Of boats and votes

Nielsen struck a blow for transparency yesterday by releasing comprehensive data for their polling on asylum seekers, featuring detail on the questions and how they were asked, breakdowns by state, location, gender, age and voting intention, and no fewer than eight tables cross-tabulating various results for the eight questions asked. They even went so far as to include the raw numbers they reached after weighting the responses for age, gender and location, not that this particularly tells us much.

The poll also deserves credit for posing thoughtfully crafted questions on a complex and contentious subject. No doubt taking inspiration from Murray Goot and Ian Watson’s recent paper on public opinion and asylum seekers, which noted that results had been heavily influenced by “the way questions are framed, the kinds of questions that precede these questions (and) the range of possible responses the questions allow”, the Nielsen report offered the following:

It is important to note that the results of opinion polls on this issue are more sensitive to the wording of the questions asked than for many other topics. This is because the issues are often emotional for some and complicated for all. Respondent knowledge on this subject is never complete. The task of adequately condensing complex options into fair but meaningful questions is also a difficult one.

The questions in this poll were stripped of their political context as much as possible. For example the ‘sent to another country to be assessed’ option was not offered in the context of deterrence, nor was any human or financial cost alluded to. It was not offered as Labor or Coalition policy (e.g. by calling it the ‘Malaysian solution’ or the ‘Pacific solution’).

The Fairfax papers asserted that the poll showed voters “at odds with both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott and the perception that attitudes have hardened against asylum seekers”, and certainly the figures point to a more liberal attitude than the tenor of political debate would suggest. However, The Age gilded the lily a little with a graphic showing 60 per cent believed those assessed as genuine refugees should be allowed to stay in Australia permanently. It takes a bit of digging to appreciate that this excludes the 15 per cent who didn’t believe the asylum seekers should be assessed at all, having preferred that they be “sent out to sea”. The number supporting settlement in Australia was nonetheless a very solid 49 per cent, although there remained a combined 44 per cent in favour of the less liberal options of temporary protection visas (29 per cent support) and sending boats back out to sea (15 per cent). The same issue occurs with The Age’s figures for whether boat arrivals should be held in detention (64 per cent) or allowed into the community (32 per cent): putting the aforementioned 15 per cent back in (together with the 4 per cent “other/don’t know“), the results come down to 52 per cent and 26 per cent.

Regarding the treatment of asylum seekers on arrival, the results can be broken down thus:

22% – Allowed to live in the Australian community
12% – Detained in Australia, excluding children
17% – Detained in Australia, including children
4% – Sent to another country, allowed to live in community there
23% – Sent to another country and detained there
4% – Assessed for refugee status, no opinion on detention
15% – No assessment for refugee status: sent back out to sea
4% – Other/don’t know

And on their treatment after being assessed for refugee status:

49% – Settled in Australia
29% – Granted temporary protection visas
2% – Returned to country of origin
15% – No assessment for refugee status: sent back out to sea
5% – Other/don’t know

To those who are ready to junk the orthodox view on this subject, I would offer a few notes of caution. Certainly there was no majority in favour of assessing refugee status in Australia at the time of the Tampa episode, when Nielsen and Morgan polls had between 68 per cent and 77 per cent in favour of turning boats away. It is hardly plausible that so many of these respondents have had changes of heart that only 15 per cent now remain. What it likely shows is how the finer point of public opinion on this issue are shaped by the terms of the debate at the time. The symbolism in August/September 2001 involved boats being either allowed to land or held at bay by the military – only as the Howard government scrambled to effect its “Pacific solution” was the public alerted to the fact that the latter course only constituted half a policy. This may have led to a change in questions posed and answers given in opinion polls, but it doesn’t follow that there was a shift in underlying attitudes.

This leads to a point that occurs to me about the wording of Nielsen’s “sent to another country to be assessed” option: for many respondents, Nauru might not register as “another country” in the sense that Malaysia does, as it is perceived either as a dependency of Australia or too insigificant to qualify as a “country”. This option may accordingly have been interpreted by some as an invitation to sign on for the Malaysia solution. If Nielsen had at least added enough political context to allow for the restoration of the Pacific solution as a response option, the poll may have told a somewhat different story.

UPDATE (22/8): Crikey reports the latest Essential Research has Labor up a point on two-party preferred (to 56-44 from 57-43) and also on the primary vote, to 32 per cent, with the Coalition and the Greens steady on 50 per cent and 10 per cent. In other findings, 24 per cent support the health package finalised by government last month against 9 per cent opposed, with the great majority either indifferent (31 per cent said it would have little or no impact) or ignorant (28 per cent said they had heard nothing, 36 per cent little). Forty-seven per cent supported David Cameron’s suggestion that access to Twitter and Facebook be blocked during periods of civil unrest, with support varying as you would expect according to age and social media usage.

UPDATE 2: Full Essential Research report here.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

6,550 comments on “Of boats and votes”

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  1. Ducky,
    Mordor will willingly pay Mulcares legals because while Mulcare is fighting the law suits he does not have to divulge information that will hurt Mordor.

    It is in Mordors interests for mulcare to remain silent.

    If he has no money and can’t fight/appeal the lawsuits being brought for him to divulge the information then he will have to capitulate.

    that is when he will start singing and Mordor won’t be a happy chappy.

  2. [DavidWH
    Posted Monday, August 22, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    The best way to deal with Alan Jones is not to listen to his broadcasts. I think this blog should be above personal attacks on people who aren’t here to respond. ]

    Agree with that, and with Jacko! and Bilbo’s points. Who cares about his personal life? I’d like to see him called on other things more often, like his cash for comments and his Cronulla race riots incitement. And his climate change denialism, where he calls in some obscure quack to point out how the rest of the world has got it wrong.

    He is such a contemptible person that it was amazing he held so much influence for so long. My own feeling was it had something to do with the way John Howard and Bob Carr sucked up to him for so long.

    He still has too much influence, but that’s mainly because the rest of the 2GB clones use him as a model on setting the agenda. His own audience is ageing.

  3. bushfire




    lick salt (sea salt is best)

    sip a snifter of tequilla

    suck a lemon (limes are better)

    the worm is allegedly chockers with mezcal, lsd like equiv

  4. confessions

    ita Buttrose was on Australian story, And today she had a piece about her time with Murdoch and how she was asked to follow someone for a story. Cant find the article ow

  5. [“The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party — the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012.”

    — Jon Huntsman, in an interview with ABC News, ripping his GOP rivals on evolution and global warming.]

    Again, where are the sensible conservatives in Australia speaking out against Abbott idiocy and his constant trashing of science and Australia’s institutions?

    Is it the party of Menzies or Alan “Gloria” Jones?

    If you, the sensible conservatives, stay silent — it is Jones’. Your lead in the polls wont last and you wont have a party. How shameful.

  6. [mezcal? Has mescalin. Drug. Try a little and see. Have you read Carlos Castenada?]

    Mezcal doesn’t have mescaline (it would be illegal if it did). It’s like tequila.

  7. Gus:

    Haven’t read (and probably won’t) the comments from earlier. Do you know any of his preferred Liberal candidates?

  8. Diogenes,

    Thank you. Tequila is crap unless you get the good (expensive) stuff.

    Isn’t there a reference to mushrooms – mescal – mind?

    Not referring to mescalun of course.

    Bloody JWH!

  9. [As an ALP supporter I reckon Newspoll will be 41-59. I’ve learned not to get my expectations up.]

    It doesn’t mean much either way at this stage — but it would be nice for a bounce as it does inform the press gallery’s reportage for the week given they are so lazy and unethical — for what it’s worth!

  10. Labor are continually going to get smashed in the polls until the carbon scheme is implemented and operational.

    If Labor wants to win the election (seriously) the strategy will then need to be to attack Abbott. A bit like the Coalition attack on Latham back in 2003.

    Of course Latham only had to make 1 or 2 mistakes leading into the 2004 election, but the credit side is that Labor have plenty of material on the Monkey they can use.

  11. [It doesn’t mean much either way at this stage ]

    Daren if Labor were ahead 55-45 I’m sure you’d say they do matter…

  12. Diogenes,

    I read his first five books. They are a good read. I think the first few were genuine experiences. After that, I think he got on the gravy train.

    If interested, try The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge; A Separate Reality; and Journey to Ixtlan in order. Quite short and entertaining books.

  13. [Michael Charlton! My favourite cricket commenter of all time!]


    (just catching up with the posts). Yes Charlton was great. I remember when Ken Mackay, who had just received an MBE, got out and was leaving the ground, Charlton said ‘there goes Ken Mackay MBE LBW’.

  14. Don’t know anything about this drink and thought moi would google.
    So BB this is what you have to do. 😆 😆
    [The most traditional Oaxaca way to drink mezcal is as a shot, with a side plate of fried larvae ground with chili peppers and salt and cut limes. One takes a pinch of the larvae mixture and places it on the tongue, then immediately begins to drink the shot, but slowly.]

  15. Cooreys article this morning made my blood boil, obviously Hockey and Pyne have read KA Walshes SMH article from 2004 and decided it was the blueprint for new conservative behavior – keeping the boss happy!

    I sent an email to both Hockey and Pyne, I suppose unsurprisingly Pyne deleted it without reading – they must think they have all the voters they need.
    Hopefully they will be proved wrong.
    PS I have been reading (or is it called lurking?) PB for a while – very interesting comments, learning a great deal

  16. GG

    There is a show called Jersey Shore, and a guy on there is called “the situation”. He struts around and is as stupid as a stump.

  17. victoria:

    Yes I love it!

    He’s also mentioned the PM losing her cool once or twice as a way of making her look more ‘real’. Not sure how I feel about that. The rules seem to be different for women leaders.

  18. Scarpat,

    I think Michael Charlton did the 58-59 v England. I don’t think he did 60-61 v WI; mainly Johnnie Moyes (great too). Adelaide with Mackay and Kline is epochal.

  19. We have a bottle of tequila with a scorpion in it. We got down to the last inch or so and now it’s gone all silty. We’re not brave enough to drink any more!

  20. Faaaaaaark me. Just watching Paul Murray on Sky News. Apparently the 100,000’s of thousands that turned out protesting over the then impending Iraq war had less legitimacy than the mothertruckas because it the “rightness’ of your cause that counts.

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