and the horse race.
It’s certainly been the year of the poll, and in the closing stages of the campaign, almost all observers but the most recalcitrant have finally caught up to the fact that they’ve been telling us something for a long time.
But not all. Take the Adelaide Sunday Mail’s leader writer, for instance:
That Prime Minister John Howard’s Government stands this morning under threat is a mystery.
Tony Abbott seems to think so too – and I suspect that he’s not alone in his total disbelief that the electorate might be about to dispense with the services of its rightful masters. Only the last Minister brave or foolhardy enough to say so in public.
It’s intriguing to note that commentators this year have almost unanimously expressed surprise or puzzlement at the “it’s time” factor in the polls. The electorate must be bored, or something, or we’d have seen the baseball bats. How can this be when the Dear Leader still retains public esteem?
The answer may lie in what the polls aren’t asking.
Sydney Uni Politics Professor Rod Tiffen makes this case in an interesting piece in Australian Policy Online:
In the current election, the pollsters’ standard arsenal of questions has a particularly profound ring of irrelevance. None of the polls seems to give any insight into why such a crucially large section of the electorate seems to have turned its back on the government, and seems immune to all its blandishments. None of the questions they ask seems to capture key elements: whether there is an “it’s time” factor, whether people no longer trust the government, whether people are simply sick of the key personalities. The pollsters do not seem capable of coming up with new questions or approaches that give a sense of the dynamics of the swing to Labor.
Tiffen argues that few of the questions asked properly relate shifts in public attitudes to voting intention, or measure how important particular issues might be. This goes a long way to explaining why we’ve been treated to various numbers being anointed as “leading indicators” and shaky hypotheses built on the basis of irrelevant shifts and misunderstood historical parallels.
Elections, as George W. Bush famously said, are “accountability moments”.
By this stage of the game, there should be no surprises in why a lead on “economic management” runs up against the reality of the lived economy. But I haven’t seen any commentators attempt to explain why the “it’s time” factor occurs – it’s not just “boredom” but it’s a way governments are finally held to account.
The increasing arrogance of the Howard government – exemplified by Mark Vaile’s recent shenanigans – should provide a clue. We may well be constantly told, in hectoring tones, by the commentariat that scandals like AWB, Children Overboard and Haneef are “elite issues” for the “political class”. But given that the Latham effect swamped Howard’s lousy record on “trust” in 2004, it may well be the case that years of bluster, incompetence and a born to rule attitude are finally coming back to haunt the Coalition.
But you’d never know that from the polls – because they’re asking the electorate the wrong questions.