Inside Story

Boats and votes

Labor power brokers persuaded Julia Gillard to toughen up on border protection because they believed the issue was damaging the party. But are boat arrivals really as electorally potent as they think?

Peter Browne 6 July 2010 2761 words

Prime Minister John Howard takes control on the bridge of the Customs vessel Holdfast Bay, watched by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, on the day he launched the Coalition’s border protection policy for the 2001 election. Nic Ellis/AAP Image/West Australian

AFTER visiting the governor-general at around midday on Sunday 5 October 2001, John Howard returned to Parliament House to announce that a federal election would be held six weeks later. The signs were looking good for the government: the arrival of the Tampa in August seemed to have added to longer-term fears about “border protection” and the September 11 attacks in the United States had given the broader issue of national security – traditionally strong ground for the Coalition – a dramatic new edge.

But the prime minister’s advisers weren’t leaving anything to chance. What viewers of the major news bulletins saw that evening were the day’s events carefully choreographed by the prime minister’s principal media adviser, Tony O’Leary. To the usual visual elements – the prime minister driving to see the governor-general at Yarralumla, the prime minister announcing the election, opposition leader Kim Beazley responding – O’Leary added two new moments: the prime minister crossing his private courtyard before leaving for Yarralumla and, later, the prime minister meeting earnestly with his senior advisers. “All networks ran the O’Leary-orchestrated footage, giving Mr Howard the lion’s share of the images on the news,” wrote journalist Dennis Atkins a few days later. “Kim Beazley’s picture was confined to his formal news conference.”

Marginalising the Labor leader on the first day of the campaign was part of a strategy to present John Howard not just as the obvious choice but also as the only choice as prime minister in a time of adversity. Over the next month and a half the Coalition ran a campaign dominated by national security, focusing not so much on the terrorist attacks in America (though they were certainly part of the mix) as on the boats arriving off the Australian coast. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, the cabinet member most closely identified with asylum seeker policy, received the loudest applause at the Liberal Party campaign launch, and at the same event the prime minister made his infamous declaration, “We will decide who comes to Australia and the conditions under which they come.” The government was returned to office on 10 November and John Howard, who had faced oblivion earlier in the year, began his ascent into the pantheon of electorally dominant Australian political leaders.

This three-month period, from the first sighting of the Tampa to the poll in November, still has Australian politics in its grip. Heading into another election campaign this year, journalists and commentators are once again using the 2001 election result to argue the case for the electoral potency of “boat people.” As the Sunday Age’s Josh Gordon put it a few days ago, asylum seekers are “a red-hot political issue, particularly for ‘Howard battlers’ in marginal electorates.” But was the Tampa really the decisive factor it was cracked up to be?

THE GOVERNMENT had started the year in a dire state. Polls during January showed support for the Labor opposition was up to ten percentage points higher than for the government on the primary vote (not all pollsters were issuing two-party-preferred estimates at this point) and the figures only worsened over the next eight weeks. In early March Newspoll reported Labor “surging to its biggest poll lead over the Coalition in more than six years”; according to ACNielsen, Coalition support had slumped to its lowest level since it began polling in 1972.

A rattled government snapped into action. The controversial new business activity statements were simplified, a plan for tighter regulation of family trusts was dumped, the first home buyers grant was doubled and, as Murray Goot writes in his analysis of the 2001 poll data, the government “embarked on a spending spree that, by the end of the year, would see it listed for the first time by ACNielsen as the biggest advertiser in the country.” Most costly of all, the Coalition cut the fuel excise rate and abolished its indexation.

At first, the polls scarcely moved. It wasn’t until after the May budget – with its generosity to pensioners and self-funded retirees – that support for the government began to pick up. A better-than-feared result for the Liberal candidate in the Aston by-election in mid July signalled some further improvement, but by the time the Tampa hove into view the Coalition was still contemplating the prospect of a significant election loss.

The government had begun planning a toughening of policy towards boat arrivals, including a role for the military, and the arrival of the Tampa was a perfect opportunity to test it. As a senior press gallery journalist, Peter Charlton, wrote after the election, “Army sources have told this writer that the [Special Air Service] troopers had been training for such a contingency for some time.” On 29 August, SAS troops boarded and took control of the Tampa, which had gone to the assistance of a boat in trouble and now had over three hundred asylum seekers aboard. Their job was to prevent the captain from unloading his passengers on Australian soil.

Despite the enormous controversy it generated, and despite the backdrop of rising numbers of boat arrivals, the Tampa barely registered in the two-party-preferred surveys. ACNielsen recorded a one point fall in Labor’s lead (from 53 to 52 per cent), while a dramatic reduction in Morgan’s sample size (from nearly 2000 to fewer than 800) probably explains the fluctuations in the Labor figures it reported (57, 52 and 55 percentage points, two-party-preferred) over the course of the initial controversy. Newspoll published no two-party-preferred figures during this period. It’s true that the government’s primary vote rose by an average of three percentage points across the three main polls — Newspoll, ACNielsen and Morgan — but that came almost entirely from smaller parties. Two out of three polls had Labor’s primary vote either steady or down by a statistically insignificant one point.

These and other polls around this time attempted to gauge which issues were on voters’ minds, and it’s by comparing the two questions – voting intention and views about “boat people” – that we get a first clue as to why border protection might not be the vote-changer it’s generally regarded to be. A Newspoll conducted two weeks after the Tampa was turned away found that 50 per cent of respondents nominated immigration as a “very important” issue – 20 percentage points higher, Murray Goot points out, than when the same question had been asked in June. “On the question of whether the government or the opposition was the ‘best party to handle immigration,’” Goot continues, “the Coalition opened up a lead of nineteen percentage points; in June, the Coalition and Labor had been virtually tied.” Yet overall support for Labor vote, as we’ve just seen, had scarcely changed. In other words, the fears about asylum seekers elicited by the direct question about the issue scarcely crossed over to voting intention, with Labor still ahead.

What did eventually change the electoral equation were the terrorist attacks a fortnight later, on 11 September. Most polls recorded a decisive shift (Newspoll: a six point rise in the Coalition’s primary vote, almost entirely mirrored by a five point fall for Labor; ACNielsen: a nine point rise in the Coalition’s primary vote and a seven point fall for Labor) and this new balance of support persisted through to the early weeks of the campaign. It was the enormous shock of the events in New York and Washington rather than the arrival of the Tampa that shifted sentiment. The Coalition strove to link the two issues, but – as we’ll see – even the combination was nowhere near as potent as it’s often been portrayed.

Despite these very recent and dramatic events, something very interesting happened once the election campaign got underway. The government’s border protection bill and the opposition’s wariness of such extreme measures sharpened the previously blurred differences between the two parties to the extent that anyone who wanted to vote for “strong border protection” could choose the real thing, John Howard, rather than opting for the reluctant and partial border protector, Labor leader Kim Beazley. Yet, as the days went by the trend in support for Labor was upwards. The first Newspoll after the election was called had the party at 43.5 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote and the Coalition on 56.5 per cent. Over the next five polls, Labor’s two-party share worked its way up to 49 per cent and then fell a little, finishing at 47 per cent on the eve of the election. ACNielsen’s findings followed a similar pattern, while Morgan had Labor performing consistently more strongly. On election day Labor’s two-party-preferred vote was 49 per cent.

Beazley’s strategy had been to focus on health and education, and it seems to have worked remarkably successfully . The Coalition government, with all the benefits of incumbency in a time of crisis, managed to attract just 51 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote. In New South Wales – heartland of the Howard battlers, where the Coalition recorded its largest swing, 3.1 per cent – only 51.6 per cent of voters, each of them casting their ballots in the wake of the Tampa and in the shadow of 11 September, preferred the Coalition. In western Sydney, the swing was larger again, but not as large as the swing to Labor at the previous election. Overall, the government increased its majority in the House of Representatives by just two seats, from twelve to fourteen.

WITH changed international circumstances and the Coalition’s punitive policies doing their work, debate about asylum seekers was virtually absent from the following federal election, in 2004. But another three years later there were signs that the Coalition was gearing up for a renewed campaign on the issue. In mid August 2007, with polls showing the government was facing certain defeat, the immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, announced cuts in the government’s humanitarian quota for African refugees. Conditions in Africa had changed, he said, with the number of conflicts declining and more refugees returning home. (Figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees did show a fall in the number of refugees in Africa during 2006, down 6 per cent on the previous year, but Sudan – the main source for Australia’s humanitarian program – remained the third-largest source of refugees in the world.)

Questioned six weeks later about the decision, the minister told listeners in Melbourne that “some groups” – Africans, that is – “don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life.” Coming just a few days after a fatal attack on a Sudanese man in Noble Park, the comments were acutely insensitive and badly timed; it soon became clear that they were also based entirely on what a member of the minister’s staff called “anecdotal evidence.” As the furore continued, Mr Andrews’s office released a few pages of details. One newspaper called this a “dossier,” but it was simply a list of a series of unsubstantiated allegations about African communities alongside some statistics on the changing composition of Australia’s refugee intake and a brief defence of the humanitarian program.

The controversy continued over the next few weeks, with several senior police officers disagreeing publicly with the minister’s comments. But the most interesting aspect of this controversy, coming just a few months ahead of the 2007 federal election, was its suddenly disappearance. In mid October Kevin Andrews fell silent, and the Coalition largely steered clear of asylum seekers and refugees during the election campaign.

After Labor won the election on 24 November I asked a Liberal MP why the Coalition hadn’t run harder on an issue that was still generally seen as having clinched the 2001 election. He described a combination of factors, including disaffection with Kevin Andrews over his mishandling of the Haneef case and concern among those Coalition MPs who were already known as dissenters on asylum-related questions. But, he said, the vital factor seemed to have been the fact that polling had revealed that the issue had “lost its purchase” in the electorate. The party might also have been anxious not to revive memories of its role in the “children overboard” affair.

In 2001 the Howard government thought it won because of the Tampa, but the evidence shows otherwise. In 2007 party polling revealed that attacks on African refugees weren’t gaining any traction in the electorate, which must have raised questions about the longer-term potency of asylum seekers as an election issue. Surely the parties realise now that the anxiety about “boat people” in 2010 won’t necessarily translate into shifts in electoral support?

As speculation about the date of this year’s election intensified in June, George Megalogenis and Rosanne Barrett set out to discover what happened to the million or so voters who once supported Pauline Hanson. “Neither side will say this out loud,” they wrote in the Inquirer section of the Australian on 19 June this year, “but the Hansonites were part of the reason Kevin Rudd won so handsomely in 2007. They joined the rest of the nation in rejecting Work Choices, and in embracing the idea of Rudd as a younger version of Howard.”

You might expect worries about boat arrivals to galvanise that million-strong group of potentially footloose voters and give Tony Abbott an opportunity to win back support from Labor. But as Megalogenis and Barrett point out, the opposition leader recorded “his biggest drop in personal rating so far” in a Newspoll conducted over the two days after he released the Coalition’s new Pacific Solution policy on asylum seekers. The rating only returned to its previous level after Mr Abbott kept a low profile for most of June.

After interviewing voters in the electorate of Forde, part of Pauline Hanson’s southeast Queensland heartland, the two journalists reported that healthcare, the cost of living and taxation are the key issues, “not boat people or climate change.” They go on: “The Liberals can get [Forde] back with a swing of 3.4 per cent on the new boundaries. But they won’t do it on the issue of border protection, which was barely mentioned when Inquirer tested public attitudes this week.”

This might fall under the heading of “anecdotal” evidence, but it points to one reason why there’s such a gap between what we think we know about attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees and what we think that means for elections. When people are asked by polling companies what they think about “boat people” or “refugees,” or even about immigration in general, they express strong feelings. But if they’re asked which issues are in their minds when they’re making a decision about how to vote, those issues retreat into the background. They will certainly influence some individuals to vote either way, but overall they don’t register in relative levels of party support.

Even in 2001, when the borders were at the centre of the election campaign, this pattern was clear. The Australian Election Study, a detailed survey of just over 2000 voters, posed both sorts of question. In response to the question, “When you were deciding about how to vote, how important were refugees/asylum seekers to you personally?” 48.6 per cent said “extremely important” and a further 32 per cent said “quite important.” (Of course, saying the issue is important doesn’t mean you’re hostile to asylum seekers or refugees.) When respondents were given a list of twelve issues, from education to worker entitlements, and asked to nominate which were either the most or the second-most important factor in their voting decision, much lower numbers put “refugees and asylum seekers” first (11.9 per cent) or second (10.8 per cent). Health, education and tax all scored more highly, in that order. And if respondents had been asked to assemble their own list of important issues (as the voters of Forde were, in effect, by Megalogenis and Barrett), refugees and asylum seekers might barely have figured at all.

Despite all this evidence, the issue of asylum seekers and refugees has hung onto its air of electoral potency. The reason is probably quite simple. The conventional narrative of the 2001 election resonates for many supporters of refugees just as much as it does for people who want to close the borders by whatever means are necessary. For those who are sympathetic to these new arrivals, the assumed electoral benefit of closing the borders fits into a longer-term narrative about Australian racism as a political force; for those who are hostile, it lends support to policies like the Pacific Solution. On the available evidence, both views are wrong, which means that this time around the government should have thought carefully before it announced hasty solutions to an electoral problem that might not exist. •