Consistent polling errors over the past few years could have created a “parallel universe” in Australian politics, long-time Labor Party pollster John Utting has said in the wake of the federal election.
- Multiple public polls had shown Labor consistently in the lead for years
- Exit polls on election day still pointed to a Labor win
- Industry veteran John Utting says errors most likely arose as pollsters grappled with accessing representative cross-sections of society
Speaking with 7.30, Mr Utting said there seemed to have been a two or three percentage-point error embedded in the opinion polling of the past “few years” that had distorted the narrative around leaders, parties and policies.
“A lot of stuff has happened based on that,” he said.
The Coalition’s victory in the 2019 election sent shockwaves through the opinion polling industry.
Multiple public polls had shown Labor consistently in the lead for years on a two-party preferred basis, and exit polls on election day were still pointing to a narrow Labor win.
Federal election 2019: Live results
Mr Utting — who ran Labor’s internal tracking polls for many years, but not in this campaign — said the industry now needed to confront the possibility its numbers had been wrong all along.
“We’ve been living in a parallel universe, perhaps, with a toxic narrative,” he said.
“If the true situation was Labor was ahead, [then] the Coalition was ahead, Labor ahead, Coalition ahead, and it was all a lot closer than it looked, we would probably still have Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.”
Mr Utting said polling done properly was a “fifth estate” that provided a valuable feedback service between elections.
He said the errors were most likely arising because pollsters were now grappling with a fragmented landscape of landlines, mobiles and social media, making it more difficult to survey a representative cross-section of society.
“The resources required now to put together really high-quality samples are quite considerable,” he said.
“What’s probably going on is the quality of the samples isn’t as rigorous as it should be.”
Labor’s internal polling was contracted out to the firm YouGov Galaxy in the 2019 campaign.
A Press Council for pollsters?
Mr Utting said the polling industry needed to rebuild its credibility with a “massive dose of transparency” and suggested an oversight body similar to the Press Council, a media industry watchdog.
Australians reading about poll results should know not just the sample size, but also whether it was done with robocalls, in-person interviews, digital polling or a combination, he said.
“Given how critical it is — the thousands of hours of media coverage, the untold forests that are felled, all the energy that’s consumed in talking about issues from polling — it’s really important that the issues we’re talking about are the reality,” Mr Utting said.
“We have to ensure, as practitioners in the industry, that we’re not feeding toxins back into the community debate.”