That master psephologist, Malcolm Mackerras, tells the story that after wrongly predicting that Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjleke-Petersen would lose an election, the victorious Sir Joh sent him a parcel. On opening it, all he found was a scrubbing brush. Telephoning Sir Joh, he asked why he had sent him that. Sir Joh replied: “That’s to scrub the egg off your face.”
I am asked to do two things: predict the result of the next general election, and suggest what I think the new government should be.
To answer the first, I must reveal, somewhat immodestly, that I have not been wrong in predicting a general election, Australian, British or American, since 1993. I suspect this is more the result of good luck than any predictive ability on my part. And at the risk of getting egg on my face, my prediction for the next federal election is that Mr Howard will have his fifth victory - indeed I would not be surprised if he then were to try for a sixth. And why not?
As to the opinion polls, these are no more than the answers a sample of people are prepared to give to questions uninvited on which many have had no time to reflect.
One criticism must be that pollsters do not always prominently publish their margin of error. Their allocation of preferences may be historical rather than the declared present intention of the sample. There is a further matter - the tendency of respondents to give the answer which the bien pensant would be expected to give.
In the 1992 British election campaign, pollsters reported an enthusiastic endorsement of the Kinnock policy to increase taxes for worthy purposes. But that was not the way the electorate actually voted. The last polls were out by a margin of around 8.5 per cent, and to the surprise of the pollsters the Tories were returned.
With vast amounts of egg on their several faces, they began to refer to a new phenomenon, the “shy Tory factor”. In 1999 we Australians saw a “shy monarchist factor”. Are we now seeing a “shy Howard factor”?
The fact is that while polls create excitement, even panic, in political and media circles, the general public are indifferent to them. Predicting a Howard victory against Mark Latham in 2004 was easy, even with the support he had from much of the media.
Predicting a Howard victory over Kevin Rudd is more difficult. While he has not yet been tested - he has had a dream run from the media - he seems to be the most formidable federal Labor Leader since Bob Hawke. Paul Keating for one lacked Kevin Rudd’s sangfroid and his stability. Indeed, Mr Rudd appears to possess the apparent self control, and abstemiousness that has marked leaders like Howard, Menzies, Chifley and at least in the war, Curtin.
Australians live under one of the world’s oldest, and most democratic constitutional systems. They are not swayed by flamboyance, abuse, displays of temper, emotional outbursts and vulgarity in their leaders, and they particularly abhor lack of modesty and conspicuous consumption.
Provided the political leader exhibits dignity and gravitas, they admire him if he can speak with authority, and style, as Sir Robert Menzies could. His apparently ex tempore messages were seen to come from the heart. Indeed many on the left secretly admired Menzies when he spoke for Australia, just as they shuddered with embarrassment at the performance of one or two of his successors.
It will come as no surprise that the commentariat does not share these rank and file tastes. While they loved Paul Keating, the reaction among the populace at large was negative, ranging from embarrassment to anger. The sort of contributions made in Parliament which today win the approval, even adulation, of the sketch writers is quite often that which is disliked and at times despised by the rank and file.
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