Tag Archives: Free Speech Coalition

Poll dancing

Chris Trotter suggests that frequent and heavily-publicised polls favour the right and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, depressing support for the left. Bomber Bradbury has made similar arguments in the past.

There are two parts to this: first, the question of whether polls are inaccurate vis-a-vis the actual views of the electorate, and if so whether they do in fact favour the right; and second, whether this, on its own, has a substantive impact on actual real-world support.

Lyndon Hood FTW

I am aware of no robust research on this topic in the NZ context (which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist; although if it did I’d expect the many proponents of this line of argument to be citing it all day long.) So to kick off, let me concede that if there was a significant ideological bias to the polls it certainly could have an impact on voter behaviour. But I suspect any impact would be more complicated than the simple “low showing for a party causes low turnout and/or low support” reading of the “spiral of silence” model Chris cites (which is nevertheless a useful model). For one thing, it’s not clear that the impact is very strong in case of a secret ballot; also, the argument doesn’t take into account New Zealanders’ oft-cited peeriness about single-party majority governments in the wake of Muldoon, Lange and Bolger which could have a moderating effect, and it doesn’t take into consideration the usual “narrowing” that occurs in the latter stages of an election campaign as wavering voters begin to make up their minds. So I doubt the size of this effect on Labour’s polling at least; any shift should not be large, and certainly not sufficient to change the election outcome. However where NZ First is concerned it’s different — a percentage point or two makes all the difference in the world there, and whether NZ First returns to parliament or not rests on the collective spirit of Winston’s faithful. Assuming they still make up fiveish per cent of the voting population they must not waver, and must cast their votes together regardless of what they are told about the polls. If they fail to do so NZ First is out, and all those votes are wasted, and that is certainly an outcome that could result from widespread reporting of polls that show NZ First under the threshold (and one that could change the election outcome).

Note, however, that all that is contingent on those polls showing NZ First to be under the threshold actually being wrong. I’m not persuaded of this, and I’m also dubious about the contention that polls favour the right. As Bomber is fond of pointing out, the polls run in the leadup to the Auckland Supercity election favoured John Banks, while in the election Len Brown won handsomely. That’s important to remember, but it’s only one data point so I’m hesitant to draw meaningful conclusions from it, and if it’s evidence of anything, it’s against the simple reading of the “Spiral of Silence” thesis, according to which Brown’s demoralised supporters should have stayed home.

There is also some evidence out of the US to suggest that landline-only polls favour the Republican party over the Democrats (when compared to polling samples that include cellphones). It’s not clear is that this trend is also in effect in New Zealand. Based on no data, I think it has some influence, but our situation here differs in important ways; most notably, we have more than two parties so variance of this sort is more dilute and less zero-sum. And the likely effect would be ambivalent — if landline-only polls tend to exclude the young and the poor and tech-savvy urban liberals, they should overstate support for NZ First, not understate it.

The matter of bias isn’t readily testable because, as an Australian poll analyst put it recently when looking at bias between pollsters in that market, “we just don’t have elections every week to determine the true state of public opinion“.* There is also evidence to suggest that people’s voting behaviour differs in important ways from how they answer opinion polls. So we need to rely on other forms of measurement; proxies being measured against proxies. There are focus-groups, vox pop interviews and 75c text-polls and coffee-bean polls, and the Horizon poll with its radically different weighting system, but I see no firm grounds to believe any of these would be any more reliable than the major phone poll companies. One very strong point in favour of the usual sort of phone-based opinion polling is that it has remained more or less methodologically consistent for a very long time. This gives us extremely large, continuous datasets that we can plot against real-world events including policy releases, major speeches, current events and elections. In this regard they are much like audience/circulation ratings in the media. The utility of these well-established systems isn’t that they have no flaws — they certainly do, and much of the criticism is valid — it’s that they have a reasonably well-known set of flaws that are consistent over time, and we can use the historical record to make inferences about the present day (too few people, I think, are actually doing this, but that’s a different matter). By contrast other systems — Horizon, in particular — are less well-known, and serious questions need to be asked about the quality of their results. They’re worth watching, but they are not as yet a substitute for what we already have.

Returning to the argument. So if the polls systematically favour the right, and if they do so in such a way as doesn’t also favour NZ First’s older, wealthier and more conservative demographic, and if the extent of that bias is significant enough to have a significant zero-sum election night impact despite all the confounding variables of voter behaviour, then Chris might be right.

But that’s a lot of ifs, and a claim as bold as “polling companies and the media steal elections from the left” demands extremely robust evidence to be given credence. I’m open to the argument, but what we have here isn’t evidence, much less the robust kind; it’s supposition, and what’s more it’s supposition derived from partisan loyalty. The argument is unfalsifiable — if the election does deliver a substantial defeat to Labour and NZ First they will take that as proof-positive that they were right all along and the voters were robbed; if it doesn’t no doubt they will cheer those who battled valiantly and overcame the oppressive regime imposed by the forces of evil. In this regard the argument is nearly indistinguishable from that made in 2008 by the Free Speech Coalition who, despite their howls about Stalinist restrictions on political marketing, managed to help their political representatives to a handy win.

My view of Chris and Bomber’s general line of argument is that it’s more of the usual excuse-making and blame-shifting that I see from lefties who can’t bear that their tribe is staring down the barrel of a(nother) heavy defeat. It’s an attempt to make the evil media cabal responsible for poor performance, and to minimise the effect of weak leadership, institutional incompetence, lacklustre campaign and — in Peters’ case — public self-immolation during the last term. It’s a myth; something to keep the faithful warm at night, in the absence of actual victory. Myths certainly have a kernel of essential truth, but they should not be mistaken for evidence. Moreover, as regards Chris’ concerns about the election accurately reflecting voters’ wishes; these would have more credibility if his own history of respecting the solemn integrity of electoral politics was itself less one-eyed. He thunders:

hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders will not only be perfectly entitled to say “bugger the pollsters”, but they will also be entirely justified in asserting that the election has been stolen from them

This would ring less hollow if, following the 2005 election, he had not so cravenly excused the Labour party’s own admitted breach of electoral law as being “acceptable corruption” inasmuch as it served the greater ideological purpose of preventing National from being elected. Given that history, his complaints about polling and media conduct look like nothing more than an appeal to ideological tribalism with a bright red smear of electoral integrity lipstick on.

And yet, he has a strong point: if NZ First’s share of the party vote on November 26 comes in fractionally below the 5% threshold, democracy will have been poorly served in 2011, as it was in 2008. My personal views of that party aside, as a matter of natural justice anyone commanding a twentieth of the vote should be entitled to roughly a twentieth of the representation in Parliament. But however unsexy it might be, the solution to this isn’t injustice to attack the pollsters or the media. The argument isn’t supported by the evidence; even if it was nobody’s going to change on Chris and Bomber’s say-so, and we all saw what happened to the Clark government’s regulatory overreach. The pragmatic response here is to work towards reducing or removing the electoral threshold so as to ensure that natural justice is served and variance is less likely to simply exclude a party from representation, and to turn back to the process of returning political rigour to the political left by building competence, vision and leadership so it can succeed despite the obstacles before it. Less myth, more reality.


* Pollytics’ analysis plots polling companies against each other, measuring each pollster’s bias from the other polling companies. David Winter has had a go at doing something similar for the NZ context, though he has much less data to work with. While interesting, it’s important to reiterate that none of this addresses the concerns about poll accuracy vis-a-vis the electorate.)

Blue smoke

In my previous post on the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) I lamented the conspicuous absence of outrage in response to the bill’s provisions from partisans on the right. I have since been heartened by the responses from some of the more principled commentators on the right; well done them.

But there is one most conspicuous exception. I have on many occasions in the past defended Kiwiblog’s David Farrar from allegations that he’s a bog-standard Tory authoritarian. Yes, he’s a loyal partisan; yes, he does have his authoritarian tendencies, but his typical policy alignment is clearly classical-liberal. He is is consistently more liberal than almost all of his fellow-travellers and has regularly exhibited a forthright commitment to democratic principles of the rule of law, of good constitutional practice and the importance of checks and balances. Even yesterday’s response conveyed lukewarm concern about the scope and extent of the act. But I take back all that defence of David’s character; and so, apparently, does David take back his commitment to those liberal principles.

Because this morning’s post on the CERRA is nothing short of cringing, snivelling partisan apologia for dictatorship dressed up as a simplistic classical history lesson. Dictatorship, it appears, is a-ok with David just as long as the dictator wears the right coloured tie. Where now are the lofty appeals to the principles of good governance, the shrieking about attacks on the nation’s constitutional integrity, the billboards bearing the endorsements of dictators? There are plenty around, including a very explicit homage to the Free Speech Coalition campaign which David fronted, but nothing from this erstwhile and self-proclaimed champion of democracy himself.

The fact that DPF is being schooled on both the principled and pragmatic problems with this bill by some of the more wide-eyed and reactionary members of his commentariat suggests that he has taken leave of his political instincts as well as his principles; for instance, the notorious ‘burt’, who urges him to consider what might happen if (due to the collapse of ACT) National fails to win the 2011 election and a Labour minister takes over from Brownlee; a possibility he and the government had either not anticipated or don’t believe was worth considering. Nothing would be sweeter irony, but either way: David’s credibilty on these matters is up in a cloud of Tory-blue smoke; a legacy destroyed by unprincipled partisan loyalty. Such is the price of political dependence.

Update: Similar sentiments from Peter Cresswell, Danyl Mclauchlan and The Standard, from whom I purloined the image.)

Another update: More angels required to dance on DPF’s pinhead.


Protesting a little bit too much

21clarkyoungnats_smallDPF published two posts yesterday about prominent lefties comparing righties to fascists: Minto comparing Bush to Hitler and Amin, and Carter comparing Key to Mussolini. I agree with him that both comparisons are entirely unjustified, and do a great disservice to political discourse in this country.

But without taking away from that, let’s not forget that David, his commentariat, his blogging cohort and indeed some of his ideological allies have spent most of the past decade making political hay by comparing Helen Clark to various dictators. David was central to the Free Speech Coalition whose billboards protesting the Electoral Finance Act evoked Mao Zedong and Frank Bainimarama; he wrote a weekly column entitled ‘Dispatch from Helengrad’, perpetuating the Clark=Stalin syllogism; his blog permits and tacitly endorses the almost daily comparison of left-wing political figures to tyrants; his closest blogging acquaintance Cameron Slater has constructed his political profile almost entirely of such cloth. The National and ACT parties themselves have a very large portfolio of such comparisons — from the Young Nats publishing the famous image above, to Heather Roy talking about the Clark government’s ‘feminazi’ welfare agenda to Bill English’s frequent comparisons of the Clark government to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, both in the House and in the media. And how could I forget John Banks — former National party cabinet minister and now Citizens & Ratepayers Mayor of Auckland — whose public comparisons of Clark to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and references to her as the ‘Chairman of the Central Committee’ among others only ceased when he decided to run for Mayor and they were no longer politically tenable. To say nothing of the foaming of various branches of the libertarian and objectivist movements, who are admittedly further from National than Labour are, but nevertheless have been occasional allies of convenience. Although typically less egregious than Carter’s and Minto’s comparisons, these are all the same in principle. The difference is one of magnitude, not of type. And the very worst examples of the type are exclusively from the right.

I should imagine that many of those who engaged in these sorts of attacks on Clark and her government but who are wide-eyed with mock outrage now that the shoe is on the other foot believe (to themselves if not in public) that the former comparisons were rooted in reality, while these latter are not and so are not justified. This demonstrates a phenomenal absence of political or historical perspective: Clark, like Bush, was removed peacefully from office by the ordinary process of democratic action, and the comparison of their programmes with those of the named dictators simply does not bear comparison, and it is disrespectful to history to draw it. David is right to point out that Labour are wrong for stooping to the level of National and ACT and their less-savoury constituents, but that does not erase the initial wrongness which spawned it, and in which he played a role.


[Edited to add Banksie and the libertarians to the list of offenders, and add the image at top.]