Financial Review  
 February 8 2003
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C O M M E N T   A N D   O P I N I O N 
Lies and statistics
Feb 8 2003
Peter Brent

The headline on The Australian's front page one day in April last year read: "Howard holds edge in latest Newspoll". With the government's primary support on 41 per cent and Labor on 40, the report declared it "neck and neck".

In reality the data would have meant a Crean Labor government - with an eight-seat majority from the electoral pendulum - but The Australian seemed oblivious. In fact, it would surprise many to learn that more than a third of the Newspolls in 2002 pointed to Labor wins.

The problem is preferences. Newspoll, unlike most of the competition - and except during election campaigns - doesn't measure them, because, according to managing director Sol Lebovic, voters aren't sufficiently engaged in the off-season. He instead advocates calculating the two-party vote using preference flows from the last election. Which makes sense, but for some reason The Australian doesn't bother. Instead it presents the raw primary vote data and draws conclusions - often misleading - from there.

Preferences are vital. A seat is won not by primary votes but two-candidate preferred ones, and usually (but not always because votes aren't spread evenly), a national two-party preferred majority delivers government.

In 1990, Democrats preferences gave Bob Hawke victory with a primary vote of 39.4 to Andrew Peacock's 43.2. One Nation preferences saved John Howard in 1998. And Green and Democrat preferences pulled a coalition landslide back to a modest win in November 2001. Primary votes were 43.1 per cent for the coalition, ALP 37.8, Democrats 5.4, Greens 5, One Nation 4.3 and 4.4 for others.

Votes for those three minor parties and others flowed to Labor by these respective percentages: 64.1, 74.8, 44.1 and 48.9 (the Coalition's share of each is 100 minus Labor's), washing through as 51 to 49 in the government's favour.

Now back to that Newspoll mentioned at top, which had the Democrats on 2 per cent, the Greens on 7, One Nation on 1 and others at 10 per cent. Applying the Lebovic formula gives 50.9 for Labor and 49.1 to the coalition. Other headlines in The Australian in the past 12 months include: "Crean team loses budget bounce" (Labor on 50.4 after preferences) and "Leader still floundering despite ALP success" (51.2 for Labor). In total, eight from 23 Newspolls last year showed Labor victories, but not one was reported as such by the paper.

In truth, the major polls tell similar stories: the government is ahead more often than not, but not by huge margins.

Lebovic's outfit enjoys a fine reputation, and for good reason. But the way The Australian reports the polls might cause some readers a bit of a shock at the next election.

Peter Brent is the editor of mumble.com.au, which looks at electoral behaviour.


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