Analysing Newspoll: Australian republicanism not in decline

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Some Republicans will have been disappointed yesterday to find headlines saying a Newspoll survey of 1200 Australians showed support for an Australian Republic had declined to 41 per cent. Republicans should take heart, because this figure does not reflect the true level of support. Closer reading of the poll tells a much brighter story for Australian republicans. David Donovan reports.

Yesterday's Newspoll saying support for an Australian Republic has declined to 41% has probably alarmed many Australians eager to see us finally become an independent and fully democratic and egalitarian nation. Of course, the truth is far more complicated than the headline figure would suggest.

As a former statistician, I have significant experience reading surveys and I can see some immediate problems in the media using this headline figure undigested.

The 'headline' survey

Professionally speaking, I would always question the reliability of a one-off survey based on such a small sample size over an entire nation of around 22 million people. Indeed, given Newpoll’s disclaimer that says that there is a 3% margin for sampling error in the statistics, it is difficult to reach any significant conclusions from this apparent 4% decline.

Survey methodology

To explain, the previous comparative poll, in 2007, showed 45% in favour of a Republic. If that poll was high – say it was actually 43% after sampling error, and this one was low, it was perhaps actually 44%  after error, then it is not beyond the realms of possibility that support for a Republic has actually increased. Alternatively, the decline may be even more pronounced, it is impossible to tell. The chances of these sort of anomalies are why polls of this size need to be taken regularly and a trendline plotted to exclude “outliers” before a reliable conclusion can be reached about any apparent trend in public opinion. And not having a survey since 2007 puts the whole statistical approach in question, particularly given previous polls seem to have been taken about every year.

Of course, taking the poll in the week of a major royal event is also a very questionable statistical method, since it could be seen as being likely to skew the results. People swept up by the emotion of the event and the blanket media coverage are, of course, quite likely to have had their rational republicanism weaken just during this time, only to have it return in spades once the media coverage abates and reporting becomes less gushingly positive towards the monarchy. Just what percentage responded that they are in favour of the monarchy because of the royal wedding? It is impossible to accurately predict, but it seems more than likely that it would be a few per cent.

As Benjamin Disraeli is said to have said, there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

But, let’s ignore all that, for argument’s sake, and simply accept the figures at face value. Even then, the story is not at all one of a massive decline in support for a Republic as has been reported in the press.

Getting away from the newsprint and looking at the actual poll results, it turns out Newspoll asked the sample group, in fact, three questions. The first question asked the respondent whether he or she wanted Australia to become a Republic now, and the second two were about whether they would like to see Australia become a Republic in the future under Charles and Camilla, and then under William and Kate.

Question 1: Do you want a republic now: detail

The first question, do you want a republic now, showed a drop in those strongly and partly in favour by 2 per cent in each category, with a corresponding increase in the partly against of 3% and uncommitted of 1%. Importantly, the dyed-in-the wool monarchists remained steady at 22%, exactly where they were in 2007.

It should be noted that, despite this small decline, more people want to have a republic than want the monarchy. In addition, 20% of people surveyed classed themselves as uncommitted, which is bound to include many who are likely to want a republic once they had received more information, along with some of those people swayed by the recently pervasive royal wedding PR.

In the words of Ipswich councillor Paul Tully, from the group Australian Republicans for an Elected President:

“Sixty-one percent of Australians either support an Australian republic or have no preference either way.”

Excluded from supporting a Republic in this question are likely to be the “Elizabethan” Republicans, who don’t want to have a republic while Queen Elizabeth II is on the throne. This would include such avowed republicans as the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the former Opposition Leader and chair of the Australian Republican Movement, Malcolm Turnbull. It is a fact that many people do feel affection for the Queen and don’t want a Republic while she is on the throne, and as she ages this temporary support for the monarchy is only likely to increase. But it does not indicate that republicanism is at all in decline. It is a sign of respect for a long-standing and highly respected individual monarch rather than a vote of approval for the institution as a whole.

Bearing in mind the "Elizabethans", the really relevant question would appear to be the second one, in which respondents were asked whether they would favour a republic under King Charles and Camilla?

Q2: effectively asks, 'do you want a republic after the Queen dies'

Here, 48% were in favour of becoming a Republic, 3 points down from the 51% recorded in 2007—inside the margin for error. Those partly against remained steady, but those strongly against declined by a massive 5 points, with the uncommitted down by another 2%.

All of which makes it hard to disagree with Cr Paul Tully, when he says:

“When King Charles and Queen Camilla are foisted on the people of Australia, there will be a surge in republican support which will see the monarchists disappear quicker than you can say Buckingham Palace.”

The last question asked whether respondents would support a Republic if Prince William became King instead of Prince Charles.

Q3: Republic under King William and Queen Catherine?

This results provide the proof, in case any further proof was needed, that the headline result is skewed by the “Elizabethans”, because support for a Republic increases back to exactly where it was in 2007: 45%. This is even despite the hoopla of the royal wedding and the blanket promotion of Prince William and Kate Middleton, including through William's recent Australian tour. It has, however, declined by 3 per cent from the 48% republicanism recorded against King Charles, in line with what you would expect given the aforemontioned hoopla.

How many people really support an Australian Republic? Certainly not 41 per cent as reported by the media. Using Newspoll’s research, if Prince Charles was King, 66% of people either support a republic or are uncommitted either way, with only 17% being strongly against. And even under the current Queen or a King William, this figure is still 61%—hardly a ringing endorsement for our current system.

Further drawing into question this poll is the Australian Election Study 2010 which asked a far more statistically significant 2,164 voting-age Australians at the 2010 federal election, which less than a year ago) and weighted by age, gender and socio-economic status:
Do you think that Australia should become a republic with an Australian head of state, or should the Queen be retained as head of state?

Strongly favour becoming republic - 550 - 25.4%
Favour becoming republic - 629 - 29.1%
Favour retaining the Queen as head of state - 696 - 32.2%
Strongly favour retaining the Queen as head of state - 289 - 13.4%

Valid cases 2164
Missing cases 50

That's 54.5% for a republic, and 45.6% for the "Queen as head of state".

So, given this uncertainty, why don’t we test out the real feeling of the Australian people by a non-binding plebiscite on whether Australians really want a Republic, rather than relying on debatable and inconclusive small-sample opinion polls. If monarchists are so sure of winning the vote on the question Australians have never yet been formally asked – ‘do you want Australia to become a Republic’ – then they should welcome the chance to kick the Republic into the long grass for a generation of more, as a negative vote would certainly do.

Their usual argument against a plebiscite is that it would encourage a vote of no-confidence in our current system. The problem with that statement is that when polls show between 61% and 66% of people do not support the current system, then the current system has a severe credibility problem already. Only by a nationwide public vote on the question of whether Australia should remain a monarchy will the current system be given that vital vote of confidence from the people. Until then, the feeling in the community that Australia should be a Republic will pervade public opinion. Surely monarchists don't want that?

If monarchists think republicanism is in decline, let’s see them put their money with their mouth is and support a vote on this question. You can be assured they won't, because they know they will lose.  
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