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.

14 thoughts on “Unclear public opinion on refugees

  1. Would you:

    a) Like to eat your cake?
    b) Like to have your cake?
    c) Like to eat your cake and have it too?

    Results 75% C, 5% B, 10% A.

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  2. “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. ”

    Andrew, what do you mean by ‘self-select’ ? Don’t they all self-select? If you fly in on a student or holiday visa then claim refugee status, it’s self-selecting, no?

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  3. Russell – No, most are selected by the government out of the global refugee pool or are sponsored by an existing Australian resident. From Immigration’s website:

    “In 2007–08 a total of 13 014 visas were granted, of which 10 799 visas were granted under the offshore component and 2215 visas were granted under the onshore component.”

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  4. Andrew Norton wrote: “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.”

    Unfortunately, it stacks up with last time: a large proportion of the public want ‘The Firm Line’ not because it particularly works but because they see it as a punishment for “the rag-heads”.

    Asylum-seekers arriving by boat (not the nice white folks and Asians arriving by plane) really whip up the Cronulla-types into a massive frenzy of hate. It’s an ugly thing that Turnbull’s flirting with, and an ugly thing Rudd’s likely to buckle under to.

    Encouraging racism is extremely dangerous, particularly as we fall into a Great Recession. Last time the two coincided, the fascists took power in a number of countries and we had a World War.

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  5. Pete – If you go through my ‘tolerance and prejudice’ category you will see there is very little evidence for your theory. Indeed, just click on the last link in the post and you will see that opinion is trending in the opposite direction to the one your theory would predict.

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  6. Thanks for the figures, I’m just not sure what most people think of the 2215 – those who come by boat, and those who come by air.
    Are they just as hostile to arrivals by air? People who fly in, as we do, look like us? The boat people look so wretched, foreign, and seem to be sneaking in, or assaulting our borders, so it’s easy to be prejudiced against them.

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  7. Andrew Norton @7 – Sorry to continue to disagree, but, I can tell you the atmosphere was utterly toxic last time round in 2001-03 in such forums as Usenet aus.politics. Outright racism and hatred on a grand scale, unshiftable by any rational argument, fanned by the Howard Govt and utterly uncontested by that useless sod, Beazley. Not all that long after, we had the Cronulla riots fanned by the talkback shock-jocks.

    Sorry if reality doesn’t fit your data. Fascism is about finding some powerless minority to blame, and asylum-seekers are the target of choice for our erstwhile politicians and the general public. One Nation gave us a huge scare in the 1990s with a hopelessly inept leader during a boom, imagine a similar phenomenon with a competent fascist leader in a bust. It’s a dangerous game.

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  8. Pete – From what I can find in the empirical research:

    1. There are about 10-15% of the population who are racists, and about half will admit to some kind of prejudice.
    2. Consistent survey questions in 1988 and 2007 indicate significant long-term decline in prejudice, including against Muslims.
    3 There is high support for multiculturalism.
    4. 1 and 3 are not inconsistent, since one is mainly about attitudes and the other is mainly about behaviour.
    5. There is no evidence showing that politicians have any significant influence (for good or bad) on attitudes on which people can make up their own minds from personal experience.
    6. Politicians can raise the salience of issues; what effect this has on behaviour is unknown.
    7. Significant racial incidents always have a highly specific trigger, which is never to date in Australia anything a politician has said or done. They exhaust themselves quickly and are not repeated in the absence of another trigger.

    I know you are not interested in this kind of analysis, but for the benefit of others interested in this issue the evidence suggests that this issue is more complex and less worrying than the broad left assumes (the actual researchers in the area, while mostly on the left, are generally sensible and keep things in perspective).

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  9. Russell – The air arrivals do not provide a news hook in the way a boat does. I suppose the fact that they arrive with a visa, though not under the refugee program, makes them appear different – there would not be the same sense that they are unknown persons arriving unannounced.

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  10. I think the confusion is because the broadsheet newspaper and blog obsessed segment of the population (including me) thought that “middle Australia” had wised up the the propaganda from 2001-03 and that as a country we’d matured and grown-up, etc…. Surely everyone has evolved beyond Xenophobia. They voted out Mr. Howard.

    Politician’s from both major parties clearly believe that very little has changed. They seem fairly confident that “border security of our island nation” is a button that can be pushed.

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  11. This is all likely to be smoke.
    How can an all socialist government resist following the UK mass immigration policy with rigorously enforced ‘hate’ laws etc. Followed by affirmative action on all fronts.
    Xenophobia is more attractive when you be ome a stranger in your own land.

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