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Advocacy Campaigns in the Age of Poll-Driven Politics

Public polls have become embedded within our political system. But are they a help or a hindrance?

'I hated Howard, but I liked that he stood for something'. It's a common theme that even former Prime Minister Howard readily acknowledges '“ love him or loathe him, at least you knew what he stood for.

The same could be said of former Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating.

Voters liked the idea that these leaders would often make decisions that seemed unpopular, and yet rode them all the way to face whatever consequences arose.

In 1996, Prime Minister John Howard outlawed semi-automatic assault style rifles and pump-action shotguns, heralding a new age of tighter gun laws. He faced open revolt from his support base in the bush.

Despite Newspoll, Roy Morgan and Fairfax polls showing that his Government was becoming increasingly unpopular, Mr Howard did not waver; he held to his conviction. He did the same on taxation policy, announcing a new Goods and Services Tax. Both policies hurt his Government at the 1998 election, but the Coalition ultimately won the day.

Today, our newsfeed is swimming in public polling. Traditional public polls have been joined by Ipsos, Galaxy, ReachTel, Mediareach and a myriad of random online polls. It's therefore worth pondering whether Prime Minister Howard would make the same decisions in today's poll saturated context? Given his track record, it's highly likely he would.

Polls simply measure a sample of people across the vastness of electorates to provide a snapshot of voting intentions at any given moment. They take samples from safe seats as well as marginal seats. They don't measure the level of commitment behind nominated voting intentions, nor past voting habits.

And yet public polls have increasingly penetrated the political decision-making process and are assigned an astoundingly high degree of importance among our political leaders.

It's within this political reality that advocates must operate. So how does this impact our advocacy campaigns?

  1. Public polling can drive media yarns on any given issue. This can be useful when the polling touches an issue critical to your advocacy, for example, energy prices and electricity generation. Over the last two decades, the media have increasingly used polling as fodder for political yarns. As more polls have surfaced, more political stories are hitched to the results. Aligning your campaign with positive polling results and even providing comment can enhance your campaign strategies.
  3. Politicians pay close attention to the media, especially stories regarding the perception of their performance. Using public or independent (non-commissioned) polling as a point of reference within your advocacy campaigning, for example within submissions, Ministerial briefings and opinion pieces, provides useful credibility.
  5. Keeping an eye on which independent polling organisations are referenced regularly by the media provides an indication of those considered they consider credible and therefore, potentially useful to engage as part of your advocacy activities.

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