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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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