The Albanese government’s turnback of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker vessel just a day after being sworn in suggests it’s business as usual for Australia’s treatment of arrivals by boat.
Ever since the 2001 Tampa Incident – when a freighter rescued several hundred drowning refugees from a dilapidated fishing boat but was prevented from bringing them to Australian shores – “boat arrivals” have featured prominently in public debates.
Australia’s draconian refugee policies receive bipartisan support and high public approval, despite attracting widespread criticism overseas.
In new research, we asked Australians what they thought of the country’s boat arrivals policy – and studied whether their views changed when they were told the policies breached international law, were immoral, or harmed Australia’s international reputation.
The UN has repeatedly told Australia its boat arrivals policies violate international law, including a key anti-torture treaty. They also breach the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Doctors Without Borders says the mental health suffering in detention facilities is among the worst it has seen. Others describe the facilities as cruel and inhumane.
Still others argue Australia’s policy harms its international reputation, entrenching the nation’s pariah status on the issue.
Our recent research involved a survey using a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 Australians.
We found that over 56% of them agreed or strongly agreed with the policy. Only 37% disapproved or strongly disapproved. That’s generally consistent with what other surveys have found, although those views may be shifting.
We were also specifically interested in whether it matters how Australia’s policy is framed.
After (randomly) dividing our respondents into four groups, we then told one group that Australia’s policy breached international law, one group that it was immoral, and one group that it harmed Australia’s international reputation. The fourth group received no additional information.
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Everyone who received negative information was more critical of current policy. It isn’t altogether surprising that negative information makes people more negative. But given how entrenched Australia’s policy has become, it’s interesting that attitudes are still movable.
Even more interestingly, we found that describing current policy as a breach of international law is far more effective at dampening support than describing it as morally egregious or harmful to our international reputation.
Of the three frames, the international reputation argument got the least traction. This lends some credence to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claim that Australians are “sick of being lectured to by the UN”.
Getting people to act is much harder
We did find emphasising international law or morality makes people more willing to mobilise (compared to accentuating reputational harm).
But overall, most people just aren’t motivated to take political action – even if they strongly dislike the policy.
Our study found less than 30% of respondents were willing to sign a petition against current policy, and less than 10% were interested in protesting or donating.
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These findings are consistent with a longstanding body of research which shows people are less willing to mobilise as the costs of action go up.
They also corroborate an age-old challenge for activists. Most forms of political activism involve some cost in terms of time or money. Particularly when your own rights or interests aren’t at stake, turning that outrage into action rarely looks as appealing as staying on the couch.