July 21

Opinion polls: of limited use


Opinion polls taken when a referendum is first announced invariably enjoy greater support than in the resulting vote. This is because by the time of the vote, there has been a debate. Both sides – and not just one – have been heard.

This is true even where the mainstream media are seriously biased, as in 1999. (Incidentally, with the way our ACM web sites are being visited now, we can expect that by the time of any further vote, the media landscape will be much changed.)

The result is that after the debate the public are better informed.

Milton put it best when he said of truth “Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worst, in a free and open encounter?" (Areopagitica, 1644)


That is why ACM has launched the latest version of its longstanding education project, The Crowned Republic, www.crownedrepublic.com.au  We want to ensure that Australians, especially but not only the young and the new, are better informed on how they are governed.

…racist republics….

In Australia we are often told by the losing side in a constitutional referendum that their opponents manipulated the debate, the vote or the question. In the delightful Australian vernacular, they are called whingers.

The point is that a referendum in Australia is entirely different from a plebiscite as used in many countries. When the apartheid government asked South Africans to  vote on becoming a politicians’ republic in 1961, the details of that politicians’ republic were only revealed after the vote.

(They also disgracefully removed anyone who was not white from the roll. The government feared that the Cape Coloureds would want to keep the Crown. Republicanism was strongest among the racists, as it was in nineteenth century Australia.)

Opinion polls on matters on which the public are not informed are of little use. Imagine a poll on say the nexus between the two Houses of Parliament, that the Senate must be half the size of the House. Without a debate on this a vote in a poll would be of limited value.

This is especially true of constitutional plebiscites. In fact deceitful politicians like to take them precisely when the public have minimal information.

…poll on the Commonwealth…

This is all that can be said of a recent poll on the Commonwealth which concluded that only about one third of all Australians would be upset if the nation were to leave  the Commonwealth. 

Australians were found to be far less attached to their membership of the 53-member body than developing countries, including India, in a poll released by the Royal Commonwealth Society in London on Monday and reported in The Age and News Limited (20/7).

This probably reflects the standards of civics education in Australia today compared with that of, say, India.

The respondents in Australia, a sporting great power if ever there were one, must have been unaware of the role of the Commonwealth in sports. Or perhaps they forgot.

…everything depends on the question…

In a poll everything depends on the question.The respondents could have been asked:

“Do you want Australian athletes to continue to participate in and dominate those great games held every four years alternating with the Olympics? “

As I told ABC radio, if Australians were asked this, there would be a landslide in favour of remaining within the Commonwealth.

But even more importantly, the Commonwealth is the organization of countries with which we share common values, institutions, a legal system and a language. This is the one international organisation which has standards, which will apply real and effective sanctions against international delinquents, such as Zimbabwe.

That is why countries are lining up to join the Commonwealth.  This is, after all, the international organisation which has been most effective in fighting for democratic government and the rule of law and against racism.

…Head of the Commonwealth…

Australians nominated Prince Charles as the person they wanted to see take over the Queen's Commonwealth role when she dies.All other countries preferred having the role rotated among Commonwealth members.

This is another example of the weakness of polls and the fact that everything depends on the question, which is not the case with the Australian referendum.

The question probably was along these lines:

 “Should Prince Charles succeed The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth or should it rotate among Commonwealth leaders?”

This is misleading. It wrongly implies that Commonwealth leaders are also above politics.

It should have been:

“Should The Queen or her successor be Head of the Commonwealth, or should the position be rotated among Commonwealth politicians?”


The answer would have been obvious.No wonder some politicians who want to impose a politicians’ republic on Australians would prefer to start out with a plebiscite.     


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