Trends in Australian political opinion: results from the Australian election study, 1987-2010

6 May 2013

Political opinion polls are an inescapable part of everyday life. Government or opposition policies rarely see the light of day without some poll evidence to gauge the public’s response to them. Party leaders are constantly evaluated against their poll ratings, not least by their colleagues, and consistently low ratings can often spell a leader’s demise. And not least, Prime Ministers call elections when they consider the polls to be most favourable to them.

Interpreting political opinion polls is sometimes difficult. On particular issues or with regard to particular personalities, opinions may change significantly in a short period of time as a result of an event or a changed circumstance. Small changes in question wordings or in sample design may cause what appear to be significant changes in public opinion when such changes are, in fact, an artefact of the survey’s methodology. The most reliable way in which to monitor trends in public opinion is to examine responses over an extended period of time, using questions asked in the same way and included in surveys that use the same methodology.

This monograph presents trends in Australian public opinion on politics over an extended period of time. In most cases, our trends run from 1987 until 2010; in some cases, the same questions have been asked in surveys conducted in 1967, 1969 and 1979, allowing us to extend the time series back another two decades. The 1987 to 2010 trends are based on the Australian Election Study (AES) surveys, comprehensive post-election surveys of political opinion that have asked the same questions and used the same methodology. The 1967, 1969 and 1979 surveys are also comprehensive academic surveys of political opinion; all three surveys were conducted by Don Aitkin, who pioneered the use of the mass public opinion survey in the academic study of politics in Australia.

The AES provides the most sophisticated and exhaustive set of data ever collected in Australia on the dynamics of political behaviour. Each of the AES surveys contains questions relating to the role of media and media exposure; general political interest and knowledge; perceptions of the election campaign; party identification and prior voting history; parents’ and partner partisanship; vote in the election and the explanations given for it; party images; perceptions of the major party leaders and the content of their public images; election issues; social policy issues; and a range of socio-demographic measures including education, occupation, religious behaviour, family circumstances, and income.

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