For all the convulsions it has faced on the political front, in one respect the Gillard government has presented a model of stability in recent months: its opinion poll ratings, as measured by the weekly Essential Research report, have been set in stone since the middle of June.

This week’s result shows no change at all on the previous week, with Labor on 32% and the Coalition on 49% of the primary vote, with the Coalition leading 56-44 on two-party preferred. The only change is a two-point gain for the Greens, who are up to 12% at the expense of other parties and independents.

Other questions fielded by Essential Research probe the complex area of public opinion on asylum seekers, and as usual they offer little to help guide political leaders through the minefield. Whereas other surveys have indicated surprisingly high support for onshore processing, the latest survey illustrates how dependent such results are upon the options given to respondents.

Only 21% were found to indicate a preference for onshore processing when the available alternatives were offshore processing “in any other country” (11%), “offshore processing” only in a country where human rights are protected” (31%) and turning the boats around (28%).

Respondents were further asked to rate features of a good refugee processing system, and here too the public seems determined to make like difficult for the government: the two features rated most important were “keeping costs down” (rated very important or somewhat important by 81%) and the possibly incompatible objective of “protecting human rights” (80%). It might be thought a surprise that the objective of “stopping the boats” came in third at 74%.

The least pressing concern was ensuring that asylum seekers were not returned to the country from which they had fled (49%).

Respondents were also asked to rate the performance of Tony Abbott as opposition leader, with slightly better results than he is used to from his personal approval ratings: 38% agreed he was “performing the role of opposition leader well and is keeping the government accountable”, with 45% taking the commonly heard view that he is “just opposing everything and is constructing the work of the government”.

A question on trust in various Australian institutions emphasises how much work our churches have to do to recover confidence: only 29% declared a lot of trust or some trust in religious organisations, against 72% for the High Court, 67% for the Reserve Bank and 61% for charitable organisations. Interestingly, federal parliament (55%) rated higher than the ABC (46%), environmental groups (45%) and trade unions (39%).

Last but certainly not least, the AFL grand final attracted the most interest out of three looming sports events: 32% declared themselves interested, against 20% for the NRL grand final and 10% for the Rugby World Cup.

Peter Fray

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