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Lies and statistics
Feb 8 2003
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
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
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
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
to a friend