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The Early History of Australian Opinion Polling

The next session at CMPM2014 starts with Murray Goot, who takes us back to the ALP's pre-election study in 1961. The common view is that Labor first conducted a professional opinion poll in South Australia in 1968, and nationally in 1971, but this is incorrect: NSW Labor conducted a survey in the 1940s, and federal Labor did so in 1961, focussing on a selection of seats across the various states. It examined respondents' issues agendas and perceptions of parties, as well as their perceptions of local candidates. Interviews also explored the key issues which drove voters.

This first large-scale piece of political research was a benchmark against which subsequent polls can be measured. It focussed mainly on NSW and Victoria, with Queensland dropped due to costs in spite of the potential for changing seats there. The seats were largely marginal ones, or seats where there was significant interest in outcomes. 100 respondents in each electorate were chosen in city seats, 200 in country seats, and the response rate was above 50%.

The point of the survey was to affect the amount of time the party spent on specific issues; to examine the role of religion in the election; the importance of the gender of candidates; and various other aspects. Questions were open-ended in part, to elicit a list of priority issues, and these were then compared against what other interviewees had said. A similar approach was also used to explore opinions about the major parties (and substantial numbers couldn't find any positive attributes for Labor or the Liberals at that time).

References to the major leaders were especially notable – it emerged that the personality of the leader had a major impact on the perception of the party, with a preference to the Liberals at the time. There were notable differences between perceptions of the two parties, and clear positives and negatives emerged for both. Overall, 75% of respondents expected Labor to lose the election, but local predictions were more balanced, as were the respondents' own statements on their voting intentions. Respondents' voting intentions were relatively settled – and the main element which would make more respondents vote for Labor would have been a change of leader.

The Labor party leader almost certainly didn't see the results, and candidates were most likely not briefed either. There appears to have been no change in funding commitments as a result of the poll, nor of changes to the campaign schedule. And policy speeches also appear to have remained unaffected by its outcomes, as did party advertising.

So, the report was an early and rudimentary example of opinion research, with limited impact, but stands as an important starting-point for future polling efforts.