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Lies and statistics
May 8 2004
Feedback Peter Brent

Next Wednesday morning, Treasurer Peter Costello and colleagues hit the airwaves to sell their budget. Some time will surely be spent with that squabbling pair of Sydney egos, Alan Jones and John Laws.

Call it influence or power, these two have it, or are believed to, by politicians of all persuasions. But is it real? This is, of course, impossible to quantify. But not so an assertion made several years ago by Melbourne businessman Michael Kroger, which became accepted wisdom. In October 1998, after John Howard's first re-election, the former Victorian Liberal Party president told the ABC's Lateline that the result had hinged on his friend, Alan Jones.

Kroger explained that, unlike Laws, Jones was overtly political when wielding his influence. In particular, he had delivered those crucial western Sydney seats to the Liberal-National coalition.

Does this sound feasible? It's certainly in keeping with perceived wisdom that the former Labor heartland is awash with unprecedented Liberal blue.

But the numbers didn't add up. At the 1998 federal election, Labor won 67 House of Representatives seats, the coalition 80, and one Independent was elected. Six fewer electorates for the Howard government, therefore, would have meant a hung parliament.

Did western Sydney decide the election? Well, if you took a map of the city and drew a line from Sydney's Town Hall out west to Penrith, down to Campbelltown and back in to the CBD again, your triangle would wholly or partly include 18 seats, which might conceivably be called western Sydney. That number is certainly enough to swing most elections.

However, after the 1998 election, the Labor Party held 14 of them (as it does today), and the four Liberal electorates couldn't make the difference between victory and defeat. Therefore western Sydney - with or without Jones - didn't decide that election.

Of course, Jones (who has since switched radio stations) broadcasts to greater Sydney, which, if we include semi-rural surroundings, contains 29 electorates. Fifteen are Liberal, but can Jones really take credit? Jones usually tops his time slot with a rating of about 15per cent, which means that 85per cent are tuned in to someone else. In addition, his fans are believed to be concentrated in the "Struggle Street" areas of western Sydney which, as we have seen, are not important electorally.

Laws is a slightly different story, with a smaller Sydney audience but syndicated nationwide. With most important seats being outside the capital cities (of the 19 government-held electorates with margins less than 5per cent, the Australian Electoral Commission classifies just seven as metropolitan), his reach might be more effective, particularly in the regions.

But it remains to be shown that broadcasters really change opinions, let alone votes. In reality, it's a complex equation, with reinforcement flowing both ways. Still, politicians don't like taking chances. That's why they'll be spruiking with Jones and Laws next week.

Peter Brent is editor of mumble.com.au.

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