Since opinion polls are undertaken as a basis for news stories, it’s probably inevitable that the results are given more significance than they deserve. Before we get too carried away with Labor’s good result in the latest Galaxy poll and Newspoll it’s worth recalling a couple of basic points
* Opinion polls are samples with a margin of error, and fluctuations of 2 per cent or so can be expected as the result of chance variation (if you believe in classical hypothesis testing, you can say that such a change is statistically insignificant). So the fact that Labor gained 2 per cent in the latest Newspoll means almost nothing, except as a pointed lesson to people like Greg Sheridan who tried (while covering himself in qualifications) to make a trend out of the 2 per cent drop in the previous poll
* Swinging voters are not close followers of the political scene with finely balanced preferences tipping from one side to the other as a result of careful analysis of the latest news. There’s no reason to expect a budget to have a big impact on votes, especially when it contains few surprises. The government is probably right to say that the impact of the Budget, which is essentially to remind people that economic conditions are good, will be felt gradually over the next couple of months.
That’s the good news for the government. The bad news is that the government’s cleverness in stealing the most attractive components of Labor’s policy is likely to prove either ineffective or counterproductive. As far as public expenditure and taxation is concerned, the big news is that Labor is once again the party of initiative. Most people are unimpressed by tax cuts, and would prefer an improvement in services, delivered without the ideological riders that the government insists on attaching to almost everything (university grants conditional on AWAs, micromanagement of state functions to ensure Commonwealth credit and so on). The same is true, in the absence of a dramatic shift in government policy, on climate change. It’s only on Industrial Relations that the government is acting and Labor reacting, and even here Rudd’s link of IR and family issues has to some extent turned the debate around.
The party of initiative doesn’t always win, particularly if people are worried about dangerous radicals lurking in the shadows. But with Rudd offering a safe pair of hands, this fear is unlikely to be as effective as it was in the past. Howard has shown himself capable of pulling rabbits out of the hat in the past, and it looks as if he will have to do so again.