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. So not bad as predicted by some, Gillard went down and Abbott went down in as preferred PM.
    ALP down a little, LNP didn’t gain anything in primary.

    Not bad result.

  2. my say,

    William is in the throes of a PhD. He comes here when he can.

    And, gusface, a prefecture does not appeal.

  3. [No surprise really, but the Human Rights Commission is unhappy over Manus Is. They suspect it is just the Pacific Solution again. Have to agree there.]

    If the polls are to believed, they will be even busier when Mr Abbott is Prime Minister. Enjoy it, JV, you’ve been hankering for it for years now.

  4. [Darn
    Posted Monday, August 22, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Don’t know if anyone has mentioned this but the $250,000 question on Hot Seat tonight was – who was the oldest of the following when they became PM


    No cheating now. Who do you reckon? ]

    I’d go for Black Jack.

  5. If Thomson is the “gift that keeps on giving” solely because of Labor’s PV, then it is a gift to the Greens, who appear to have benefited from the malarky this week.

    Somehow I’m not sure that was quite the gift Abbott and the Liberals were looking for.

  6. The 2% ‘lost’ by Labor appears in the Greens column. I realise this is only one poll, but could the bottom-dragging primary vote be anything to do with progressive and thinking voters’ attitude to Labor’s Malaysia and Manus Island travesties?

  7. And if the Greens are gaining on the PV, then does that mean the Liberals’ carry on over Thomson is backfiring as voters ascribe the kind of cheap sleazy politics, and daft, dumb-arsed self indulgence of NSW Labor with the major parties, and have gone for How Refreshment in the Greens?

  8. [If Labor enjoyed the benefit of a legion of anti-Liberal media outlets, the Liberal 2pp would be a figure starting with the number 2.]

    I hardly think you can blame 57/43 just on a ‘biased’ media which I think is a long stretch IMHO.

  9. i dont mind the ess, figures they are on a par with howards so we where told some weeks ago during the gst, so two years too go that ok

    as i said why is every one so hung up on news poll is becuace is old and been around for years.

    get modern people the internet is the way to go

  10. Has any pollster asked: “Which position about boats do you prefer?”. Q about do you support the government’s position does not relate.

  11. well if the liberals can put the national vote with them

    why cannot we put the greens and ind. with labor that faire is it not.

    the libs with out the nationals, allwasy looks a bit sick

  12. This is all within the margin of error from the recent trend of numerous polls.

    Nothing to see here.

    If anything, it shows that the wider public have had a gutfull of both leaders and the general political/media cycle. Everyone needs a breather.

  13. gus i am just trying to point out there are other polls in the world by side the news poll
    but of course they dont get the big news in the msm do they
    i joined the ess, list. so i am waiting for a chance to get polled,

  14. 6252 poroti
    [As I mentioned earlier such behaviour by men who aspire to some of the highest positions in the land is truly embarrassing. They do not seem to have moved beyond Uni Young Liberals and undergrad debating.Do they really think that a) It is funny or b) Cutting remarks? Voters of Australia,do you really want guys like this to run the place and have the power to affect your lives and those of your children and loved ones ?]

    Pyne thought he was pretty hot in student politics in Adelaide. He was regularly dissed by fellow student activist Gillard from the left, and I don’t think he’s ever recovered from it. No wonder Gillard is never phased by his nonsense. She got it right nicknaming him ‘Poodle’.

  15. [If anything, it shows that the wider public have had a gutfull of both leaders and the general political/media cycle. Everyone needs a breather.]

    That’s certainly how I feel. The 2 week period when Abbott was away was bliss: normal news bulletins, no hysteria, no shouting, a feeling of normalcy.

    I wonder if other people felt similarly?

  16. WHen one considers that PV number, at 27% there couldn’t be very many ‘progressive and thinking voters’ left in the Labor demographic, could there? It’s getting down to just a right-wing hard-core rump. (That’s if a rump can be hard-core)

  17. glory i think people are just fed up with polls.

    have they ever thought we are bored to tears when the phone rings, but if you can do the poll at your leasure on the internet its good.

    they send me lots of business polls about products i dont do them all but i quite enjoy doing some of them, when i feel like it as long as you have them back with in the allotted time, you all should join is fun. and as my hearing is bad a pollster rings i just say not interested so that means they miss out on one labor person opinion the next person they ring may be the other mob.

    so i am all for this internet thing as long as it balanced.

  18. my say,

    Polls in Australia are a genuine reflection of the responses to the questions asked. It is valid to question the questions.

  19. confessions @6517,

    I would suggest you well may be correct.

    Malaysia has been around for some time so I would find it a stretch to say it now becomes that more important.

  20. yes gus me to, all up from here mate, this should of been a worse week,.

    may bee people are on the side of mr thompson and think is bs

    but the abc has to be told about the news broadcasting tonight was just not on

  21. Gusface

    Do you have any proof of media bias or for that matter does anybody from the MSM. Me thinks many of you just don’t like the media scrutinising the Govt.

    I can remember myself getting rilled up by ‘bias’ from the ABC and unfavourable news reports but this happens of every single government in history.

    I think there are reasons beyond a fictional media bias that explain Labor’s poll woes.
    Mr Thomson sucking all the air out of the $70b story and Labor’s attempts at selling various policies are to blame.

  22. [That’s certainly how I feel. The 2 week period when Abbott was away was bliss: normal news bulletins, no hysteria, no shouting, a feeling of normalcy.

    I wonder if other people felt similarly?]

    yes the feed back at my local suppermarket was just that

  23. [I hardly think you can blame 57/43 just on a ‘biased’ media which I think is a long stretch IMHO.]

    If Labor had the advantage of all these media outlets pumping out anti-Liberal hate rhetoric on their behalf, the Liberals would be out of business in a matter of months.

    Their support would plummet to 25% 2pp because people would be told day in day out that what’s in the interests of billionaires and multinationals is a mile away from what’s in the people’s interests. If anti-Liberal talk radio stations networked throughout the continent dwelt 24/7 on the dozens of lies Abbott has told over the years, replayed voice-loops of his stammering flip-flops, and targeted him with angry hateful diatribe by shock jocks, and organised anti-Liberal rallies, convoys, etc … And if there were a phalanx of rabid anti-Liberal bloggers and anti-Liberal newspapers … well, you wouldn’t be sitting here smirking tonight.

  24. [#
    Posted Monday, August 22, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    helen coonan

    This little black duck
    Posted Monday, August 22, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    I do not need Helen Coonan! ]

    Do you remember that TV series Grass Roots? I always thought the character of the blonde Liberal councillor was based on her. Not that I’ve heard anything about Coonan being raunchy or anything, mind.

  25. [Scarpat
    Posted Monday, August 22, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    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’.]

    John Arlott did it for me once I got over my Aussie prejudices against Pommy broadcasters. I still remember his description of any incident when Greg Chappell was in full flight against Ray Illingworth’s offspinners.

    Chappell belted one full on straight past the body that hit the fence before most knew what happened. As the ball rocketed past Illingworth, Arlott said
    [“Illingworth raised an arm just as the ball flew past him.I’m not sure if it was a half-hearted attempt at a caught-and-bowled, or a gesture of surrender.” ]

    They were a bit more loquacious in those days. Arlott was a fine writer as well, and a humanitarian. He did a great job in getting Basil D’Olliveira into English cricket against the hostility of Apartheid South Africa at the time.

  26. Darren @ 6497

    You really should just ignore this type. There are others that ‘support’ Labor, too. )No need to name names, really is there?).

    The shame is that these types often have some real insight, and have shown the ability to comment effectively. I just scroll past these days. My loss, I suppose 🙁

  27. ShowsOn
    [You are writing based on the assumption that most Australians care about asylum seekers, but you’re completely wrong, most Australians couldn’t care less about them. They just want them gone, and couldn’t care less how it is achieved.]
    That just isn’t true. Have you forgotten the recent polling already (William’s link below)? Consider those figures after a decade or more of demonising asylum seekers by both major parties; then imagine what a bit of moral leadership could do from a real leader..

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