Put down the polls, stand up, politicians!

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JUST because issues do not show in the polls does not mean that they are not politically important.

Take the ACT Government’s handling of gay marriage as an example.  Hardly anyone will change their vote on this issue. However, it is a difficult law reform issue and we do get the impression that Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and her team will stand up for what they believe.

Remember how cross many people were about John Howard and his cuts to the Canberra public service? The electorate was irritated with him, but recognised what he stood for and that he was trying to put Australia’s economic circumstances back on track.

Although his government was never going to win Canberra seats for the House of Representatives, the action did not cost him votes.

Our political parties need to make hard decisions. There is much more respect for standing up on an issue than for folding under pressure.

The irony is that this is the case even when we disagree with them.

I recall a series of incidents when door knocking the electorate.

Occasionally, a person would vigorously lambaste me for my stance on a particular issue. They would then conclude with a statement such as: “But the reason I am going to vote for you is that I know where you stand”.

As I walked away on one such occasion came the rejoinder, “but, for heaven’s sake, change your stance on illicit drugs,” even though they knew I would not.

It was not a key issue, not enough for them to change their vote. The then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd backed down to the mining industry and the carbon tax and Labor wound up with a minority government. These were difficult issues.

However, all but a few of those who were really implacably opposed to the Labor approach would have voted for them anyway. Instead of losing a few votes, they put a huge chink in their armour of strength and credibility.

Polling provides another danger. The political parties are constantly polling! They see voter sentiment changing on a weekly basis.

When the mining industry was spending tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to persuade people that it would be the small superannuate who was going to lose their investment dollars, the polling was not looking good for the government.

However, polling does not show the long-term sentiment of voters. It really measures the gut reaction of the people at a given moment.

This is really important when a government is close to an election, but is not an issue early-to-halfway through an electoral term.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was rating poorly in the polling while she stood up for the carbon tax, pushed on with plain packaging of tobacco and delivered on health and hospital reform.

However, now that the dust has settled and the fire and brimstone campaign of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is seen to be baseless, the polls are beginning to turn.

Scare campaigns are difficult to sustain once a decision has been made and people can see the reality.

The accusations about the Prime Minister breaking promises on carbon tax will have much less traction with many voters when they do not feel the impact that Abbott was promising them.

In the ACT, while the Labor Government is not garnishing any support or losing many votes with regard to equality in recognition of gay couples, Gallagher is slowly building a reputation that she can play political hardball. She can be strong.

However, Opposition Leader Zed Seselja and the Canberra Liberals have not played the same tough, negative game of their Federal counterparts.

He has run a consistent and determined strategy arguing that they are simply working for the best outcomes for the people of the ACT.

Labor needs to show that they can be strong-minded and determined on the one hand, but they also listen and while taking on some moral concerns do not lose sight of basic issues from economic management to rates, roads and rubbish.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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