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The broken pendulum

Jul 8, 2019 • 14m48s

The pendulum that is used to predict outcomes in elections is broken. One unexpected consequence is for the role of money in politics.

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The broken pendulum

30 • Jul 8, 2019

The broken pendulum

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

The pendulum that is used to predict outcomes in elections is broken. There is no longer a “national mood” or a “national conversation”. Richard Denniss on what this means and how it might change the role of money in politics, too.

Archival tape — Unidentified man 1:

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic to stop referring to polls during every single political interview that occurs on every single radio station, every single TV station. We go there so often, so won’t it be fantastic to shake the whole situation up somewhat…”

Archival tape — Unidentified man 2:

“There’s no doubt that in the first half of the 20th century we, and I mean the press and the public, looked the other way...It seems now the pendulum is swinging a little too far the other way…”

Archival tape — Barrie Cassidy:

“After losing more than 50 consecutive opinion polls, and maybe that’s the last time we should mention them…”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman 1:

“All the polls can’t have been wrong, I mean, every single one of them?”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman 2:

“Yes but they were…”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman 1:

“Yeah, but why?”

ELIZABETH:

All right. So Richard I was hoping we could begin with the idea of the pendulum in Australian politics.

[Theme ends]

RICHARD:

Yes, the electoral pendulum is a metaphorical pendulum and it's supposed to swing according to the national mood. The pendulum sort of trains us to focus on the marginal seats and if there's only a small swing then only a small number of very marginal seats will change hands. And if there's a bigger swing then we go further up through the marginal seats.

ELIZABETH:

Richard Denniss is chief economist at the Australia Institute. He also writes for The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

RICHARD:

So we think of a pendulum kind of knocking over seats as it swings and it's designed to give us a prediction of which seats will change hands at an election after all those opinion polls that we read so much about.

ELIZABETH:

So I mean, it’s a useful and basic tool of political analysis.

RICHARD:

Oh look it's been around for decades and yeah, it's just a simple political analysis tool but it's probably passing its use by date.

ELIZABETH:

Yeah. Does it work?

RICHARD:

Well it doesn't work nearly as well as it used to work. Now it's important to acknowledge that it never was accurate and that people that invented it never said it would be perfectly accurate... but it's becoming less and less accurate over time it's predicting less and less of what will happen, in part because there is no national mood anymore.

Archival tape — Unidentified man 1:

“Nobody saw that coming. And neither did anyone predict 10 plus swings to the coalition in Dawson, and the same in Capricornia and 8 per cent in Flynn, a seat that Labour expected to win…”

ELIZABETH:

So why is it that we still spend so much time focusing on these national averages, when we know that they might not be as accurate as they once were?

RICHARD:

Look I think they're wonderful shorthand. They're a great device for simplifying something as complicated as the fact that on election day what we're actually having is 151 different elections to elect 151 people to the lower house and that can be a bit time consuming and a bit tedious for political analysts and commentators to talk about.

ELIZABETH:

And Richard if we look at the pendulum broadly as it performed at the last election, how accurate was it?

RICHARD:

The Coalition won only three of the seats that the pendulum said they should win. But in addition to that they won two seats that the pendulum said they wouldn't win.

ELIZABETH:

Huh.

RICHARD:

And at the same time the ALP picked up a seat that according to the pendulum it shouldn't have won. So to summarize that the pendulum was wrong about twice as many seats as it was right in.

ELIZABETH:

And yet we still talk about the pendulum.

RICHARD:

Oh we talk incessantly about the pendulum. And after the election people start saying what will the national swing need to be for Labor to win? When in reality Labor needs to win five seats off the Coalition at the next election. And it doesn't matter which five it wins.

ELIZABETH:

So does this kind of broken pendulum expose flaws in how parties are thinking about politics today?

RICHARD:

I think it does. I think the pendulum has trained the media and its trained political parties to pay undue attention to a handful of marginal seats. The pendulum is a thought experiment whose whose time is nearly passed.

But I do think that it's it's had a dangerous impact on the way it's focused national attention onto a handful of seats. I think it's very good for our democracy to remind people that MPs on a 10 percent margin lose seats and MPs on a really tight margin often hold their seats even when the pendulum swings against them, because those candidates did a great job of engaging with their electorates and really that's what democracies are supposed to be all about.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Richard, you're an economist. You've analyzed elections closely for many years, why are averages so often wrong in what they seem to predict?

RICHARD:

Look averages often just conceal more than they reveal. Averages are often mathematically correct, but logically meaningless. The other thing is of course that as our society becomes more complicated as social media means that people in one state can consume quite different media than people in others, then talking about how the average Australian feels is just less and less meaningful. There really never was an average Australian.

Archival tape — Unidentified woman 1:

“Early results are in: it shows that a typical Australian is a 38 years old woman of English ancestry.”

Archival tape — Unidentified man:

“Now as the typical Australian late-30’s woman of English ancestry, what concerns you about Australia?”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman 2:

“Sharia.”

Archival tape — Unidentified man:

“Right, do you mean Sharia law?”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman 2:

“No, my niece Sharyya, with two Y’s”

RICHARD:

So most people don't really think about what an average means. We talk about the average unemployment rate in Australia, even though the unemployment rate in the eastern suburbs of Sydney is far, far lower than the unemployment rate in Northern Tasmania. We talk about the average cost of living, even though we don't all buy the same things and of course we talk about the average of the national polls and that average just doesn't tell us much anymore.

So, in the 2019 election there was a swing to Labor in Victoria of 1.3 per cent, in South Australia of 3.8 per cent and a swing to Labor in the Northern Territory. At the same time there were swings against them in Queensland and Tasmania of over 4 per cent. When we talk about the average, we lose the fact that Labor were winning votes in one state and losing them in another state.

ELIZABETH:

Understood. Richard, in your mind, what is it that we have to do to get away from our dependency on the pendulum when we're talking about electoral politics?

RICHARD:

Well I think we need to think of our democracy is being represented more as a patchwork rather than a pendulum. Within states and between states, the swings to different parties are really quite diverse. And and that's in part because of local factors, local political factors, local issues, but also because of things like local candidates. If you just looked at the numbers it would be impossible to explain what happened in Warringah, but if you knew anything about the candidates you'd realize that a new independent had run against Tony Abbott and there was a big swing to that new candidate.

ELIZABETH:

Richard when we’re talking about electoral outcomes. Of course a part of that is always money and how that operates in our politics. Can we talk a little bit about how donations and fundraising worked in our most recent election?

RICHARD:

Yeah. Look money does play an important role in politics. There's no doubt that every candidate running for office would like people to donate so they can take out ads or put up corflutes. But if we look at this last election, it's quite clear that money isn't the main thing that matters. The person that spent the most was Clive Palmer and his United Australia Party. He spent more than the Labor and Liberal Parties combined and he literally elected zero candidates. Now at the same time, the Greens spent around $320,000 on advertising and they elected six senators and Adam Bandt in the Lower House. Voices for Indi elected Cathy McGowan twice, and recently elected Helen Haines off a very small budget. There's no doubt that candidates believe that having some more money makes it easier for them to campaign, but there is no evidence that the candidates that get the most money are going to win.

ELIZABETH:

And yet, politics in Australia still relies on fundraising so heavily or at least that's the public perception?

RICHARD:

Absolutely and interestingly, I think that the more we talk about the importance of money in elections, the more power it gives to those people who write the big checks. And to those people in the party who collect the big checks. The ANZ Bank, for example, donated $250,000 to both major political parties in 2018. Well, the ANZ spent around $200 million on advertising in that same period, so for these tiny sums of money for them, they're pretty much guaranteed a very warm welcome by senior politicians on both sides of politics. But of course, when both sides of politics both get $250,000 from the same person if they both went and spent the money it wouldn't help either of them.

ELIZABETH:

And yet our political system remains relatively small fry in this department say compared to US politics where campaign contributions outnumber them many times.

RICHARD:

Oh absolutely, I mean, it's embarrassingly cheap how cheap Australian politics and politicians are. I mean, you know, five thousand dollars can buy you dinner sitting next to some minister where you get to watch them eat. In the US you'd need to put a couple of zeros on the end of that to pay to play. So yeah we've got senior politicians in Australia sort of debasing themselves for what seem like very small amounts of money. It's not at all clear what role that money plays in our democracy, we have public funding for our elections. I think we need to look at reforming these things. But what's really problematic, I think, is a culture where politicians are so desperate to seek the favour of these people, and you know if we did have a federal corruption watchdog be fascinating to see what people think they're buying for these relatively small donations, because if they're not getting anything out of it, why are they spending their shareholders money on it? If they are getting something out of it, then we should know what that is.

ELIZABETH:

Does the broken pendulum expose any flaws in how parties think about politics but specifically how important money is in a campaign?

RICHARD:

Yeah so I think the pendulum focuses political parties and political commentators excessively on those marginal seats. And it sort of flows from there that if you can spend a lot more money in those marginal seats, if you can advertise more than your rivals in those marginal seats, then you can then you can prevail in the electoral battle. The pendulum exposes the overemphasis on money of the major political parties. It's not good for democracy and it doesn't even seem to be a good way to win elections.

ELIZABETH:

And Richard, where do you think this culture of a symbiotic relationship between corporate donors and the political parties has come from?

RICHARD:

I think it's just evolved over time. There's no doubt that money does make a difference. There's no doubt that every political party tries to raise some in the lead up to an election of course, you know, we famously saw One Nation's efforts to go to the US and they were very clear that they thought ten million dollars would buy them a lot of power. So you can understand why politicians would rather have more money than less. And you can understand why other countries have got tougher donation laws than ours.

What the data is really saying is if you’re Jacqui Lambie you can you can run for the Senate with $50,000 bucks and beat people who spend ten times that amount because, you know, voters actually are engaged with what she's got to say. I think the pendulum hasn't just trained political analysts and the public to focus on marginal seats, and to focus on raising money to spend in those marginal seats, I think the pendulum is actually probably had undue influence on the political parties themselves.

ELIZABETH:

Richard, in a way that's a revolutionary idea. It's quite heartening to think that the talent of individual candidates matter more than money.

RICHARD:

Oh look you know if it's revolutionary great, but that's what the data suggests.

ELIZABETH:

Richard thank you so much for making time to speak with us.

RICHARD:

No worries. Thank you.

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[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

More details have emerged in the Alek Sigley case, after the Australian student was detained in North Korea and later expelled. North Korea has accused Sigley of spying, by sharing pictures and information with news outlets. Sigley has not said what happened while he was detained, but North Korea's Central News Agency said he pleaded for forgiveness. The agency said, quote: “He honestly admitted his spying acts of systematically collecting and offering data about the domestic situation of the DPRK and repeatedly asked for pardon.”

And Scott Morrison has committed to buying and preserving Bob Hawke's childhood home in Bordertown, South Australia. Morrison said the house will be used to celebrate the achievements of the former prime minister, who died in May, aged 89.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Tuesday.

[Music ends]

The pendulum that is used to predict outcomes in elections is broken. There is no longer a “national mood” or “national conversation”. Richard Denniss on what this means and how it might change the role of money in politics, too.

Guest: Chief economist at The Australia Institute and writer for The Monthly and The Saturday Paper Richard Denniss.

Background reading:

Money, votes and the 'pendulum' in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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30: The broken pendulum