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What does the Australian public really think about asylum seekers?

The Australian public trusts the Coalition more than the government on asylum seekers. AAP/Rebecca Le May

We live in a culture in which the media frequently and prominently uses opinion polls, with findings presented as factual and unambiguous. In reality, interpretation is beset with difficulty, as illustrated by recent surveys on asylum.

The June parliamentary debate, following record boat arrivals and loss of life at sea, led to surveys conducted for the major dailies. Reporting a Nielsen poll on 2 July, The Age headlined “Most blame government for boat people deadlock”. Almost a week later, Newspoll for the Australian produced a different result: “All sides damned”.

The failure to consider inconsistent findings, or to explain the trend of opinion, is typical of media discussion of polling on issues other than the standing of political parties and their leaders, which are tracked almost weekly from one election to the next.

Yet considering the record of polling on an issue such as asylum provides an important insight into public opinion, an insight that informs political strategy in Canberra but rarely finds its way into the media, despite the almost blanket coverage of boat arrivals and public debate.

So what do the polls say?

Surveys provide four major findings on public attitudes on asylum.

First, there is a large measure of confusion. As many as one in five respondents report uncertainty in a number of surveys. In such a context, minor change in the wording of questions can produce significant change in responses.

Second, while one part of the population is uncertain or confused, a larger segment holds strong and entrenched views.

Scanlon Foundation surveys conducted in 2010 and 2011 asked for views on the best policy for dealing with asylum seekers and presented four options. In 2011, 35% favoured turning back boats or detention of arrivals and deportation, while only 22% favoured eligibility for permanent settlement. This pattern of response is similar to that obtained in 2010.

A United Nations Refugee Agency survey conducted in Australia in April-May asked with regard to boat arrivals “whether the way they arrive makes you more or less sympathetic towards them”; 32% responded “much less sympathetic”, only 8% responded “much more sympathetic”.

In July Essential Research asked “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum seekers or is it taking the right approach?” 12% answered “too tough”, 11% chose “right approach”, while 60% indicated “too soft”.

The consistent element in these results is that those who hold strong negative views on asylum seekers outnumber the strong positive, probably by at least two to one.

Third, and consistent with this assessment, when asked “Which party is best to handle the asylum issue?” the largest proportion prefer the Coalition.

In July 2012 Newspoll found 37% in agreement that the Coalition would “best handle” asylum seekers, 17% Labor and 7% Greens.

Essential Research in June 2012 asked “which party would you trust most to handle” 15 specified issues. For “treatment of asylum seekers” it obtained 36% for Liberal and 16% for Labor, almost the same proportions as Newspoll, and a higher 13% for the Greens.

Fourth, there is evidence of growing disenchantment with all sides of politics.

In the first week of July Essential Research asked if “politicians are genuinely concerned about the welfare of asylum seekers or are they just playing politics?” Only 11% considered the politicians “genuinely concerned”, a very high 78% that they were “just playing politics”. There was little difference by party alignment, with 16% Labor supporters answering “genuinely concerned”, 13% Coalition and 7% Greens.

Prior to the formulation of the so-called Malaysia Solution, Labor was vulnerable to the charge that it had no policy. Even though processing in Malaysia was ruled illegal by the High Court, there is a perception that parliament has the power to end the impasse. Now when the opposition accuses the government of failure on asylum, Labor’s immediate response is to blame the opposition for blocking legislation.

This approach may have partly undermined the legitimacy of the Coalition on asylum.

But that strategy, rather than increasing the popularity of Labor, seems to have further fuelled negative assessment of all politicians.


Read the rest of The Conversation’s asylum seeker coverage:

Asylum seekers and Australia: the evidence

The Conversation panel on asylum seekers: meet the experts

Infographic: global refugee populations 1975-2010

Refugee intake starts in the region: making a difference in regional burden sharing

Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia: the good, the bad and the unexpected

Resettling refugees: the evidence supports increasing our intake

What role does Australia play in accepting the world’s refugees?

Who are Australia’s ‘boat people’, and why don’t they get on planes?

Uncomfortable truths: busting the top three asylum seeker myths

There’s no evidence that asylum seeker deterrence policy works

There’s more to regional collaboration than the Malaysia Arrangement

How immigration policy harms asylum seekers' mental health

Asylum seekers in Indonesia: why do they get on boats?

Preventing deaths at sea: asking the experts on asylum seekers