Democracy in New Zealand – Push Polling

Would you vote for this man if you knew
he was a reptilian shapeshifter?

Mainly inspired by Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men, I’ve been thinking about ways the New Zealand election system could be amended to as to procedurally minimise the kind of problems the book makes clear. Though Hager was writing primarily about the Don Brash-led National Party as a case study – because that’s the information he had – the same level of undermining democracy in New Zealand is probably present in every major political party. And even if it is not, the potential for it demands a response.
Firstly, a few preliminary assumptions. I am assuming that an ideal, if not the ideal, of representative democracy is that the citizens of the country have an equal say in how they are governed, manifest as an equal say in forming a government that is proportionally representative of those citizens. Additionally, certain civil and human rights must be protected by law.
In other words, for citizens or groups of citizens to have disproportionately less or more political power than others is undemocratic, and any ostensibly democratic system that makes such a disproportionate amount of power possible (or inevitable) is flawed, and in need of reform. Finally, it is the duty of any proponent of democracy to work to rectify any imbalances of power.
So the problems are twofold. There are situations where small groups wield too much power, and situations where large groups are underrepresented. Given the nature of our society, the most common factors in determining how much political influence one is likely to have are wealth and education. Obviously the two factors feed each other – the wealthy can afford education and the educated are more likely to become wealthy. And also, due to mainly historical factors, proportions of wealth and education are often drawn roughly down ethnic lines.
These are not new thoughts, and there are already institutional limits in place to minimise some of the grosser inequalities. Election-spending limits are an example of this, so that a particularly money-backed party can’t just utterly swamp the country with TV, billboard and radio advertising. But political parties are organisations, and organisations are organisms, and organisms evolve. It’s inevitable that they will seek out ways to get around these limits. The Hollow Men is full of examples – $1 million worth of Exclusive Brethren campaigning against National’s opponents, undeclared; biography of Don Brash written by Paul Goldsmith (who became a National Party candidate), paid for by National donors, rather than the official National Party; declared contracting of international PR companies to influence voters.
And so these new ways of getting around the established limits must be responded to with reform, if the ideal of democracy is going to stand a possibility against the perpetual propensity of political parties to put polls before policy. I suppose I could have made that “prior to policy” or something. If I was really trying.
The easiest thing to deal with is called push polling. Push polling, a practice for which Karl Rove is famous, involves using polls to disseminate ideas rather than for gathering information. In the 2000 Republican primary elections, Bush’s campaign used push polling against candidate John McCain. They rang people under the guise of gathering information and asked, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”
This was in South Carolina, and they were calling Republicans. So illegitimate children, especially black illegitimate children, aren’t these guys’ favourite things. Now, there was no reason to believe that McCain had any illegitimate children, black or otherwise, but he and his wife had adopted a Bangladeshi girl. Even though the poll question didn’t technically claim McCain had illegitimate children, it left those polled wondering, “Well, why are they asking that? Is there something they know that I don’t? Are they polling to find out how voters will respond when it actually comes out that he’s got an illegitimate child?” Or maybe nothing as complex as that. Perhaps they just could no longer see McCain on screen without thinking bad thoughts.
An example Hager gives in his book was in a by-election in Canberra in ’95. Opponents of Labor candidate Sue Robinson polled with questions including, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Sue Robinson and the Labor Party if you knew she has publicly stated that she supports the right to abortion up to the ninth month of pregnancy?” Robinson had stated no such thing. It was only through the work of journalists on Australian National Radio that the polling question became public, and the campaign guy behind it ended up writing her an apology and paying $80,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
And she lost the election. If the election was close, that push polling could have been the deciding factor, and $80,000 plus a little bad publicity for the Liberal Party was the price of victory in that seat. The campaigner behind the polling was a fellow named Mark Textor, who ended up working for Don Brash’s 2005 campaign.
But it’s only through sheer good luck that this stuff comes out. It is the role of the media to take political parties to task for unethical practices, but when certain things keep occurring – like push polling – the job shouldn’t be left entirely up to them. Nor should it be left up to them when mainstream journalists themselves are often hopelessly inadequate or have vested interests in politics themselves. (The editor of the National Business Review features heavily in The Hollow Men. It’s difficult to imagine the NBR breaking a story about National push polling.)
Instead, there should be institutional reform to stop it from happening. When it comes to push polling, the solution is simple: legally require all poll questions to be made publicly available. If undeclared polling is carried out, it should carry penalties from the Electoral Commission similar to undeclared campaign spending. The poll questions could be examined for slanderous statements.

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