Poll position ... Antony Green. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
Antony Green has become the face of Australian elections; his opinions valued by insiders and respected by journalists, writes Heath Aston.
WHY is it not surprising when electoral analyst Antony Green mentions he keeps score when he goes to the AFL?
Of course he does.
While the crowd around him cheer the Swans when they're winning, howl at the footy gods when they're losing and chew nervously on their programs when things are tight, Green is there, pen in hand, methodically keeping count.
Six points for a goal, one for a behind. The result is always right there in the numbers.
Most of the time a winner becomes clear long before the final whistle is blown.
Just like on election night.
"I don't know why [I keep score]. That's just me, I have to keep count," Green says over coffee at ABC headquarters in Ultimo.
"I probably do it as much to annoy my friends as anything else but if I was on my own I'd still keep score."
Many would be surprised and delighted by this slavish off-duty data-gathering. For most footy fans, the trickiest mathematical problem is how to carry four beers and two pies with only two hands.
Besides, there have been scoreboards at the SCG since 1895 and as far as I can tell they have done a pretty good job of keeping count since then.
Spend some time with Green and you realise that for him that's not the point. The joy is in the numbers themselves, how they flow, how they can be read to pick the result.
Australia's premier electoral scorekeeper works from a cluttered office down the hall from his election night co-host Kerry O'Brien in The 7.30 Report newsroom.
On the wall is a dog-eared electoral map of NSW from the turn of last century showing the large number of country seats that used to exist west of the Blue Mountains.
What might fascinate the casual observer is that they're all coloured red, showing Labor's stranglehold on rural seats at a time when the countryside teemed with low-paid, manual workers. Different days indeed.
What fascinates Green is how much the electoral boundaries have been redrawn since then. He says he loves the system of democracy and how it functions. He doesn't love politics.
When asked what it's like to have a ringside seat for historic moments such as election 2007, when John Howard was slayed so comprehensively that he was punted from his own seat, Green looks puzzled.
"I didn't really get that. This was a decision by voters about who they wanted to lead the country. It's a process, nothing more than that. It wasn't the liberation of Baghdad."
When Kevin Rudd was making his acceptance speech, Green was reading the numbers coming out of Western Australia.
"I tend not to do a lot political commentary during the campaign. I'm not a political tactician, I'm an election analyst. I analyse voter behaviour, my background is political science, I'm interested in how people vote."
The 50-year-old, who has analysed 50 elections for the ABC, now holds an unusual place in modern Australian life. His opinions are valued by political insiders and journalists.
His colleague O'Brien says Green has become an "icon" for the ABC and its audience.
"He's idiosyncratic in his way, so there were a few people wondering who and what he was when we rolled him out as a secret election weapon about eight federal elections ago," O'Brien says.
"But he has been gold for us ... He has gone from someone who pops up out of his cave on election night to someone who is sought by all sorts of media for his expert opinion, and more than a few politicians, I can tell you. Barry Jones came along one election night with a book under his arm wanting Antony to sign it and I don't think Barry is looking for people's autographs all that often."
That cult status extends beyond politics and journalism. Miranda Starke Young, the manager of marketing and communications at the Art Gallery of South Australia, wrote of her fervour for Green in a newspaper article last month: "For me, TV doesn't get more exciting than election night – especially when the ABC's statistician Antony Green and his laptop are involved. (Ooh Antony! Show me that chart again with your revised projections for that marginal seat!)"
For Green it is all about the polls themselves. He nominates three favourites: the near loss of government by Nick Greiner in 1991 (Green's first appearance on camera during an election broadcast), Paul Keating's against-the-odds victory in 1993 and the shock loss of Jeff Kennett in Victoria in 1999.
"These three stick out because they were not expected results. You had to analyse the numbers to figure out what was going on. That was one of the reasons why I remember them in particular."
The reason he could crunch the numbers and pick the eventual shock results before they happened was that as far back as 1991 he was designing computer programs for the job.
The difference between his software and what had gone before was that his bored down past the level of electorates to analyse the results coming out of each of the thousands of voting booths across the country.
"The difficulty on election night is that you have to deal with figures coming in early, which may not be representative of the final result. Because country booths are smaller they get reported first.
"In Bathurst, for example, you have lots of small country booths but then you have Lithgow, which is rock-solid Labor. The early numbers coming in will always favour the non-Labor parties. If you compare the figures booth-by-booth you can correct for that and very early on get an accurate picture.
"In 1993 the early figures looked bad for Keating when you just looked at the raw numbers but our computer was saying, no, Keating's back."
This would not be the last time Green found himself – and of course the entire coverage team – out on a limb on live TV, and not the last time that the clinical crunching of numbers eventually saw him proved right.
"There were members of the ABC board watching the coverage from Sydney who were very concerned that we were saying that the Keating government would be re-elected. There were phone calls being made to Canberra saying the computer is wrong, stop using it – pull the plug on this guy.
"But the computer was right, the model was right."
One man who will vouch for Green's modelling is former NSW premier Nathan Rees, who says he has a high regard for the analyst. "I think he is a real standout, in fact I don't recall him ever being wrong," Rees says. "His talent is reading polls and pendulums rather than engaging in policy debate but at what he does there is no one better. A lot of the published polls are nonsense and not worth the paper they're written on but he seems to cut through all that and give the most accurate picture of what is going on."
Indeed Green built his career – and that role in modern Australian life – through understanding early on what computers could do in predicting elections.
In 1977 he left James Ruse Agricultural High School, one of Sydney's finest selective high schools, where he was, in his own words, "really good at mathematics".
A science degree followed, majoring in pure maths and computing.
After a few joyless years as a computer programmer he returned to Sydney University in 1984 to complete an economics degree majoring in politics. "That was coinciding with the first years of the Hawke government and that was a great time to study economics and politics. It was a time of great economic change. It was the right place, right time."
An honours year in 1989 ended with Green back working in computing and wondering why he'd done the second degree at all.
"I'd told my bosses I was going to leave, I just needed to get out of computing and that weekend I looked in the newspaper and there was a job ad for the ABC as an election researcher, a six-month contract to do research work on the 1990 federal election."
Statistically, none of the other 149 candidates stood a chance.
"They interviewed eight. Three of them had PhDs. I didn't have media experience, which was one of the requirements, but the other requirements were knowledge of politics and knowledge of computers. I killed anybody else who applied for the job with my computer background.
"I think the people who hired me, what they really wanted was not just someone to do the research book but someone who could actually talk to the computer people and figure out how it worked."
But there was no guarantee the dream job would last longer than six months, until after the Hawke government was returned.
Oddly for Green, a bit of good luck came into play. Having turned down a job as a trainee economist with the NSW government, he was determined to craft a continuing role at the ABC. But it wasn't until presenters Andrew Olle, Paul Lyneham and Kerry O'Brien went to management to say the new guy knows what he's talking about that he was kept on.
Fifty elections later, Green is preparing for number 51. True to form, he is reading the story that the numbers are telling him, not what the politicians and journalists are talking about.
"The government has been ahead for years in the polls, there has been very few it has been behind in. They look stronger because they have gone into the election ahead.
"Most people have made up their mind before the election campaign. The three elections I mentioned are probably significant because they are three of the rare elections where the campaign did make a difference.
"Keating was well behind at the start of the 1993 campaign and he won; Greiner was was well ahead and he almost lost; Kennett was well ahead and lost."
Green believes Julia Gillard's Labor is poised to take victory in a comfortable fashion. "What I'm seeing is that the government will get back with about the same or slightly less votes than last time. It will probably lose seats in Queensland and maybe NSW. Countering that, I think Labor may pick up a seat or two in South Australia and Victoria."
The winter election date should ensure an early result because the absence of daylight-saving time zones mean the results for all 122 east coast mainland electorates will drop at once.
"The result will become very clear, very quickly," Green says. "By 7.30pm I can always say who's won or whether we're going to have to wait for a very close result. Most elections are clear cut."
He will know the direction of at least one vote well ahead of time – his own.
Green votes pre-poll because there is no time to spare on what can be a 20-hour election day.
He will be in Canberra at least four days before the August 21 poll.
From 7am on that Saturday he will be helping the ABC's computer technicians with the checking of equipment and programs, and preparing the many graphics that will be used during the coverage.
From early evening the tally room swings into action, the cameras roll and Green will be instrumental in helping O'Brien and team compete with Channel Nine, the other dominant election broadcaster.
He never relies on the politicians to pick the winner. "People think party scrutineers can do all this for you but in the end if it's a really close seat they won't give away a seat. If you're relying on your party scrutineers to call it for you, they won't call it for you. If you use a statistical model, which is what I do, it will allocate them based on statistics and give you an accurate picture."
Reading that picture, for Green, has become like a sixth sense.
"I've done enough elections now that I can look at a screen full of figures and read what they're telling me. You get a sense of what the figures are telling you."