Refugees will be an election issue
On the horizon
For most Australians there are many more important issues than asylum seekers, so how is it that the arrival of refugees by boats so dominates today’s news coverage? And is it a sign that voters in entrenched pockets of incipient racism will dictate the result of the next election, or something else?
One reason is that it is an ideal subject for media coverage with good visuals, handy and archetypal story lines, and plenty of colourful talent ready willing and able to front a television crew and argue their side of the case.
This of course forces politicians to address the issue, but doesn’t explain why, when it ceases to be novel, they keep returning to it.
In our most recent survey on the issue only around 10% of people nominated the issue as a top-of-mind “most important issue”. (This is from a weighted sample of 599). Out of these, 7% used a variation of “immigrant” to describe the arrivals, while only 2% called them refugees and 1% asylum seekers.
The choice of words is significant. Supporters of more liberal immigration laws almost always use “refugee” or “asylum seeker” and tend to be Labor or Greens voters, while Liberals, Nationals and others favour “immigrant”. The first group tends to focus on compassion and humanitarian issues, the second on population policy more broadly as well as the legality of informal population movements.
Yet, when we specifically asked respondents how important the issue was to them in determining their vote at the next election it seemed to dramatically increase in significance with 50% saying it was important and only 25% unimportant.
What is its true significance?
Looking at all the data it appears to be as a marker of voting allegiance. The refugee story neatly encapsulates some of the philosophical themes that underlie the two sides of our political debate.
So it typifies a deep cultural debate which can be boiled down to an argument about two different types of equality – outcome and opportunity – mixed in with conceptions of cultural and national identity. You can almost judge a person’s voting intention by what they say when you force them to take a position on asylum seekers.
It is not an issue on which they are consciously voting, but it exemplifies the deep reasons why they vote the way that they do.
And as equality of opportunity is more associated with the coalition, and is more favoured by Australians in general, every time the issue comes up, it promotes a vote for the coalition.
A slight policy advantage turns into a large thematic one.
Supporters of a tougher policy concentrate on the process and whether it is lawful that people “jump the queue”. They rarely argue that Australia should not accept refugees, but they do argue that we should have control over who we accept. It is an argument about what is fair, given the vast number of refugees in the world and limited domestic resources.
Opponents also talk about fairness, but their fairness is modulated by “compassion”, and the immediate problem of people on our door-step with needs. So they are focused on the outcome, not the process, and our common humanity with the new arrivals. They want to see everyone enjoying what we enjoy.
Of course there is some xenophobia and isolated concern that the refugee groups harbour terrorists and criminals, and will refuse to integrate, as well as suspicion of their religion and customs.
There is also a subsidiary theme, and that is one of the competence of the government. When Kevin Rudd was riding high last year Labor and the Coalition were ranked almost evenly in their ability to handle this issue.
Then, when Rudd was imploding, the Coalition suddenly gained a substantial lead. The evidence suggests this was not because of anything the Coalition said, but because each additional refugee arrival became further proof of government incompetence.
Neither Gillard nor Abbott is likely to unilaterally raise the issue in the election contest. But that probably won’t matter. This is the sailing season, and they’ll both have an eye on the horizon.
Unless the people smugglers are extraordinarily sensitive to internal Australian political conditions, it’s odds on that the refugees will inject themselves into the next federal election, and that’s bad for Labor.

For most Australians there are many more important issues than asylum seekers, so how is it that the arrival of refugees by boats so dominates today’s news coverage? And is it a sign that voters in entrenched pockets of incipient racism will dictate the result of the next election, or something else?

One reason is that it is an ideal subject for media coverage with good visuals, handy and archetypal story lines, and plenty of colourful talent ready willing and able to front a television crew and argue their side of the case.

This of course forces politicians to address the issue, but doesn’t explain why, when it ceases to be novel, they keep returning to it.

In our most recent survey on the issue only around 10% of people nominated the issue as a top-of-mind “most important issue”. (This is from a weighted sample of 599). Out of these, 7% used a variation of “immigrant” to describe the arrivals, while only 2% called them refugees and 1% asylum seekers.

The choice of words is significant. Supporters of more liberal immigration laws almost always use “refugee” or “asylum seeker” and tend to be Labor or Greens voters, while Liberals, Nationals and others favour “immigrant”. The first group tends to focus on compassion and humanitarian issues, the second on population policy more broadly as well as the legality of informal population movements.

Yet, when we specifically asked respondents how important the issue was to them in determining their vote at the next election it seemed to dramatically increase in significance with 50% saying it was important and only 25% unimportant.

What is its true significance?

Looking at all the data it appears to be as a marker of voting allegiance. The refugee story neatly encapsulates some of the philosophical themes that underlie the two sides of our political debate.

So it typifies a deep cultural debate which can be boiled down to an argument about two different types of equality – outcome and opportunity – mixed in with conceptions of cultural and national identity. You can almost judge a person’s voting intention by what they say when you force them to take a position on asylum seekers.

It is not an issue on which they are consciously voting, but it exemplifies the deep reasons why they vote the way that they do.

And as equality of opportunity is more associated with the coalition, and is more favoured by Australians in general, every time the issue comes up, it promotes a vote for the coalition.

A slight policy advantage turns into a large thematic one.

Supporters of a tougher policy concentrate on the process and whether it is lawful that people “jump the queue”. They rarely argue that Australia should not accept refugees, but they do argue that we should have control over who we accept. It is an argument about what is fair, given the vast number of refugees in the world and limited domestic resources.

Opponents also talk about fairness, but their fairness is modulated by “compassion”, and the immediate problem of people on our door-step with needs. So they are focused on the outcome, not the process, and our common humanity with the new arrivals. They want to see everyone enjoying what we enjoy.

Of course there is some xenophobia and isolated concern that the refugee groups harbour terrorists and criminals, and will refuse to integrate, as well as suspicion of their religion and customs.

There is also a subsidiary theme, and that is one of the competence of the government. When Kevin Rudd was riding high last year Labor and the Coalition were ranked almost evenly in their ability to handle this issue.

Then, when Rudd was imploding, the Coalition suddenly gained a substantial lead. The evidence suggests this was not because of anything the Coalition said, but because each additional refugee arrival became further proof of government incompetence.

Neither Gillard nor Abbott is likely to unilaterally raise the issue in the election contest. But that probably won’t matter. This is the sailing season, and they’ll both have an eye on the horizon.

Unless the people smugglers are extraordinarily sensitive to internal Australian political conditions, it’s odds on that the refugees will inject themselves into the next federal election, and that’s bad for Labor.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian on July 10, 2010.

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Comments   

 
0 #31 I am a Greens voter.But I am more objectSpectrum 2010-07-23 16:46
I am a Greens voter.But I am more objective on this issue.Why is it considered racist to want to see some refugees enter the country through the PROPER channels, and not pay crooks to get them here ? I believe many but not ALL, fit this category.It has nothing to do with the colour of their skin, or their cultural background e.t.c.
If these people are genuine, then why don't they accept refuge in the first/nearest country that is suitable ? No. They choose Australia, because they know they will receive more and better material benefits here - i.e. a higher standard of living.In other words, they see us as a soft touch.
No doubt there are a lot of genuine ones out there.But those that aren't, should be called for what they are - illegal immigrants - and treated as such.That's not being harsh or lacking compassion.It's the reality.
 
 
0 #32 It is quite impossible to totally prevenHadrian 2010-07-23 16:49
It is quite impossible to totally prevent the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. The origin of the boat arrivals will vary over time according to where wars are being waged. It is therefore a matter of on-going management of the situation. There is no one single solution and management must be flexible. That is exactly what successive governments have done, with varying degrees of success. I would not expect any significant difference in results be the Government Labor or Coalition. It is certainly NOT the biggest issue facing this country. Leave it to the xenophobes to pump it up but I would prefer to deal with education, health and environment issues which, if not well managed, will be a much bigger threat to the country.
 
 
0 #33 Illegal entrants is how I view them and NJL 2010-07-23 17:31
Illegal entrants is how I view them and I don't give a rats whether some little PC dropkick thinks I'm xenophobic. And it's all 'we think there's ethnic votes in this' Labors fault. The idiots changed the Howard Govts policy and they've all come sailing in. Oh of course Labor blames 'co-incidence' yeah right!
I agree it's not the biggest issue - Healthcare and education are falling further behind and the only thing that's kept/keeping us out of global recession is the mineral boom - not the fiscal policy of our current crop of incompetents.
I'm as stupid as the next mug voter - believed it was time for a change of government and had high hopes for Kev. Look where it's ended? And in QLD we have the totally inept Anna Bligh and her motley crew selling off public assets like there's no tomorrow ... God forbid we should stop selling coal and iron ore - we'll come to a grinding painful halt. Total disillusionment ! I am voting conservative the rest of my life ...
 
 
0 #34 This should not be an election issue - iRobin 2010-07-23 18:10
This should not be an election issue - it is too stupid for words. I would like to ask those of this fantastic country to try imagining what boat people have had to do to even get on a boat. Some have had to "borrow" vast sums of money in gold bullion from money gangs to give to "people smugglers" and then or perhaps if they ever reach this country have to work extremely hard to pay back this "loan" otherwise their relatives back home are killed. Towing boats back out to see will result in more deaths from drownings. If you lived in Afghanistan you don't get much chance of learning to swim! This policy will lead to all boats being scuttled as they get near to a border protection vessel. Forget processing these unfortunate people off shore. Put them in temporary secure accommodation in Australia, process them as quickly as possible and integrate the successful ones fast. This would be much cheaper and send the right message internationally that we care about refugees.
 
 
0 #35 NJL writes"I am as stupid as the next muayn hollander 2010-07-23 18:34
NJL writes"I am as stupid as the next mug voter- etc",
Precisely ,he is,but at least he has an opinion and he or she will vote accordingly.
Uninformed raves from both sides of the political fence don't add to the Refugee debate but do confirm my belief that if you could magically change the political sophistocation of the Australian electorate into water and put same into a swimmingpool and then jumped in the deep end, you would not get your knees wet.
 
 
0 #36 Boat people are not the biggest issue atJack. 2010-07-25 15:56
Boat people are not the biggest issue at the moment,drugs are?As for the boat people,where are you going to house them.Build camps like they did in the 50's simple!
Ask yourself,where do these people get the money for such a trip,plane fair thru the front door would be cheeper.
Taking into account that most of these people are of the muslim faith and that's all it is.A FAITH!
If they could leave all there bagage behind them to seek a better life,why do they persist in all their trappings.
There is no quick fix.I came home from VIETNAM,and I remembered how we were treated,by both sides of Government.

All you bleading hearts,well I'll solve your problem,it's easy.All you have to do is adopt these people,feed them cloth them,pay all medical and dental and take responcability for them.Then house them,SIMPLE.Can 't drown them.Sentence the smugglers to a fireing squad.Get tough.
 
 
0 #37 While I agree that the boat people issueCarolyn 2010-07-26 10:32
While I agree that the boat people issue is not the most important facing our nation, I am concerned on a couple of counts. Firstly, how is it so easy for boats, any number of boats, carrying any number of people, to get to our shores unnoticed until the last minute. A hostile country could clearly do the same thing if it was so inclined. Secondly, for every boat load of people we receive, who we know have paid a fair amount of money so they have means at their disposal, the same number of people in genuine refugee camps all over the world who are in more urgent need in horrific circumstances are bumped back down the list - that's why they are called queue jumpers.