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Refugees will be an election issue

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 12 July 2010

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 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 about 10 per cent of people nominated it as a top-of-mind "most important issue". (This is from a weighted sample of 599.) Of these, 7 per cent used a variation of "immigrant" to describe the arrivals, while only 2 per cent called them refugees and 1 per cent 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 per cent saying it was important and only 25 per cent unimportant.

What is its true significance?

Looking at all the data it appears to be 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.

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First published in The Australian on July 10, 2010.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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