Who Cares About Political Polls? You Shouldn’t

It doesn’t matter if the election is three years or three days away, we’re constantly reminded who the most popular party is, who’s got the preferences, and who’s the preferred prime minister. It never seems to be the actual prime minister or the opposition leader, which is curious.

Every time I see one of these polls, I’m reminded of how I constantly check my phone for messages from my girlfriend. There never is any, because I don’t have one. Political polling is that pointless.

Where do these numbers come from? A surprisingly small number of people, often barely over a thousand. The polls claim a margin of error of only a few percent, but in Australia we’re talking about complex issues and over twenty million people. I fondly remember a ‘Yes Prime Minister’ sketch that exposed political polling for the farce that it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0ZZJXw4MTA

In Australia, the people polled supposedly represent a cross section of the community. But nobody’s ever asked me. Or my friends. Actually some people I know have gotten the call, and they’re always sorry, but they’re just too busy to spare a moment of their time.

Who can? For the most part, lonely people who don’t have much going on. If you’ve recently taken the time to answer a poll, does that mean that I’m talking about you? Not necessarily, but it’s highly likely. Sorry. Maybe you should get out more.

The real problem is the effect of these polls. We’re getting lazier, our attention spans are shrinking, and journalists are dedicating less time to actual analysis. The result is that the polls are no longer telling us what we think. They’re telling us what to think.

They’re all about the opinion of the ‘average’ Australian, but when it comes to the big issues I’m not just interested in ‘average’. I want analysis, and to hear from a range of experts. Information and insight, so I can formulate my own opinions. Remember when people used to do that?

Instead of asking ourselves, ‘Is this policy a good idea?’ Now all we’re asking is, ‘Do other people think it’s a good idea? They do? Well that’s good enough for me. Back to Masterchef and my home delivered pizza.’

The result is that politicians are doing even less of what they think is best, and even more of the popular. This is already an inherent problem of the three year election cycle, as parties neglect making tough decisions for the long term good. Instead they focus on the quick pay-off to increase their chances of being re-elected, offsetting negative effects for future generations. As an example, consider just about every piece of environmental policy.

By continually reporting the opinion of the general public and little else the moment a new policy or decision is announced, it leaves politicians scrambling to amend, improve and back peddle. Leaving us with policy that does little more than cause as little offence as possible.

So are all these public opinion polls meaningless? Yes! Is the media aware of this? Yes! Do they tell us? No! The media are there to make money first, and provide meaningful information as a distant second, and polls provide far higher ratings than actual insight. Thus leaving us ample time to get back to the important business of being obsessed with ourselves and funny photos of cats.

Why not just limit ourselves to the one survey that matters? You know, that big one that happens every three and a bit years where we ask everyone. 

Next up I’m appearing at the Woodford Folk Festival: www.woodfordfolkfestival.com