According to an article in this week’s Bulletin, more people (36.5%) feel that they are not better off than before John Howard was elected PM than feel that they are better off (32.6%). The question seems to have been badly worded, with the apparent options being ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘the same’ – the magazine interpreted ‘no’ as ‘worse off’, but without spelling this out clearly some people who think things haven’t changed much could have answered ‘no’.
Even so, only a third thinking they are better off seems low. Income distribution analysis suggests that the benefits of prosperity have been spread through all socio-economic groups. And it’s been a good eleven years for technology-driven improvements: the internet and mobile phones particularly, but also home entertainment. Unemployment is at a 30-year low, and workforce participation at an all-time high.
There are theories that explain why perceptions lag objective statistics on issues like this, particularly when the question asks the respondent whether he or she feels better off. The happiness research has made much of the process of adaptation. When our objective standard of living improves we feel better for a while, but after a while we get used to it. Psychologists such as Danny Gilbert argue that we are not very good at recalling past emotional states. But Gilbert’s theory also suggests that because we can’t remember how we felt, we use theories of how we would have felt instead. Do people’s ‘theories’ of 1996 suggest that things were better then than now?
There is another odd aspect to this poll. Another question asked whether respondents thought that Australia was better off now than before Howard was elected PM. This received a slightly more positive response – 39.4% said yes (compared to 32.6% for the personal question) and 36.8% said no (virtually the same). That’s unusual, because in survey research respondents normally think others are doing worse than they are – partly because views of others are formed from media reports, which tend to focus on negatives, while information sources about oneself are more balanced.
I’m not sure why the personal/Australia in general answers are the reverse of the normal pattern. But I am pretty sure I know why the overall result is so negative.
First, like Newspoll’s recent questions on how issues affect voting, the Bulletin‘s poll mixed in a partisan element by mentioning John Howard. Back in 2004, the Saulwick pool had asked a more neutral ‘Would you say that you are better off, worse off, or about the same as you were ten years ago?’. 52% said better off and 23% said worse off. That result would seem more consistent with the objective statistics. But Howard’s name was a cue for Labor voters to give a negative answer, whose ‘theories’ of pre-1996 include the assumption that things must be better under Labor.
Second, it looks as if Labor voters were over-sampled. This theory is supported by comparing answers to the Bulletin‘s poll with similar questions asked by other pollsters. For example, on the question of which party the respondent would trust to handle the economy, Labor and Liberal were equally divided in the Bulletin‘s poll. But Newspoll had the Coalition at double Labor. On the question of who would make the better Prime Minister, the Bulletin‘s poll found 28% for Howard, while Newspoll found 37% and ACNielsen 43%. On the Budget, the Bulletin poll recorded 27% who thought that they would be better off, compared to 36% of Newspoll respondents.
The Daily Telegraph also thought that these results were implausible. And with gender-studies PhD and Maxine McKew friend Rebecca Huntley involved in framing the questions, they concluded that the bad result for the Liberals was indeed a remarkable coincidence.
I think there is probably a more mundane explanation. Ispos, the firm that conducted the survey for the Bulletin, doesn’t do much political polling in Australia, and this looks very much like they bungled their sample as a result, over-interviewing Labor supporters. Combine that with a poorly-worded question and we are left very much doubting that Australians feel as badly about their situation now compared to 1996 as the Bulletin would have us believe.