Brutal asylum policies & the Left’s ‘blame voters’ moralism

by · July 15, 2014

An ‘election ploy’, but is it effective?

An ‘election ploy’, but is it effective?

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.


Discussion4 Comments

  1. Nathan says:

    Thank you Tad!

    My god, the absolute self-serving nonsense written over this issue is appalling. As you have quoted above, if we were to believe some commentators, Australia’s elections are won and lost because of some hot-bed of super racism that exists in far off “Howard Battlers” seats.

    However, poll after poll has shown that this issue is NOT a vote changer, even in marginal seats! That even with ‘support’ for the government’s stated aims at a significant minority that does not mean this is the hot-bed issue that it is made out to be in voters minds. Health, education and the economy make up perhaps 95% of voters concerns, with maybe another 4% the environment. Everything else can go jump.

    This is an issue for the political class. They use it to bludgeon each other. It is also used by many as a way to distinguish themselves as hounded progressives in the face of an apparent monstrously racist people: Australians.

    You are right. While this issue is used as a political foot-ball to score points it is unlikely to infuse the vast majority of voters. Its too ideological. Its a real turn-off.

    Like every issue in politics in a democracy it is important to try and get as many people as possible in support of your aims. I don’t see this as something advocates of a (needed) change in asylum seeker policy have actually tried, and even as something they desire. Just more and more lectures on how awful voters are. Vile.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Hi Nathan

      Thanks for the kind words about the post. I guess for me the most important thing is how much of the pro-refugee campaign has accepted this rubbish, and so found itself unable to articulate a position independent of the Left of the political class (and here I include the Greens, who have mostly deployed the worst kind of moralism, especially when they started that “not with my vote” stuff just before the last election).

      I think in that sense moral outrage has become the enemy of social progress.

  2. Ian says:

    Perhaps you should have written ‘The key thing to recall is that Abbott won almost entirely on the basis that voters rejected the previous government, which suffered an excruciating crisis of authority mainly caused by Kevin Rudd’s whiteanting’

  3. Ian says:

    sorry – wrong thread