What polls and asylum seekers say about our values
Let’s accept the Federal Opposition’s interpretation of this week’s polling figures at face value; as a consequence of his “softness” on the issue of the alleged armada of boats laden with asylum-seekers arriving on our watery doorstep day by day, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his government are falling rapidly out of favour with the Australian public.
And for the sake of the argument, let’s also accept the statistical and methodological reliability – which we can do with considerable confidence – of The Australian newspaper’s latest set of Newspoll numbers.
So, accepting all of that, what does it all add up to? And what does it say about our collective set of national values?
What has been reported in the news media over the past few months is an increase in the activity of people-smugglers operating out of Indonesia, and a subsequent increase in the number of “illegal arrivals” by asylum seekers.
And portrayed enthusiastically by the Federal Opposition as being “soft” on the entire problem of illegal immigration, Kevin Rudd and his government get whacked in the public opinion polls as a result.
From which it seems to follow that we Australians want the barriers against illegal immigration given some pretty hefty reinforcements.
We don’t like these hordes of new arrivals flooding down from the north and we want the Government to take a tough line.
Perhaps it’s not quite that simple. Perhaps the poll numbers actually reflect public dissatisfaction with the apparent failure of efforts - Kevin Rudd’s, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s – to tackle the people-smuggling aspect of the problem.
They’re really the villains of the piece, and perhaps the Australian public - understanding the wretched exploitation and cruelty which is the people-smugglers’ stock-in-trade - is kicking the government for its lack of moral purpose in this important area of international justice.
But is that really likely?
More likely, the simple opinion minded in the latest Newspoll survey is to the effect that we reckon the government ought to be doing more to keep “the illegals” out. (That’s now a term the Opposition is being careful to avoid, but on my observation, it still has currency in the language of public conversation.)
The morality of that opinion is open to debate, isn’t it? With regional “push factors” (the war in Afghanistan, the isolation of Tamils in Sri Lanka, increasing instability in Pakistan among them) producing more and asylum seekers, don’t we have a duty in this fortunate country to offer sanctuary to dispossessed or terrorised friends and neighbours if we can?
All right, we do have to manage the risk that enemies of our values and social systems may try to infiltrate the columns of genuine asylum seekers to gain access to our shores. But that should be the approach, shouldn’t it?
Surely we don’t assume that all asylum seekers – nor even a significant number of them – are terrorists. It should be a matter of managing a risk, not shutting the gates altogether, surely.
Back to the poll figures, Newspoll calculated - on the basis of its latest survey - that the government’s support in two-party preferred terms had fallen to 52 percent, against 48 percent for the Opposition; a decline of seven percentage points on the survey conducted a fortnight earlier.
Predictably, the Government says it will not be influenced by the latest poll, that it will continue to govern “in the national interest”.
“The government is ensuring it implements its tough, responsible, but fair policy,” Mr Rudd was reported as saying in an article in The Australian.
“It’s tough and hardline on people smugglers. It’s humane on asylum seekers – that’s a responsible policy in the national interest.”
Well, quite so. But governments do have a tendency, despite routine and automatic denials of it, to tailor their policy settings according to the public mood.
And that mood is measured, at least in part, by opinion surveys such as those conducted by newspoll and The Australian.
Mr Rudd is on the record as suggesting Australia will have - and should have - a population of around 35 million by mid-century.
So it will be fascinating to watch how he reacts if opinion polls continue to suggest dissatisfaction with his government’s response to the issue of asylum seekers.
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