AUSTIN, Texas—Two research centers from The University of Texas at Austin brought together 347 people of diverse backgrounds from throughout Australia last week for two days of intensive deliberation on whether Australia should forever break away from the British monarchy.
For 100 years, Australia has maintained its links with the British monarchy in the form of a governor-general appointed by the queen of England to represent her in Australia. The Australians now are considering severing this 100-year-old link. A referendum on Nov. 6 calls for replacing the governor-general with a president appointed by the Australian parliament.
UT Austin professors John Higley, director of the Edward A. Clark Center for Australian Studies, and James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Polling, saw the campaign leading up to the election as a perfect opportunity to hold a deliberative poll. The purpose of this poll would be to determine how opinions of a random sample of Australian voters would change after becoming better informed on the issues.
Joining forces with an Australian scholar, Dr. Pamela Ryan, who is a research associate of UT Austin’s Center for Australian Studies, Higley and Fishkin were able to launch their project. On Friday through Sunday (Oct. 22-24), the three collaborators staged Australia’s first ever deliberative poll. Also traveling to Australia to conduct the poll was Professor Robert Luskin, a specialist in survey data analysis at UT Austin’s Center for Deliberative Polling.
The dramatic results — a 40 percent change in attitudes toward approving the proposed change to a republic — captured banner headlines in Australian newspapers and dominated broadcast news throughout the country, said Higley.
He said the deliberative poll involved taking a random sample of 1,220 voters in early September and interviewing them about their attitudes concerning the referendum. At that time, only about 20 percent favored the referendum proposal to change to a republic with the president appointed by the Australian parliament.
The 347 who assembled at Old Parliament House in Canberra between Oct. 22-24 were a nearly exact microcosm of the initial September sample, Higley said. Polled again with the question they were asked in September, 61 percent favored the proposed change after they had considered it in detail for two days.
During those two days, the participants had an opportunity to question experts and debate the issues among themselves in small group sessions as well as all together in nationally televised sessions that also helped to make viewers a better informed electorate for the upcoming referendum, Higley said.
Higley attributed the change in participant opinions to knowledge the participants had gained by interviewing the experts and exchanging viewpoints with fellow participants with similar and different opinions.
The Australian version of the American TV show, 60 Minutes, also taped part of the process and will broadcast it to some three million viewers on the Sunday evening before the referendum. In addition, the global BBC World channel taped a half-hour segment that it will televise to 160 countries on the Wednesday before the referendum.
Higley said the deliberative poll technique was developed at UT Austin by Fishkin. The Australian poll was the 16th time the technique has been used. Fishkin first used the deliberative poll during the National Issues Convention on the UT Austin campus at the start of the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign.
For additional information, contact Fishkin at (512) 471- 5121 or Higley at 471-9607.