In New Matilda today I have a major piece rebutting the dominant Left explanation for Australia’s brutal asylum seeker policies: That such policies are “poll-driven” in that voter attitudes on the issue are enough to swing elections. It is mainly a response to two NM articles last week written by their main political writer, Ben Eltham.
Here’s a snippet:
In a 2012 article he links to, Eltham referred to the origins of the current mess in the Keating government’s introduction of mandatory detention in 1992, arguing that, “As in our own time, this was a knee-jerk policy prescription designed to appease xenophobic Labor voters in marginal seats”. The chain of causation is explicit: Politicians respond to the dark passions of the voters and the electoral calculus makes resisting these difficult if not impossible. Last Thursday Eltham returned to this theme: “The progressives who support asylum seekers remain a small minority. No diatribes about the ‘political classes’ can conceal this fact.”
Eltham is not alone in this assessment. The vast majority of opinion on the issue is that asylum policy is “poll-driven” in the sense that it can swing votes to decide the outcome of federal elections. For example, when Julia Gillard “lurched Right” on asylum and population in 2010, Josh Gordon wrote in The Age, “It is a red-hot political issue, particularly for ‘Howard battlers’ in marginal electorates”. Kevin Rudd’s 2013 “PNG Solution” led John Pilger to argue that this “barbarism is considered a vote-winner” and “a crude, often unconscious racism remains an extraordinary current in Australian society and is exploited by [the] political elite”. At around the same time George Negus opined that asylum policy was about “votes, votes and more votes”. Perhaps the best-known articulator of this position on the Left is David Marr, who has pursued an analysis of the Australian public as deeply susceptible to manipulation by a panic-mongering political elite, especially on issues of race. During George Brandis’ recent push to water down sections of the Racial Discrimination Act, Marr even suggested that there were “millions” of potential votes in exploiting racial fears.
The problem with these arguments is that there is no direct evidence for them, only presumptions based on a prior belief about the impact of the issue on voting behaviour. In fact, the more plausible interpretation of publicly available data is that while most voters disapprove of “unauthorized boat arrivals” and may well be “satisfied” with tough deterrence measures, they don’t dislike asylum seekers anywhere near enough to bother switching their vote on the issue. That is, despite the hysteria of the Right and Left of the political class, boat people do not have a significant impact in terms of swinging votes and deciding elections.
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