The most interesting finding in the Newspoll reported in today’s Australian was the question on Kevin Andrews’ handling of the Haneef case. At least until he released part of the transcript of Haneef’s discussion with his brother about leaving Australia Andrews was being punished by the media like no other Minister in recent times.
Yet even with the public seemingly willing to believe the worst about the Coalition, Newspoll finds more people in favour of the way Andrews handled the case than against, with 49% approving and 36% disapproving (with a fairly large 15% uncommitted).
I suspect this fits with a pattern of views on migration. The public supports migration when it is seen to be in the interests of Australia. The key change under the Howard government has been that the migration system meets this criterion. Even though migration has increased considerably opposition to it has halved since 1996. Murray Goot and Ian Watson report that between 1996 and 2003 the proportion of people thinking immigrants are good for the economy increased from 49% to 69%, the proportion thinking immigrants take jobs from people born in Australia has dropped from 40% to 25%, and the people thinking immigrants increase crime rates has dropped from 45% to 34%.
Interestingly, the biggest changes took place between 2001 and 2003. Though Howard had early on re-oriented the migration programme away from family reunion towards favouring people who could make an economic contribution, perhaps the dramatic Tampa intervention convinced people that Howard would protect Australia’s interests. This was the point at which the Coalition gained a decisive lead over Labor in the Newspoll on which party would best handle migration, which despite Ruddmania they still held when the question was last asked in June this year.
The most favourable views on migration recorded for a generation, and the most favourable views ever recorded for a substantially non-European intake, coincided with fairly tough views on people who just turn up claiming to be refugees. Similarly, perhaps, the Haneef poll suggests that the public prefers a hardline approach where someone may not be good for Australia’s interests, even if he comes across well on 60 Minutes.
Much of the political class thinks that the government’s approach to Haneef was dog-whistle politics. But the public opinion evidence suggests that far from this approach stirring up latent prejudice it actually soothes it, by convincing people that the migration system is being run in the national interest.