The Refugee and Asylum Seeker question set was one of the issues questions we put up in August. 536 voters responded to these questions; 296 men and 240 women, with a good age balance. All numbers below are weighted by age, gender and vote intention.
Somewhat arrogantly, I expected it to be a fairly straight forward response along basically partisan lines, polarised a bit like climate change is.
In fact, I can find no correlation to give any clear indication of what’s going on here with a level of certainty I’m comfortable with. The only consistent anything was that people believed the majority of Australians agreed with their position. (And indeed said so, there were responses that argued the majority of Australians supported offshore detention, while others argued the majority opposed offshore detention.)
In response to the usual first question of what is the first thing that comes to mind, most answered emotively. The responses fell into five categories:
- Negative reaction towards refugees: terrorists, illegals, queue jumpers, taking our welfare, do not assimilate, coming here to kill us…
- Compassionate reaction towards refugees: desperation, suffering, victimisation, concentration camps, humanitarian, treatment, shameful, #bringthemhere…
- Being sick of the issue: ‘here we go again’, ‘not this again’, ‘are we still talking about this?’
- Calling out the propaganda: political point scoring, dog whistling, political football, phony terrorism threats, hype…
- Recognising the complexity of the issue: push and pull factors, the need to assess on a case by case basis, break the deadlock, manage the issue better.
There was no clear partisan, age, gender or region trend in the comments. Similarly there was little correlation in those who had had personal contact with a refugee, which was just over 40% of respondents.
The main substantive question we asked was whether they supported the current policy of offshore detention for refugees who come by boat, including those refugees never being able to come to Australia. It’s not clear whether the full specificity of the question was appreciated by all, but most of the others were either saying they should not be detained but should be sent back to where they came from, or they had no problem with offshore detention but did not support the permanent ban. The latter of these were re-coded as ‘partially support’.
The easy (lazy) interpretation is that the majority of Australian oppose the policy, case closed. It’s not that simple. 58% is within the margin of error on a sample this size – a statistical tie – and we look, as we always do here at the VCP to the qualitative and correlational evidence for an indication of what’s actually going on here. We have a high degree of confidence in our numbers – e wouldn’t publish them if we didn’t, but when interpreting them we caution not to let a number like 58% seem like a home run. As you can see from the second graph, people who knew and didn’t know refugees both supported and opposed the policy, as did people who were refugees themselves. And in the third, every single party had supporters and opposers to the current policy. There’s no pattern, no path that makes sense here. Let’s look at that party information as a cross tab, with the numbers as a percentage of party vote.
While those voting for the parties on the left clearly more strongly oppose the policy, and those voting for parties on the right clearly more strongly support the policy, that there are strong supporters voting ALP/Green/Centre Alliance is interesting, just as it is interesting that some 20% of Coalition voters oppose the policy. This isn’t even an easy gimme to win voters from the undecided column, with the informal and undecided voters being the most polarised (any attempt to win them by campaigning strongly on this issue is likely to cost you voters already in your column).
We did run the Mushiness Index on this issue – a scale we us on some issues to determine how well informed and made up people’s minds are, and opinions are moderately firm and unlikely to shift, with the most firm opinions (30%) being exactly where the should be, with the strongly supporting and opposing voters.
We also asked a sentiment question, asking people to pick from four statements or write in their own for how they felt about asylum seekers.
The two bottom answers were coded from the ‘others’; but most of the others were fairly unique responses alluding to the complexity of the issue, as had been the case in the first question responses.
Very unfortunate and complex situation that has no easy answer.49 year old male voter from NSW
Yes they are illegals who have gone outside the confines of the law, but children should not be punished for the wrongs of the parents.25 year old female voter from WA
The current policy is no better than letting people die at sea. I think this nation needs to grow up on this issue.29 year old male voter from NSW
This boat business is over-sold. What about people who fly in and the overstay? There are many more of them.63 year old female voter from Tasmania
Those quotes give the impression the women are more anti-refugee than men. For transparency, they aren’t, although women are slightly more polarised than men and slightly more opposed to the current policy, women (fro the qualitative evidence) are also more questioning of the details.
So, it’s a mess of complexity and conflicting ideas and opinions. Does it affect votes? In a word, yes. And here we see some similarities with energy/climate change, with Greens and ALP voters saying it won’t affect their vote because they’d vote for their party regardless of their position on this issue, but they care about this issue a lot.
There were a great many comments in the final say text box, which give a bit more insight to the anger on this issue. I can’t post them all obviously, but let me highlight a few.
It is incredibly concerning how the issue of refugees is conflated with immigration. We should be doing everything we can to help humanely and quickly process all refugees whether the come by boat or not. We should increase our humanitarian intake. However immigration levels are way too high and running at record levels. This should be cut immediately.39 year old male voter from NSW
The current policy is a moral stain on our nation. I would like to see our leaders and former leaders and all immigration ministers since 2001 held accountable for crimes against humanity. It won’t happen though. Asylum seekers have a right to seek asylum and we, as a nation, have a responsibility to treat them with dignity and honour their human rights. Children in detention is particularly disgraceful.50 year old female voter from Victoria
They have been murdered by the irresponsible act of luring them to cross the most dangerous waters in the world. Their grieving relatives should be encouraged to sue anyone advocating relaxing the rules.49 year old male voter from the ACT
I am not racist nor xenophobic and I resent being called such terms.69 year old female voter from Queensland
I think it’s a shame that they are treated as scapegoats within federal politics. They’re some of the most vulnerable people of our society and I find it disgusting that they are constantly dehumanised and blamed (incorrectly) for problems facing this country.19 year old female voter from Victoria
They are not asylum seekers. They are economic migrants looking for free handouts.68 year old male voter from Queensland
On the one hand I’m torn to see the horrors occurring in certain countries and completely understand why people are fleeing but on the other hand I’d like to make sure our vetting process is quite stringent.63 year old male voter from SA
If they are not suitable to stay in Australia, send them away. You do not detain people in concentration camps indefinitely.39 year old male voter from WA
It is not the only issue I will decide my vote on, but it is, at this stage, something of a veto issue. For example, I cannot vote for (or otherwise support) the Labor Party in good conscience due to their stance on this issue. There are certain lines that cannot be crossed.25 year old male voter from NSW
I’ve been staring at this one for a month and I think I have to concede defeat. There is no conclusion or summary point I can come up with that makes sense of all this, other than there is a lot of emotion, most of it very angry, but it’s going in a lot of different ways. (And I’m sure I’ll be accused of bias because I didn’t put up more quotes that call refugees horrid names and say they’re terrorists coming to kill your children. Sorry kids, there actually weren’t that many.)