Unclear public opinion on refugees

There is a difficult-to-interpret Newspoll on asylum seekers in this morning’s Australian.

If we are to believe earlier polling, the public wants the government to take a firm line on boat arrivals and illegal migration. Yet according to this Newspoll, only 36% believe that applying tighter immigration laws to asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia would make a difference to their numbers.

With the public almost evenly divided between the government doing a good job managing the asylum seeker issue (37%) and a bad job (40%) this gives neither government nor opposition a clear idea of what the public believes should be done.

With refugee advocates dusting off their rhetoric about the ‘demonising’ of refugees, it’s a pity Newspoll did not fill the big gap in our knowledge: no pollster I am aware of has ever asked what the Australian public thinks of refugee migrants as such, rather than their methods of arrival.

At one level, this is not surprising. The annual number of refugee/humanitarian migrants each year has never attracted much controversy, and has been fairly stable over a prolonged period. All the debate surrounding this issue has just been over whether they self-select or not.

But in understanding public opinion, it is important to know whether voters are concerned about the refugees themselves, in which case the whole refugee/huminatarian program is an issue, or just the method of selection. The racists-under-the-bed left assume it is the former. That’s possible, but hard to fully reconcile with other evidence. For example, support for keeping Muslims out of the country is much lower than previously recorded support for a tough line on boat arrivals.