"Opinion polls reflect the answers people are prepared to give, on the spot, to questions uninvited - and on which they have had no time to think"
- Malcolm McKerras cited this anonymous definition during a recent speech in Sydney.
And of course everything depends on the question. For example, if the question is: "Are you in favour of a war with Iraq without UN approval?" the implication is that, absent approval, any intervention is contrary to the law. The question carries the same implications as "What should householders do when someone comes into their house without approval and behaves violently?".
To answer the question about Iraq the respondent should be informed that the Security Council does not have the exclusive responsibility for international peace and security; and that while a Council resolution is binding, the Council's failure to act does not create some sort of vacuum where the nations are powerless. Indeed, it is settled international law that where the Security Council fails to exercise its primary responsibility the responsibility of the member states to maintain international peace and security does not disappear but continues. In exercising that responsibility they may act individually or collectively. So a veto doesn't render the rest of the world impotent. Hence, the expectation of a Russian veto did not prevent NATO from intervening in Kosovo to try to protect the Muslim population from ethnic cleansing.
In addition, the person polled should be informed about the context of the question. In particular, the fact that as a condition of the truce after the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saddam solemnly agreed to account for and destroy all weapons of mass destruction. Also that over the following 12 years Iraq has refused to fulfil its obligations, engaging in denial, deceit and obstruction.
This is summarised in the Council's Resolution 1441 of 8 November - the 16th such resolution - which gave Iraq a final opportunity to comply with its obligations and which is well worth reading. Indeed, it is essential reading. Moreover, it is generally accepted that it was only because of American and British troop deployments that Iraq grudgingly admitted the inspectors. At the last minute she filed the required declaration, which has already been shown to be inadequate. In the words of the Resolution itself, Iraq is clearly in "material breach".
It has been suggested that Australians should be consulted by the government in a plebiscite. This goes against the concept of the Westminster system, the essence of which is, as Edmund Burke so eloquently put it, "your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgement - and moreover that he betrays you if he sacrifices his judgement to your opinion". That apart, a plebiscite result, as with opinion polls, very much depends on the question. For this reason, constitutional plebiscites have been used, more often than not, to deceive the people and to obtain a blank cheque to do whatever some devious government wanted. They should, of course, be distinguished from the Swiss-derived Australian constitutional referendum, whereby all the details of the proposed change have to be on the table. Such was the wisdom of our founding fathers.
But whatever reservations we may have about opinion polls, they are at least based on samples which are designed to try at least to be representative of the population. Phone-in and Internet polls, clearly not based on sampling, are for that reason thought to be less useful. This is because the voters are self-selected. On any issue the people who feel most strongly on an issue will obviously go to the trouble of voting. So such polls are not only unlikely to be representative - there is, or there should be, no pretence that they are.
So why, then, is so much attention paid to the fact that people chose to march last week through our cities? First, it is difficult to glean any single coherent opinion from them. When Simon Crean said he would support intervention he was booed by a section of the crowd. Some were pacifists, others supported intervention only with Security Council approval, others, including Mr Crean, would disregard the unreasonable use of the veto. Then there were those who would accept a Resolution of the General Assembly. And how many of the demonstrators were the same people who had marched to demand intervention in East Timor without Indonesian or UN approval, chanting, you may recall, that the Prime Minister "Johnny Howard is a coward"? In addition there were those who were there for reasons other than being against intervention, the most obvious being children brought by their parents.
Second, there is the well known incentive on the part of the organisers to exaggerate, sometimes wildly, the numbers in attendance. On one calculation, the Melbourne rally would have had to have accommodated four people in every square metre to have recorded even 100,000. Just try that formula in your garage, remembering it would have to apply without a break across the whole crowd. Apart from being extremely dangerous, it just did not happen. On one observer's calculations after a perusal of the aerial photographs, the size of the crowd was more likely to have been between 30000 and 40000. (Pat Minihan, The Age,10 February). That is still a very large crowd. It is about one percent of the population but it was not a sample, not even on the inflated claims of the organisers.
The essential point is that, as with phone-in polls, the crowds were self-selected. In other words, it could never be argued that they were in any way representative of public opinion.
The probability is that the overwhelming majority of Australians desperately want peace but also want Iraq (and North Korea) to disarm. They know, too, that the more the West is united, the more likely will Iraq be to back down. The Security Council has given Iraq a final opportunity to disarm. Soon, very soon, the Council will have to exercise its responsibility. The world, and history, will judge the Council as it considers yet another draft resolution.
I suspect most Australians are now sensibly waiting to see what happens in the Council, without tying themselves down with slogans.