According to the polls, the public both supports and opposes offshore refugee processing

The Australian public don’t want refugee boats to keep coming, but other than that it’s pretty hard to work out what they think. Earlier this week, new polling from both Nielsen and Essential Research was published on what to do with boat arrivals.

The questions were slightly different, but the results were opposite: Nielsen find a majority for onshore ‘assessment’, while Essential find a majority for offshore ‘processing’. I would have thought the questions were getting at the same thing, but perhaps respondents did not think so, or there was some other issue with the polls.

But to me this looks like at least a very significant minority of people have no clear opinion on the policy details.


Essential question: Thinking about the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat – do you think they should be processed in Australia or should they be sent to another country for processing?
Nielsen question (inferred from table in Age print edition): Asylum seekers arriving by boat should be … allowed to land in Australia to be assessed/sent to another country to be assessed/sent back out to sea/other or don’t know.

  1. The key difference between the questions I can see is Nielsen’s use of “allowed to land”. Not allowing people in a leaky boat to “land in Australia” seems mean-spirited, particularly after the Christmas Island tragedy. The Essential question presupposes that asylum seekers are allowed to land in Australia, but then sent offshore, which can’t happen of course. A better phrasing might be something like, “Thinking of asylum seekers approaching Australia by boat, should they be allowed to land in Australia and get processed here, should they be made to land in another country and get processed offshore, should they be sent back to sea if it is safe to do so, other or don’t know. Either way, this shows that public opinion is malleable on this issue.

  2. Which paper was each comissioned by?

    Think that will tell you how they get such different answers.

    Lead up questions involving our UNHCR obligations give one outcome vs lead ups about the costs of processing and evils of smuggling…

    • Fairfax newspapers for Nielsen and Essential is not sponsored. I don’t think this has much if anything to do with it. Crafting questions that won’t be misinterpreted is genuinely difficult – and the more you explain, the more you can be accused of asking a leading question. And as Rajat says, if people can be easily swayed by question wording, they probably don’t have much of an opinion.

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