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Puzzling polling: how popular was Howard?

By Benjamin Jones - posted Friday, 8 February 2013


Homer Simpson once declared, "People can come up with statistics to prove anything ... Forty percent of all people know that!" While this humorous aphorism was designed to entertain rather than inform, it certainly seems the case that statistics serve the pollster rather than public. Especially in an election year, there are many silly polls taken which do not presume any quantifiable significance. I remember having a chuckle to myself in 2007 when Channel Seven asked viewers which party leader they would rather see naked (what a horrible choice). When Galaxy Research conducted a 2013 Australia Day poll for the Rupert Murdoch's News Limited, I presumed it was a facetious damp squib.

The poll asked 1000 people who they judged to be the best prime minster of the past 25 years. Predictably, John Howard took top honours with 35% followed by uncommitted (20%), Kevin Rudd (16%), Bob Hawke (15%), Paul Keating (9%) while the incumbent Julia Gillard languished in last place on 5%. The results were clear. Howard was the best and Gilalrd was the worst. The headlines were brandished about, not only in Murdoch's press but Fairfax also and right across the blogosphere. Even fans on Bigfooty.com felt compelled to share the news with telling commentary:

I guess this poll just confirms what we were all thinking. A time of steady and real leadership. Good policy and good implementation. I guess the results speak for themselves.

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This poll has a serious and rather obvious flaw. If it were intended to be novel, it could be excused – albeit out of place for a serious polling company. The problem is, the poll has been accepted as a serious analytical tool for gauging the popularity of our recent prime ministers. While several public comments have picked up on this fault, not one journalist that I have seen has mentioned it in their various articles.

The last 25 years takes us back to 1988. Between 1988 and 2013 there have been four Labor prime ministers but only one Liberal prime minister. Popularity fluctuates but on a two-party preferred basis, Liberal and Labor generally sit close to 50% each. So this poll has asked Labor voters which of the four past leaders they like the best BUT we are left with the ridiculous situation where Liberal voters are asked which of the one, solitary Liberal leader they preferred. Galaxy appears to have distorted this poll under the limp excuse that it wanted to establish the best prime minister in a generation.

Firstly, it makes no sense to consider Gillard at 51 who grew up in the 1960s to be in the same generation as Bob Hawke, now 83, who grew up in the 1930s. So the poll does not establish the best leader of a political generation. Secondly, the poll compares opinions in three different age groups so it cannot be argued that it reveals which leader a particular generation in the general public preferred either.

Needing such a flimsy pretext, it could be hoped that it would quickly go away. No such luck. It beggars belief, but people are taking this poll seriously. Jumping on this favourable result, Gerald Henderson, head of the conservative Sydney Institute, argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that Howard's popularity was key to Tony Abbot's push for the Lodge. Even left-leaning publications such as The Punch, ran an article on the poll asking why we are nostalgic for Howard.

Given the skewed nature of the poll, what does it actually tell us? Galaxy, it should be noted, does have a history of accurate election polls. Presumably, they spread out their 1000 people to try and get an even mix of Liberal and Labor voters. If we presume that roughly half must have been Liberal/National or further right in their political affiliation – the burning question is how did Howard do so poorly? Surely, given the absurd 25 year guideline, he should be expected to claim closer to 50%? This poll reveals, if it reveals anything, that 65% of people preferred Labor leadership including a healthy percentage of nominal Liberal supporters.

Far from a glowing report, the poll is cautious at best in its appraisal of Howard. If an honest attempt to assess prime ministerial popularity were undertaken, it would have to consider approval ratings in office. On that count, Hawke and Rudd lead with 75% approval at their zenith in 1984 and 2009 respectively. Hawke and Rudd can also boast never losing an election. In 2004, the Age asked leading historians and political scientists to rank our modern prime ministers. Of the last 25 years, Hawke finished on top – coming in at third overall behind Curtin and Menzies. Howard, of course, was a popular leader. He enjoyed a very healthy 67% approval rating at his peak in 1996. His four election victories are bettered only by Menzies' seven. Unlike Hawke or Rudd, however, he also suffered a heavy defeat, losing not only government but his own seat.

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In terms of assessing prime ministerial popularity over the last 25 years, the latest Galaxy poll is worthless. In an election year, it seems particularly suspicious that a poll would be framed to create an impression that Howard is the best and Gillard is the worst. Especially considering Abbott has consistently said he wants to return to Howard's 'golden years', you can't help but wonder what guidelines are in place to ensure fairness and accuracy in the mainstream media. Politicians on both sides regularly say that the only poll worth noticing is the one taken on election night. I think they may be right.

Post Script

Although I have not seen one journalist pick up on the utterly flawed nature of this poll, thankfully, some of the comments on the various articles did. Here is a quick example.

"An eminent committee consisting of 3 Liberals and a Liberal have voted and the results are in. Can't argue with facts like that."

"Since when is Murdoch Press says Howard's the best Australian PM, one, official, or two, news?"

"Ridiculous. Could it be because he was the only LNP leader of the generation, while Labor was split four ways?"

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin Thomas Jones is a Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University. He has worked as a historian at the Museum of Australian Democracy and has taught at the University of Sydney and the ANU. Primarily interested in the development of democratic theory in the nineteenth century British world, his doctoral thesis explored the role of civic republicanism in colonial Australia and Canada. Benjamin has been published in leading history journals including Australian Historical Studies and the Journal of Australian Colonial History and has presented at several academic conferences. Benjamin publishes regular articles on history, politics and philosophy on his website ( www.benjaminthomasjones.com) and is currently co-editing a book on Australian republicanism with Mark McKenna which will be published in June 2013.

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