A somewhat despairing member of the audience on last night’s Q&A asked Scott Morrison whether the Coalition could stop goading the government on asylum seekers. This, she saw, was the only way that the issue would stop being used as vote bait exercise by both parties.
My last piece on the election suggested that polls were not necessarily an indicator of voting behaviour and the use of them by election strategist and commentators meant they were not measuring views but reinforcing and creating them.
To quote yesterday’s item in the Crikey Daily Mail (paywalled):
Essential Research: mandate for Labor on health, refugees
Voters are standing behind Labor on refugee policy and health reform as leaders nut out a deal in Canberra today, with new Essential Research polling giving the government a strong mandate on both key issues. Today’s figures even show a small rise in support for Labor, correcting the decline of last week and rebutting Nielsen polling in Fairfax newspapers which had the Coalition winning more support…
The endorsement for Labor came in a week it waged battle with the states in the media over its health funding reforms, and followed its decision to freeze the processing of asylum seeker claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The majority of those surveyed support both agendas.
More than two-thirds (69%) of voters approve of the decision to suspend refugee claims — most (39%) ‘strongly’ — while just 15% disapprove of the move.
It’s an interesting question whether this does translate to votes on election day. I know that naïve poll readers and political advisers believe that it was Tampa that did the trick for Howard in 2001, but many disagree.
Firstly Labor’s vote was already dropping before the incident, then 9/11 occurred and this raised the general security issues and desire for a known and predictable leader. However, the tabloid excitement about public opinion as prejudice and moral panic makes a more reasoned discussion less likely.
Morrison’s response was the classic: these are queue jumpers and the sins of the people smugglers make their arrival even less attractive. The playing of those two themes is guaranteed to raise the ire of the casual voter and push the Government into even more inhumane responses. There are problems with the boat people but persecuting arrivals to scare off others, or rather to look tough in election terms is not an appropriate response.
The use of scapegoats in an election leaves trail of social fractures. Law and order, terrorism, welfare bludgers, sole parents, nasty interventions in Aboriginal communities create levels of prejudice and exclusion that make us a much less fair and egalitarian society.
So please can we stop over emphasising the results of polls, with their dicey questions, margins of errors within the weekly changes and lack of clarity about their relationship to actual voting reasons? I know they make an good story, but maybe not quite ethical.