CITY BEAT
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Cooling thoughts on questionable polls

In the run-up to the political reform debate, some Hongkongers have asked whether we need cooling-off periods

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 June, 2015, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 12:58pm

Over the past years, each time I was in Taipei covering its presidential election, I was always amazed by those very different and at times conflicting poll results on the popularity of candidates. This was before, one day, a local TV reporter told me: “Hey, don’t take those results too seriously, we never did. Behind each poll there was a certain agenda. You Hong Kong reporters need to take that into consideration,” adding that thank God election laws in Taiwan required an overnight cooling-off period to allow voters to make up their mind without last-minute outside influence.

Cooling-off periods are common in many places ahead of elections. Macau, for example, introduced the concept years ago, but it has not yet been introduced in Hong Kong, despite being raised from time to time. The issue was mentioned again just recently not in connection with an election, but over the government’s 2017 universal suffrage proposal, which was voted down last week. 

Public opinion is supposed to be decisive in policy-making, but in the case of political reform, the polls failed to have any impact despite government efforts to try to use public pressure to convince pan-democrats to vote for the plan. 

For months, besides the rolling poll by three universities which ran until the morning the government tabled the proposal in the Legislative Council, Hongkongers had been bombarded with surveys conducted by different political parties, organisations, business chambers and others, all showing split views – even though, in most cases, the rate of support for the proposal was a few percentage points higher.

But despite efforts by the likes of Beijing and the government to persuade pan-democrats to switch sides, all in the end realised it was nothing more than wishful thinking given never-ending debate on the background of different pollsters, how a question was phrased or on technical issues such as whether landlines or mobile phones were being used for a particular poll.

No wonder then that towards the day of the vote, there were suggestions that  the government should seriously consider a cooling-off period for opinion polls for major policies in the future, to avoid confusing messages. This may remain an academic point, but the real issue is not whether there should be a period when no polls are conducted, but rather whether people should learn to be smart about how they analyse poll results.

While pollsters need to maintain their professionalism, in reality their different backgrounds are sometimes more decisive than the result itself in winning public trust. Take the government’s think tank, the Central Policy Unit, as an example. One of its responsibilities is to conduct surveys on officials’ performance and public reactions to certain major policies. However, we rarely see the unit’s survey results being released,

“The general public may question the motives of the government no matter how objectively the questions are set simply because it is a government unit and because the perception that it will tend to favour the government cannot be changed easily. The results are therefore usually kept for internal reference only,” said a government source, adding that public opinion, after all, is one but never the sole factor for any government in policy-making.

That said, whether there is a cooling-off period or not, when it comes to public opinion, people simply need to compare polls better and not expect the government or our politicians to act according to any survey since politics is more than that. This is a clear lesson of the months-long row over political reform.