catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

What do people think about refugee policy?

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With the media’s emphasis on day-to-day partisan point-scoring today’s ACNielsen poll was reported mainly as a leadership barometer and whether the government is telling the truth about AWB ( 14% of those called by the pollster deny having read or heard anything about it – no wonder the political parties have taken to sending people letters and ringing them up rather than relying on the mainstream media to get their message across).

But there was also a question on the treatment of asylum seekers, asking whether boat people who reach the mainland should be sent to Nauru or Christmas Island while their claims are assessed. 50% support the government’s measure (70% among Coalition voters), 40% oppose, and 10% don’t know. Because the questions aren’t the same it is hard to compare opinion over time, but back in 2004 (pdf) Newspoll found 35% in favour of turning back all boats (down from a peak of 56% in October 2001), 47% in favour of letting some boats enter, and 14% support for letting all boats enter.

On the one hand, opinion looks softer because a relatively large proportion of people are going for the kinder option (including 19% who ‘strongly oppose’ the government’s policy). On the other hand, it looks harder because a larger group is also supporting a tough option, of shipping them offshore. As is often the case in polling, it’s not just how you frame the question that matters, it is how you frame the possible answers. If you give people a middle option (let some boats enter, in 2004) it is often the single most frequent answer.

That was true also in February 2005 when ACNielsen asked another refugee question, about how its respondents rated putting asylum seekers in detention centres (location unspecified) until their application was processed. The most popular option was ‘about right’ on 44%, though ‘too harsh’ was close behind on 42%. Not many people – 9% – went for ‘too lenient’, perhaps because what you would do with them if they were not going to be in detention and not going to be released into the community wasn’t clear. Put back out to sea? Sent back to Iraq/Afghanistan/wherever? Or the almost unthinkable??

It’s hard to know what is going on here. One possibility is that hardline opposition to refugees is shrinking. In the August 2004 Newspoll, 35% went for the most extreme possibility, turning all boats back. In the late 2004 Australian Election Study, 28% went for the most extreme possibility, strongly agreeing with turning back all boats. In the April 2006 ACNielsen poll, 18% strongly supported the Nauru/Christmas Island option.

Softer options paint a less clear picture. 14% in August 2004 wanted all boats let in, 10% in late 2004 strongly disagreed with turning all boats back (with another 18% disagreeing), 42% in early 2005 thought keeping people in detention was too harsh, and in April 2006 40% oppose offshore processing. The most confusing shift is between late 2004 and early 2005 – why do more people think keeping people in detention is harsh than think turning boats back is harsh? Or was the early 2005 result affected by the Cornelia Rau controversy, raising the possibility in some respondents’ minds that some people in detention centres were there entirely mistakenly, whereas anyone arriving by boat is another nuisance asylum seeker we don’t want?

My hunch is that opinion is softening, thanks to the lack of asylum seekers in general and Muslim asylum seekers in particular and greater doubts about the detention system. There are fewer hardliners and more people willing to take softer options. But as the 50% support for the Nauru and Christmas Island option shows, there is still a large constituency for discouraging uninvited would-be migrants.


Written by Admin

April 24, 2006 at 9:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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