Opinion polls haven’t always been helpful in sorting out three distinct issues
1) whether we should take asylum seekers at all (and if so, how many);
2) whether or not asylum seekers who arrive by boat without prior approval should be accepted;
3) whether there are groups we should not take at all, regardless of how or why they come.
Refugee advocates have tended to think that opposition to refugees is motivated by 3, (‘xenophobia’), or to be more precise opposition to Muslim migration and perhaps other groups with a history of political violence (such as Tamils, though I doubt knowledge of the Sri Lankan civil war is widespread in Australia). As refugees tend to be disproportionately from supposedly disfavoured groups, opposing asylum seeker arrivals is a way of keeping them out.
The recent Morgan poll confirms an Essential Research finding last November that there is plurality support for taking asylum seekers. Morgan found 50% support, 41% opposition, and 9% ‘can’t say’. Essential’s figures were 45%/25%/30%, suggesting a lot of ‘soft’ opposition. The differences can probably be explained by polling methods. Essential’s surveys are online, so there is an explicit ‘no answer’ option. Morgan used a telephone poll where only support or oppose were directly offered, with ‘can’t say’ recorded where the respondent couldn’t or wouldn’t choose. If pressed, people with weak opinions tend to go negative.
However, on a separate question about boat arrivals only 26% supported the current system, and 64% of respondents believed that asylum seekers should be ‘returned and apply through normal refugee channels’. Taken together, the two Morgan findings support the view that (1) and (2) are distinct issues, with the method of arrival an important separate issue.
Morgan also had a question on whether Muslim migration was supported or opposed. 55% of respondents supported Muslim migration, while 36% were opposed. (This is higher than the 24.5% opposition found in a 2007 poll, but the questions are so different that it’s hard to know whether there is a significant change.)
Opposition to Muslim migration (proposition 3) could help explain attitudes on (1) and (2), but doesn’t explain majority support for the overall migration program, the route through which the vast majority of Muslim migrants come. While there may be ‘xenophobia’ behind some people’s refugee attitudes, it under-explains the observed pattern of opinion.