Public attitudes, polling and asylum seekers

Yesterday, The Age had an ‘exclusive’ poll on Australian attitudes to asylum seekers. For some, the piece may read as community support for tough measures against asylum seekers. I do not believe this to be the case.

This attitude reinforces the perception that politicians can safely follow public attitudes without electoral punishment. However, as we are unable to dissect what has caused “a strong majority of Australians, 60 per cent, also want the Abbott government to ‘increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers'”, we cannot draw these conclusions.

I don’t doubt the findings of the poll. When people see a new Government introducing the military to run policy on asylum seekers, no wonder a strong majority seek an even stronger position. This leads to 59 per cent of people opposing refugees any eligibility for welfare assistance.

The causation for the mess we are in does not run public opinion into policy choice. It is firmly in the other direction. The Scanlon Foundation 2013 survey into social cohesion notes “Within this highly charged environment, attitudes have hardened over the years, with 33% of Australians now supporting the ‘turn back the boats’ option, an increase of 10 percentage points since 2011”.

It is wrong to say asylum seeker policy is not a priority issue within the electorate. It is and will continue to be so. Yet the notion that politicians are excused from how policies are shaped and formed because of public opinion should be abandoned. The Australian people were not in favour of the Hawke/Keating economic manifesto. The Australian people were against the Iraq war. Arguably, public opinion was against the GST. These policy decisions moved forward not because of public attitudes. It is simplistic to infer from polling results on asylum seekers that politicians should simply follow.

Instead, I see these polling results as another piece of evidence as to why Operation Sovereign Borders is the most insidious performance of government over-reach in recent memory. John Kerin in the AFR today outlines how the Abbott policies are perhaps nothing more than theatre, with the PNG policy delivered in July 2013 by Rudd v2.0 the actual cause of slowing boat arrivals. Kerin infers additional policies, such as tow-backs and boat buy backs, are unnecessary and harming Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. 

Operation Sovereign Borders is a structured, calculated political act, nothing more than a broadcast of what people want to hear. By parcelling up fear into bite sized, 6pm consumable pieces, the Abbott Government, and Scott Morrison in particular, are walking the easy road on the most difficult policy in Australian politics. The result of this performance lie in the the Age ‘exclusive’ poll.

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