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Lies and statistics
September 17 2005
Feedback Peter Brent

Satisfying the public does not necessarily translate into winning elections, writes Peter Brent. 

It's almost eight months since Mark Latham resigned the Labor leadership, and since then Kim Beazley has returned his party to opinion poll respectability. The last two Newspolls, for example, had Labor ahead of the coalition after preferences. But satisfaction with Beazley's performance has slumped below his predecessor's. Does that matter? 

Newspoll's online archives contain some 440 sets of federal readings, beginning in late 1985. If we count the recycled John Howard and Beazley twice each, the data covers nine opposition leaders. If you subtract a dissatisfaction rating from a satisfaction rating you get what might be called net satisfaction, which we'll call netsat. Beazley's first netsat early this February was 18, and last weekend it was -9, which means more Australians are now dissatisfied than satisfied with his performance. Average netsats (avnetsat) have been calculated for each opposition leader; Beazley's this year, for example, is 6. 

Can we find a correlation between avnetsat and eventual electoral success? Howard I, that is the first (unsuccessful) stint as opposition leader 1985-1989, had the second worst score, -23, and suffered in 1987 the second-worst election result of the group. And Howard II (1995-96), the only of our group to win an election, had an avnetsat of 8, the second-highest of the lot. So both Howard stints lend support to the yes case. But in the other corner is Latham: an avnetsat of 20, easily the highest, plus the worst election outcome. And Andrew Peacock, opposition leader for less than a year from May 1989 (his 1983-85 stint predates these numbers), clocked the lowest avnetsat, -32, but in 1990 achieved arguably the second-best election result. 

So, there is little apparent relationship between avnetsat and electoral success. But what if we introduce the prime ministers' satisfaction ratings? Still a mixed bag: Bob Hawke's score of a low -12 against Peacock might help explain the latter's respectable 1990 election, but both Latham and Beazley I (1996-2001) had higher avnetsats than PM Howard, including throughout their losing election campaigns. 

And the state arena is also murky, with ultimately successful opposition leaders Peter Beattie, Bob Carr, Geoff Gallop and Mike Rann scoring positive avnetsats, but Jim Bacon and Steve Bracks in the negative. 

Overall there is no discernible pattern, but should we be surprised? 

The question "are you satisfied with the performance of the opposition leader?" means different things to different respondents, and it is likely that at any time a large slab of the population - maybe 20 per cent - desperately wants a change of government, and their expressed approval depends on whether they think the leader will deliver. As Latham showed, these assessments can be horribly wrong, and his towering numbers, which plummeted after the election, surely included this factor. 

Nearly all our opinion poll attention should be on two-party-preferred voting intentions. Latham showed that they too can mislead, but it is votes, after all, that decide elections. 

Peter Brent is editor of

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