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Why 71% of Australians want boats pushed back

  • 16 June 2014

In the lead up to Refugee Week the attitudes of Australians to people who come by boat to seek protection made sober reading. According to a Lowy poll 71 per cent of Australians believed Australia should turn back asylum seeker boats. That figure was far higher even than the Prime Minister's disapproval rating.

People drew different conclusions about its significance. Some would say that 71 per cent of Australians can't be wrong. At Eureka Street we have never been persuaded that majorities always have truth on their side. In this case there are solid reasons, frequently rehearsed here, for believing that they are wrong.

It has also been suggested that the poll figures reflect increasing levels of xenophobia and racism in Australia. The accounts given by many sports persons and immigrants of their own experiences of racist prejudice and the opinions expressed in social media might support this argument. But it ignores other evidence for increasing rejection of racism, and the surprisingly high support in the poll for processing asylum seekers in Australia.

Although most xenophobic and racist people might be expected to support turning back the boats, it would be unjustifiable to conclude that most people who want to turn back the boats are racist.

The poll figures almost certainly reflect the bipartisan practice of describing people who come by boat to seek protection in pejorative terms as a problem. They have been described as illegals, as queue jumpers, and as the willing pawns of people smugglers.

This rhetoric and the brutal treatment of asylum seekers on arrival have certainly intensified public anxiety and resentment. But they did not create these responses. Whenever people have come by boat to seek asylum they have aroused popular fear. Politicians have only fed and fed on public rancour.

But the political response to asylum seekers certainly persuaded people that Australia faced a vast problem to which pushing asylum seekers back and installing all the horrors of Manus Island and Nauru were the only solution. Part of the significance of the poll figures lies in the strength of that popular judgment.

For those who believe that offering protection to people who come to us in flight from persecution is ethically binding and the mark of a humane society, the poll figures indict their failure to persuade their fellow Australians. It is the latest of a history of failures: to repeal mandatory detention, to abandon the Pacific Solution and to commend