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The polling that drives dog whistle politics … and may cure them

1 Mar 2011

First published on The Drum: 01/03/2011

Here is the polling that is driving Scott Morrison’s subterranean attack on Muslims, confirmation that a majority of Australians are concerned about their numbers.

For too long conservative blowhards like Morrison have been running agendas that directly reference these findings but because they have remained hidden in a desk drawer they are merely debating an issue.

After much soul-searching, Essential has decided to commit an act of political interruption. We debated whether it was worth giving voice to these attitudes long and hard, but we believe getting this stuff out in the open is the only way to silence the dog whistle.

Q. Are you concerned about the number of Muslim people in Australia?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Total concerned 57% 50% 69% 32%
Total not concerned 38% 46% 28% 68%
Very Concerned 28% 21% 37% 12%
Somewhat concerned 29% 29% 32% 20%
Not very concerned 21% 23% 19% 27%
Not at all concerned 17% 23% 9% 41%
Don’t know/Refused 5% 4% 2%

Make no mistake, when Scott Morrison complains about airfares for asylum seekers to attend funerals he is playing to these findings. When Tony Abbott green lights him he is playing to these findings. When Cori Bernardi decides the burka is a pressing issue of national significance, he is playing to these findings.

And when Labor, in sadness more than in conviction, attempts to manage these issue by decking a PM on a warship off Darwin for campaign happy snaps with a western Sydney MP who lacks the fibre to confront the issue, they are playing to these findings.

But this is only a small part of the story.

Because there are a whole range of questions that elicit different responses and provide a way through the issue for those prepared to lead rather than to incite.

The first point is that ignorance of the facts breeds suspicion. We asked people to name the fastest growing religion in Australia and only 3 per cent got it right (it’s Hinduism). In contrast 57 per cent thought it was Islam.

We also asked people to name the percentage of Australian residents who are Muslim. Just 17 per cent got close to the actual figure of 1.7 per cent. Sixty seven per cent of people overstated the size of the Muslim population, including 19 per cent who thought it was more than 10 per cent of the national population; while 18 per cent admitted not knowing.

What is fascinating though is when you line up the views of those who are ignorant, with the attitudes to Muslims, you see a big increase in levels of concern.

Estimated % Muslims in Australia
Total 1-2% 3-5% 6-10% Over 10%
Total concerned 57% 44% 52% 68% 79%
Total not concerned 38% 54% 46% 31% 19%

The takeout is stark. Spread the facts and you will quell the anxiety.

Indeed, simply giving the facts about the current growth and scope saw the number of people concerned drop from 57 per cent to 50 per cent and not concerned rise from 38 to 45 per cent. That is a significant turnaround.

The second point is that shifting attention from the specific of discussing one particular race to general principles turn the findings on their head.

Despite 15 years of concerted attack and manipulation by the Coalition parties, the vast majority of Australians still see the nation’s future closely tied to multiculturalism as a guiding principle. In fact, nearly the same number of people who say they are concerned about Muslims also say they believe multiculturalism has been positive for Australian society.

Q. Overall, has multiculturalism (that is, the acceptance of people from different countries, cultures and religions) made a positive or negative contribution to Australian society?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Total positive 57% 65% 54% 75%
Total negative 29% 24% 36% 12%
Made no difference 6% 6% 4% 3%
Don’t know 8% 4% 5% 4%

The third point is that once you humanise the questions, people respond positively. Two thirds reject the idea that families who migrate to Australia should be rejected on the basis of their religion.

Make this question purely about excluding Muslims and the numbers shift about 10 per cent.

Agree Disagree Don’t Know
When a family migrates to Australia should it be possible for them to be rejected purely on the basis of their religion? 19% 65% 15%
Should the Australian Government exclude Muslims from our migrant intake? 25 % 55% 20%

The fact that one quarter of Australians want to ban Muslim migration shows that Morrison does have a significant constituency, but it is not the majority of people he is speaking for; and it is a group that peels off when more humane propositions are put to them.

Finally, despite their concerns and views people are awake to the games politicians play. When asked whether the issue is being raised to generate votes or due to genuine concern about Australia’s future, people can see right through the bluster.

Q. Do you think some politicians raise issues of race and religion for political purposes just to generate votes or do you think these politicians are genuinely concerned about Australia’s future?

Total Vote Labor Vote Lib/Nat Vote Greens
Some politicians raise issues of race and religion for political purposes just to generate votes 61% 66% 55% 80%
These politicians are genuinely concerned about Australia’s future 27% 21% 37% 14%
Don’t know 12% 12% 7% 5%

Digging into the detail to this depth clearly shows why Scott Morrison has taken this tack; but it also shows why people of principle on all sides of politics are right to stand up to him.

Yes, Australians are concerned about the Muslim issue, but that doesn’t mean they are opposed to Muslim immigration in particular, or multiculturalism in general; and the more facts they are given the more they are likely to have those concerned quelled.

Polling sometimes brings out the worst in politicians. Let’s hope these numbers contribute to bringing out the best.

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC