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EMRS: Lib 49 Labor 23 Green 23 Ind 5
Interpretation: Lib 50 Labor 28 Green 19 Ind 3 (Ind perhaps much larger, depending upon candidates)
Outcome if election was held now: Liberal Majority

It’s been a month for irrelevant second places for the Greens.  In the Legislative Council election for the seat of Hobart, they finished ahead of Labor for the first time in any LegCo election that both parties contested.  Yet the feat was more a curiosity than a sign of popular support, given the substantial swing against them as well, the fact that they only beat Labor because a very prominent independent was preferred over Labor by about two-thirds of non-Green voters, and investigation of an alleged breach of the Electoral Act in their advertising.

Now, in the May EMRS poll the Greens have tied with Labor on the indicator now used as the headline rate, for the first time ever, and again, it sounds great but it doesn’t really mean a lot.  Many readers will be well aware that EMRS polls overestimate the Green vote and greatly underestimate the Labor vote, as shown by past election results and comparisons with competing pollsters (made back when there were any).  The Greens’ increase on the previous poll is actually only barely statistically significant (meaning most of it could be down to random fluctuations), it’s an increase from a very low base by the standards of recent years, and they wouldn’t really go near matching their 2010 percentage of the vote if an election were held today.  And once again, that the Greens (even with the EMRS boost factor) are able to tie with Labor in a poll is only because Labor itself is polling awfully, just one point (on the new EMRS headline rate) ahead of the nadir of 22 recorded in the August 2011 poll. 

Still, some improvement in the Greens’ polling is better for them than none.  Looking at the overall picture, not a great deal has changed.  Assuming the poll is in some distant sense reliable (despite the reasons not to take anything from EMRS too seriously) then we are are still in Liberal majority government territory “if an election was held right now”.  My usual method of converting EMRS electorate-by-electorate breakdowns into a base for seat forecasts is to redistribute the undecided voters evenly between the major parties rather than to the Greens, and to pool the current poll with the previous one, rounding averages in favour of the former.  In this case the method produces 13-16 Liberal, 5-7 Labor, 4-5 Green and a good chance of an Independent in Denison, with the sum of the individually most likely seat outcomes being actually 13-6-5-1, provided there is actually anyone there to be the 1.  Under the 35 seat system, which could yet be restored before the election, the results are similar – something like 18-10-6-1 but with the possibility of the Liberals winning up to three more, and no real chance of them being short of a majority. 

A notable feature in this poll is the rise in those claiming they would vote for “independents”.  In the previous poll the sum of electorate-by-electorate “independent” responses was 16 (for an average of 3.2) and in this poll it is 29 (average 5.8).  However, this probably doesn’t really reflect a sudden upsurge in Lower House pro-independent voting sentiment.  What it most likely reflects is the Legislative Council elections contaminating claimed Lower House voting patterns.  A similar thing happened in May 2011 when the sum of those ratings was 27, and there is also a regional connection between the scale of claimed indie-voting intent (and increases in that figure) and the locations of Legislative Council seats up for grabs.  It is very hard to tell what proportion of the vote independents or fourth forces might actually get in a state election when we don’t yet know whether any competitive independents will be standing.  There being no sign of any yet, I have interpreted the headline rate as an overestimate, but it could even be an underestimate if strong independents should emerge.  (In the leadup to past elections, EMRS understated the vote for both Andrew Wilkie and Ben Quin in polls where those independents weren’t explicitly named as options.)

Again we have seen much noise about the high undecided rate, which is supposed to be a “major concern to all parties”, but which really should be a major concern to the pollster.  EMRS undecided rates are always high except for polls taken not long before or after elections.  This is partly an outcome of EMRS measuring the undecided rate differently to other pollsters, partly because of the number of swinging voters who make up their minds which major party to vote for when they see which one can win a majority, but largely because EMRS aren’t as good as some other pollsters at convincing their respondents to volunteer an answer. The “soft undecided” rate (undecided without further prodding) is 25, the same as it was for February, having been in the range 22-25 since last February.  As I wrote back in May 2009 when there were excitable comments about a soft undecided rate of 24:

“There is nothing unusually high about an undecided rate of 24 in an EMRS poll.  It was 22-23 for most of 2008 and about that level at the same point of the previous electoral cycle.”

There’s not been that much reaction to this poll so far – predictable noises from the Liberals and the Greens, and no sign so far of the habitually too-cute spin releases from the Premier’s office.  Among media commentaries, David Killick says the Libs have failed to “capitalise on the continued unpopularity of the State Government”.  There’s something in that actually, although not for the reasons he advances.  The two-point difference mentioned between Labor’s raw result last time and this time is within the margin of error and probably meaningless. Labor’s polling has been bouncing along what is probably about rock bottom since the start of last year after all, and the last poll was their least worst for a while.  But still, there is a clear declining trend in the Liberal vote since August 2011.  The proportion of voters picking the Libs after prodding of the undecided jumped from 41% to 47% in that August poll, then dropped back in subsequent polls to 46, 44 and now 40. Some of the difference could be caused by the LegCo indie bounce I mentioned above (or perhaps by the defective polling methods reported for the August 2011 poll but not confirmed in any subsequent cases), but the Libs’ position would not have to decline much more before their hold on a potential majority became a little shaky. 

It’s also notable, as Aaron Lakin points out (while incorrectly calling it an “approval rating”) that also since last August Will Hodgman’s preferred-premier score has gone down nine points from 52 to 43.  Only three of the nine points have gone to “none of the above”.  Incumbents are generally advantaged in this kind of “beauty-contest” polling, an example being Gillard level-pegging with Abbott while her approval rating is somewhat worse than his and the 2PP picture is horrific for her party.  So a score of 43 for Hodgman is by no means a bad result, but with the Liberal vote also down seven points it seems that either the Opposition and its leader are not now as ragingly popular as nine months ago, or else they never were that popular to start with.

(Incidentally, Will isn’t actually the state’s “longest serving opposition leader” – he will soon move into fifth place on that list, headed by Sir Angus Bethune, who held the position for just over nine years.  He is, however, the longest-serving current opposition leader of a state.)

While I remain convinced that the Liberals are very likely to win the next state election outright (not necessarily by more than one seat), a risk factor that could at least affect the size of their win is the federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.  In the current polling cycle, Abbott’s attempt to butter up Western Australia over GST revenue was reported as a potential hazard to Tasmania’s share, and Abbott’s attempt to put out the fire was not wholly successful, and was reported as an instance of him telling each state what it wanted to hear.  While Hodgman strongly countered Abbott’s remarks, he seemed left out to dry by his federal leader, and the debate raised the question of whether a federal Coalition government would really act to protect Tasmania’s economy, and what a state Liberal government could really do about it if it didn’t, especially when the five Tasmanian House of Reps seats are not currently big Coalition priorities.

Another concern for the Liberals at state level would be that the Coalition might win a federal election well before the next state election is held.  In an important piece on his blog recently, Antony Green demonstrated a relationship that has held since 1969 between the party in office in Canberra and the proportion of state seats held by the Labor Party.  (A similar relationship would apply in reverse to the Coalition forces.)  With few exceptions, once a party has been in office federally for any length of time, that party starts shedding seats at state level, and continues to do so until it is evicted federally, around which point it starts gaining at state level again.  The results Antony has compiled do not prove either that sharp decline at state level or a very low level of state seats nationwide necessarily doom a party federally, but they do suggest a remarkably strong relationship the other way. 

Tasmania’s history over the last 50 years generally bears that out, in a way: when the party in power in Tasmania is also in power federally, it is typically either not that way for long (as with the Liberals taking power under Gray the year before losing it federally) or else is in minority at state level, often with a often with a low vote that declines at the next election.  This pattern is in opposition to the other two patterns that I think weigh much more heavily in the Liberals’ favour – that modern Australian state governments over 13 years old lose elections, and that Tasmanian state governments supported by the Greens lose elections - but a Liberal in the Lodge well before the next state poll will not do Hodgman any favours, especially not if that Liberal is Tony Abbott.  No wonder the state Liberals are so keen to go to an election now.

Because of the Abbott comments primarily, this wasn’t such a great polling cycle for the Liberals.  The coming cycle could be a shocker for the Government with another painful budget, power price increases and the IGA process still shambling around somewhere.  We shall see if this returns the Liberals to the stratosphere, or if they just continue to be viewed by voters as the least worst of an unappealing bunch.