A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s

R e v i e w

Public Opinion and the Democratic Deficit: Australia and the War Against Iraq

by Murray Goot

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this paper has been divided
into parts I & II


Shortly before the war, Newspoll attempted to pin down what the phrase ‘UN support’ might mean. It asked respondents what their view would be ‘[i]f the UN supported military action but a UN member vetoed action’ (Shanahan, 2003c) and found almost as many respondents (42 per cent) said Australian troops should go to war, even if one nation did exercise a veto (Tony Blair’s position), as said they should not (50 per cent). This contrasted sharply with the response to its regular question about support for ‘Australia’s involvement in military action if the United Nations had not given approval for any action’ – a question that constantly showed the majority not only ‘opposed’ but ‘strongly opposed’. What was problematic was not the new question but the old; specifically, the failure of the regular question to ascertain what respondents understood by the idea of the UN not giving its approval.

With the war underway, only one poll returned to the question of the UN. At the end of March, ACNielsen presented respondents with an updated version of the three-options it had tested in mid- January. This time the results were almost exactly the reverse of the earlier findings. Instead of 62 per cent saying that ‘Australia should be involved in a war against Iraq only as part of a United Nations approved force’, only 27 per cent agreed that ‘Australia should not be involved in the war against Iraq because it has not been approved by the United Nations’. And instead of finding just 6 per cent prepared to agree that ‘Australia should be involved in a war against Iraq even though the United Nations does not approve the war’, 44 per cent now endorsed the view that ‘Australia should be involved in the war in Iraq even though the United Nations has not approved of the war’ (Dodson, 2003; Riley, 2003).

Had the war really transformed opinion? According to ACNielsen, it had; and the change ‘reflected a view of reality’ – that Australian troops had now become ‘involved’ and the ‘UN was out of the picture’ (Dodson, 2003). But results from two other polling organisations suggest that while support for Australia’s participation increased, the war had not turned opinion upside down. By the end of March, support for ‘Australian troops being involved in military action against Iraq’ had increased by just six percentage points, according to Newspoll. At the same time, when Morgan asked about ‘Australians being part of the American military force’ being ‘used to depose Saddam Hussein’, the proportion in favour of such a force was only slightly higher than it had been in December.

The only poll that supports the transformation in sentiment argued by ACNielsen is the Hawker Britton-UMR poll. At the end of March, Hawker Britton-UMR reported that half (51 per cent) of its respondents supported Australian participation in ‘a United States led attack on Iraq’; at the beginning of March the corresponding figure had been just a third (32 per cent). But Bevan Lisle, who manages the poll, prefers to compare his firm’s last poll not with the poll conducted earlier in March but with the poll conducted by Morgan in January. In the Morgan poll, 53 per cent of respondents said Australia should support war ‘if military action goes ahead’; in the Hawker Britton-UMR poll, 51 per cent of respondents supported Australian participation when the war did go ahead. In the ACNielsen poll, only 44 per cent supported the war. These figures, he argues, suggest not that support increased after war broke out but that it decreased (Lisle, pers. com.).

In January, the ACNielsen question was designed to tap an absolute: no UN support for war, then public support for no war. But respondents do not appear to have stuck to the script. What the question elicited from most of the ‘no UN, no war’ group, the March poll suggests, was a statement of preference for a war mandated by the UN, not a stand against a war that the UN might not mandate. When the UN said ‘no’, but America, Britain and Australia said ‘yes’, this preference was simply made manifest.

Support for this line of interpretation is not far to seek. The first and most obvious support comes from the Morgan poll, taken in January, which reported that if military action were to go ahead, the majority of respondents thought Australian should support it. Soon after war broke out, another Morgan poll asked respondents whether, taking ‘everything into account…the United Nations should have supported military action against Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein or not.’ Nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of respondents said that the UN should have supported military action. Among those who felt that Australia should not go to war without the UN’s blessing, prior to the war, many may have wanted the UN to endorse the military option.

Evidence is also available from polling in the United States. There, in January and again in February, more than half of those interviewed (54 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively) agreed that the US should ‘first get a United Nations resolution to use force before taking military action against Iraq’; hardly surprising, perhaps, since polled opinion in the Clinton years showed widespread support for American force being used through the UN rather than unilaterally (Kull and Destler, 1999: 66-7, 77-80). Nonetheless, when asked what the United States should do if ‘the US and most of its allies back using force against Iraq, but the UN resolution is vetoed by one or two countries who oppose it’, those in favour of getting a UN resolution were split down the middle with roughly half (25 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively) agreeing that United States should ‘use force if it feels it is the right thing to do’ (Pew, 2003: 7,19). In the ACNielsen poll, too, roughly half of those who had looked to the UN before the war appear to have supported the United States and its allies once the fighting began.

The only valid comparison between the question ACNielsen asked in January and the question it asked in March may be the contrast to be drawn between the responses to the third option, the one designed to flush out opposition to a war whatever the position of the UN. In the January poll, 30 per cent said that ‘Australia should not be involved in a war against Iraq’; in the March poll, no more than 21 per cent said that ‘Australia should not be involved in a war against Iraq at all’. This represents a shift, certainly; but hardly a turnaround.

Other measures also suggest that opinion shifted towards the Government’s position, once the war was underway: the Hawker Britton-UMR series on ‘Australian armed forces participating in a United States led attack’; the Newspoll series on ‘Australian troops being involved in military action’; and, to a lesser extent, Morgan’s series on ‘Australians being part of the American military force.’

What this shift signified is a question on which the polls shed no light. Respondents may have come to support the war because of what many thought was the one-sidedness of the media’s coverage: in a poll taken at the end of March, Hawker Britton-UMR reported that 45 per cent thought ‘the media coverage’ had been ‘biased towards the United States and its allies’; only 5 per cent thought it ‘biased towards Iraq’. More likely, respondents shifted because of the ‘propaganda of the deed’. How else to explain Newspoll’s finding that nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of those interviewed towards the end of the war thought ‘success in Iraq’ would be ‘good’ rather than bad ‘for future world security and stability’ (Lewis, 2003b); or the rise from a quarter (24 per cent) to a third (33 per cent), ten days into the fighting, in the proportion of those interviewed by Hawker Britton-UMR who thought that Australia’s participation in a US attack would make ‘no difference’ to ‘the risk of a terrorist attack on Australia’? As Paul Kelly prophesied: ‘In war success creates its own legitimacy…pre-war sentiment won’t matter a fig’ (2003a). Or to quote Howard’s more prosaic forecast, a lot would depend ‘on how things unfold’ (DT, 2003).

It is conceivable that the polls shifted not because of any change of heart among respondents about the war itself but ‘purely’, as Guy Rundle, the co-editor of Arena Magazine put it, because of ‘communal loyalty to fellow Australians in a dangerous situation’ (2003). This interpretation was widely circulated, especially in Labor ranks, partly as a way of saving the hypothesis that war was something the public would continue to oppose. Though the idea was never pursued through the polls, it is difficult to reconcile with other data: poll data generated after the first Iraq war (Goot, 1992: 160-1); a focus group, reported by Hugh Mackay, in which a sense of solidarity with the Australian troops seems not to have surfaced as a force shaping support for the war (2003); and the fall in anti-war sentiment in a non-combatant state like France (Reuters, 2003).

What Newspoll, in particular, did not fail to pursue during the war was the rise in support for the Prime Minister, the fall in support for the Leader of the Opposition, and the widening difference between support for the Coalition parties and support for Labor. Between March 14-16 and April 11-13, according to Newspoll, the proportion of respondents ‘satisfied with the way John Howard [was] doing his job as Prime Minister rose from 48 per cent (the point to which it had initially slipped mid-February, the weekend of the anti-war marches) to 58 per cent; the proportion ‘dissatisfied with the way Simon Crean [was] doing his job as Leader of the Opposition’ increased from 52 per cent (even mid-February it had been 53 per cent) to 57 per cent; and the gap between support for the Coalition and the support for Labor grew from five percentage points (six percentage points, mid-February) to thirteen percentage points. Support for Howard and the Coalition had risen, notwithstanding the war being fought outside the framework of the UN. Support for Crean and Labor had fallen, notwithstanding Crean’s success in placing himself ‘lockstep with a significant majority of Australians’ (Hawker, 2003) - or, as Howard preferred to put it, notwithstanding that the Leader of the Opposition was being driven by opinion polls (Lewis, 2003c). And support for the Greens had remained more or less steady (Lewis, 2003d), notwithstanding the size of the demonstrations and the position of the Greens as an unambiguously anti-war party.

The Morgan poll, which reports voting intention but not leaders’ support, tells a rather different story. Between March 15-16 and March 22-23, according to Morgan’s reading, the Coalition built a lead of 9.5 percentage points over Labor, having started with no lead at all. But between March 22-23 and April 5-6, there was an even bigger movement the other way: by the end of the first two weeks of war Labor was ahead of the Coalition by two percentage points. Thereafter, there was a swing back: from April 5-6 to April 12-13 and from April 12-13 to April 19/20, the Coalition led by four percentage points and then by 9.5 percentage points. By war’s end, in other words, the Coalition was no further ahead of Labor than it had been at the start. As with Newspoll, the same was said to be true of the Greens (Morgan, 2003e).

In trying to assess whether the public came to the ‘public judgment’ of which Yankelovich speaks, the polls provide some assurance, though of a limited kind. A Morgan poll, taken in December, on what respondents thought were the three main issues the government should be ‘doing something about’ suggests that a fair number of people had engaged in the issue; 22 per cent of respondents nominated things to do with ‘national security’ or ‘terrorism’, three times as many as mentioned such issues after September 2001 (Morgan, 2002b). At the beginning of February, Newspoll ventured further. It reported that for more nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of those interviewed ‘the issue of Australian troops being involved in a war against Iraq’ would be either ‘very important’ (35 per cent) or ‘fairly important’ (36 per cent) to the way they voted at a federal election (Shanahan, 2003a) – though, whatever the issue, questions in this form typically elicit this sort of response. The polls also suggest that respondents knew something of the choices that confronted the country. And they provide evidence of widespread concern about one of the possible consequences of going to war – the increased threat of terrorism.

However, the polls do not tell us much about whether respondents had ‘considered the issue from all sides’; whether, for example, those in favour of war had considered other ways of containing Saddam, or whether those against the war had reckoned with the life-chances of those condemned to remain under Saddam. Nor do the polls tell us whether respondents accepted the ‘full consequences’ of the choices they were being asked to make - in relation to Australia’s relations with the United States or with various countries in the region; in relation to the budget and other opportunity costs; or in relation to lives saved or lost. This was true, it should be stressed, of those who were happy for Australia to be part of ‘the coalition of the willing’, of those prepared to sanction war only if it were to be conducted under the UN’s auspices, and of those who insisted that what the war really represented was ‘the killing by the willing’.


After the publication of one of the last of the pre-war polls, Alan Ramsey, a Canberra columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, declared that the Prime Minister had ‘grievously misjudged Australian sentiment’. To support his claim he quoted at length from Rod Cameron of Australian Nationwide Opinion Polls, about ‘a growing and entrenched opposition to the Iraq war’. Said Cameron: ‘It would be a very unpopular war – very unpopular and John Howard would not win the issue, even if it were a short and a sharp encounter’. Cameron, who had polled for Labor during much of the 1970s and 1980s, insisted that ‘[t]he numbers are now and will remain opposed to a war’. And, he added: ‘I think that’s true with or without the UN backing’ (Ramsey, 2003).

After the publication of the first Newspoll of the war, the Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, declared that the Government’s decision to go to war ‘had transformed Australian sentiment’. Before the war, Newspoll had reported that opinion was against the war. Now, with support and opposition to the war ‘virtually even’, the line that Howard had ‘defied the democratic will’ was ‘lost’ (2003c).

As claims about the state of the polls before the war, attempts to second-guess their shape after the war, or descriptions of their movements following the commencement of the war, the conclusions drawn by Cameron and Kelly were by turns wrong, foolish, and extravagant. A careful reading of the polls conducted before the war suggests three important conclusions. First, that many of the questions were misleading, none more so than that purported to show how respondents would feel if the UN were to oppose the war. Second, and leaving aside the questions about the UN, that as war approached the difference between the proportion of supporters of Australia’s involvement in the war and the proportion of opponents was not very great. And third, apart from questions about the UN, strong opposition to the war never registered widely enough to merit so forceful a description as the one used by Kelly - ‘democratic will’. Even if it had, the public’s backing of the war once it started hardly entails its support for war before it started.

As war approached, especially after the anti-war marches, there were calls for a plebiscite on the issue (Tingle, 2003b); indeed, ‘the plebiscite line received blanket coverage on radio and TV and in the papers’ (Price, 2003b). One social theorist, Ghassan Hage, having noted that Howard’s supporters thought it ‘nice to have a politician driven by convictions rather than by polls’, went on to argue that in a democracy ‘politicians still have to convince a majority of the people’ (2003). However, in liberal democracies claims of this kind are at best contestable and at worst untrue. As the Daily Telegraph (18 January) already had argued, to say that the Prime Minister would be ‘acting improperly’ if he committed Australian troops would be ‘to fail to comprehend the basic tenets of democracy’. As leader of the Government, ‘Mr Howard has been elected to speak on behalf of all citizens’ and if he believed it to be in ‘the national interest’ to go to war, it was his right to go there.

The only way to legitimate Howard’s decision to insert Australian forces ‘in this US venture’, Hage maintained, was ‘through an immediate referendum or some other democratic mechanism.’ (Another academic social scientist, Peter Christoff (2003), pleaded a similar case as a counter to a ‘substantial democratic deficit’). However, the call for an ‘immediate referendum’ made little sense. No referendum can be immediate: from the drafting of a parliamentary bill to the counting of the final result takes months. The delay occasioned by a referendum may have precluded Australia from participating in any war – including a war endorsed by the UN. And even if this were not the case, those who called for a referendum failed to spell out exactly what it was the Government might be authorized to do if the referendum passed, or what it would be unable to do if the referendum failed.

More generally, the call failed to make a persuasive case for having a referendum on Iraq but not on other issues, including those on which the likely outcome might not be what some advocates of a referendum in relation to Iraq would have wanted. Hage was not alone in suggesting that the Government’s decision ‘to send Australians to die’ was a special case. And while the Government was not, as it turned out, sending any Australians to die – and the nature of the deployment minimised the number that might have died – it was certainly putting Australian lives at risk. But were Hage and others right in seeing a decision of this kind as somehow special? Not necessarily. Governments constantly make decisions – about health, roads, welfare, and so on – that make it more likely that some people will die while others will live.

A public opinion poll might be considered a quicker, and cheaper, alternative to a referendum. Certainly George Gallup promoted polls as if they were equivalent to a referendum. But polls and referendums are quite different. In a referendum someone other than the pollster, usually the government, determines the question; there is a relatively long period of public debate; and in the course of the campaign, in which people know their voice will count, opinions can change quite rapidly. Polls on Iraq with differently worded questions often produced different results; in a referendum, where the wording of the questions may be less important than what the protagonists say is at stake, differently worded questions might have produced rather similar results.

What of the ‘other’ democratic mechanism? Over the ‘unpopular GST’, Hage recalled, Howard ‘went to the people and obtained a mandate’. In 1998, Howard did campaign on a Goods and Services Tax. But he won despite the GST not because of it. And while the Coalition won the majority of seats in the House of Representatives it did not do so in the Senate, where representation – as in the European Parliament – is based not on the equal representation of individuals but on the unequal representation of territories and states. In the event, the Coalition obtained a mandate to form a government rather than a mandate to introduce a GST (Goot, 1999). An election in late 2002 or early 2003, one that would have been held little more than a year after the last election was not necessarily one that voters would have welcomed. And an election outcome, in which war parties held the majority in the House, while anti-war parties held the majority in the Senate, may have produced something that looked less like a democratic solution than a democratic conundrum.

Common to those proposing some democratic mechanism by which Howard could be held more immediately accountable was an assumption that the Prime Minister was not following public opinion but defying it, something he had done - though critics of the Prime Minister as a poll-follower rarely acknowledged it - over the privatisation of Telstra in 1996, the Goods and Services Tax in 1998, and the Republic in 1999 (Goot, 2000). It is possible that Howard, too, saw himself at odds with the public on Iraq; certainly, he never suggested openly that public opinion was on his side. But, if the conclusion in this paper is valid, the dominant reading of the polls was mistaken. As the Morgan poll, in January, reported respondents were prepared to support a war if war were declared and if - as the context implied - America and its allies were engaged in it.

Howard may have chosen to go to war not because he thought of himself as a delegate of the people, authorised through the polls, but because - in the fashion of deliberative democrat - he wanted to do what the public would have done ‘if it had a more adequate chance to think about the questions at issue’ (Fishkin, 1991: 1). High among the questions at issue was the future of Australia’s relations with the world’s only ‘hyperpower’, the United States – a relationship that involved not only the hope of continued military security but also the prospect of free bi-lateral trade. ‘Any country that steps up to the plate now in support of the administration’, a former top Pentagon official remarked, prior to the war, ‘will get a lot of credit and will be remembered for a long time’ (Hartcher, 2003; for Howard’s views along these lines, see Kelly, 2003d).

Ultimately, however, the idea that the Prime Minister pursued his ends without regard to public opinion in the here and now makes little political sense; as one journalist has observed, Howard ‘prides himself on having the best-tuned political antennae in the business’ (Penberthy, 2003). Thanks to Mark Textor, the Party’s mainstay in matters of market research, Howard would have been furnished with critical readings of the poll stories carried by the press, plied with alternative data, and offered independent strategic advice. Whether, as a consequence, the Prime Minister set much store by the published polls is a moot point.

Textor is likely to have concentrated his efforts around focus groups – small numbers of carefully selected respondents encouraged to speak freely about the sorts of things the Party wanted to hear about - the better, he might have argued, for getting a handle on what the Party’s key constituencies were saying, how they were saying it, and the nature of their reasoning.

Insofar as his regular polling in marginal seats touched on the war, Textor is certain to have employed different techniques from those used in generating the published polls. Howard, who talked of voters being not only opposed to war or in favour of it, but of being somewhere in the middle, is said to have complained about opinion polls being ‘narrow in the “black-white, war-peace” cast of their questions’ (Milne, 2003b). Remarks of this kind may provide a clue to Textor’s own approach. More importantly, he is likely to have asked different sorts of questions. Whereas the published polls concentrated on questions of policy, Textor is likely to have focused on ‘diagnostics’. Instead of asking respondents to come up with remedies (should Australia go to war to change the regime in Iraq?) he would have been more interested in questions that showed whether the Coalition rated more highly than Labor as a party that was trustworthy, likely to manage national security well, and so on – the sort of questions that have formed part of the party’s program of continuous polling since Howard came to office in 1996.

Such an approach is related not to direct democracy, of course, or to deliberative democracy but to the approach to democracy championed by the Master of Balliol, A.D. Lindsay. The point about democracy, argued Lord Lindsay, in the same year as Schumpeter’s book was published, is that if the shoes pinches voters are the only ones ‘who can tell where they pinch’. Voters cannot be expected to have more than ‘the vaguest ideas’ of what reform will stop the pinching; that is the job of legislators and administrators; and they can be held to account at the next election (1943: 269-70). In the meantime, he might have added, there is no reason why voters shouldn’t be able to express their confidence in which of the shoemakers they want to have fix which shoe.

What advice the Prime Minister received from Textor we do not know. But it is likely to have had a bearing on at least three things. First, and most importantly, the Prime Minister's freedom of manoeuvre. The focus groups would have afforded considerable insight into the extent to which respondents were prepared, even happy, to defer to the Prime Minister’s sense of the national interest, access to better information, and wider experience; the polls would have revealed whether the style of government respondents were seeking was one that valorised strength and decisiveness at the top or one that privileged a sense of the government’s listening to and being in touch with voters at the bottom. Second, the Prime Minister would have received strategic advice in relation to the Opposition. This may have encouraged the Prime Minister to weaken Labor’s electoral position by adopting, what President Clinton’s pollster called, the strategy of ‘triangulation’ (Morris, 2002, 89ff); here, the act of embracing not only his own preferred means (the US) of disarming Iraq but also Labor’s preferred means (the UN). And third, the Prime Minister is certain to have been offered a critical reading of the polls published in the press. In particular, Textor is sure to have included advice sharply at odds with that offered by Newspoll’s Sol Lebovic, who insisted, a month before the war, that ‘Opinion towards Australian involvement depends entirely on whether there is UN backing or not’ (Price, 2003a).

Murray Goot, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, is the co-editor of Australia's Gulf War (MUP, 1992) and is editing a special issue of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research on the war with Iraq.

Return to Part I of 'Public Opinion and the Democratic Deficit: Australia and the War Against Iraq'


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A short, preliminary, version of this paper was presented to the seminar on War Against Iraq and the Democratic Deficit sponsored by the Graduate Program in Public Policy, and the National Institute of Government and Law, RSSS, ANU, on 6 February 2003. I am grateful to Kylie Brass for research assistance and to Sandey Fitzgerald, Sean Scalmer and the Journal’s referee for comments.

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In Australian Humanities Review, see also