This week the polling company Essential Research dropped a bombshell of a result: 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration (40% oppose, and 11% don't know). Split by the major parties, 60% of Liberal voters, 40% of Labor voters and 34% of Greens voters support a ban.
While none of the major parties support such a move, a ban is heavily touted by One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson, who is back in the senate after 18 years in the political wilderness.
These numbers have prompted much political hand-wringing and introspection. Keysar Trad, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, described the result as 'heartbreaking', Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek attributed it to a failure of political leadership, and Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne suggested the result was a reminder to both the government and opposition to keep reassuring Australians about the strength of Australia's border control and national security policies.
Some have refused to accept the results at face value: Labor MP Anne Aly (the first Muslim woman ever elected to the House of Representatives) suggested that the polling question's negativity could have skewed results ('they did not ask: "Do you like your Muslim neighbours? Do you agree to have Muslims that contribute to Australia" ... they were all negatively worded'), and Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim told AAP he saw no evidence of Greens support for the ban and had never personally encountered a Greens voter who held such a position.
But while the numbers are sobering, there's some small room for optimism. Earlier this year, Roy Morgan polling showed that around 12% of Australians considered immigration, multiculturalism, racism/racial tensions or terrorism the most important issue facing the nation; for comparison, 42% cited an economic or financial issue. According to the ABC's pre-election Vote Compass, 'Immigration & asylum seekers' was only a top-three election issue for respondents in the Australian Capital Territory; the economy and the environment were of greater concern across the rest of Australia. And the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll found more Australians considered education, health, the economy and domestic violence as a very or somewhat important issue facing Australia than terrorism/national security, refugees/asylum seekers, or immigration. A significant chunk of Australians may support the notion of banning Muslim immigration, but it's not clear it's a policy priority for anyone outside a very small segment of the population.
The broad silence or obfuscation from government MPs in reference to Essential Research's result is perhaps telling. As Peter Hughes writes:
The problem for the government is that it has traded heavily on a negative narrative around immigration. Since coming to power in 2013, the Coalition has re-positioned migration from an “opportunity” to a “threat”, dismantled the Department of Immigration (removing settlement, adult migrant English and multicultural affairs programs to other portfolios) and rebuilt it as the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, incorporating the uniformed Australian Border Force.
Ironically, the government now faces a political force that implies there is a “threat” more broadly based than maritime asylum seekers. Pauline Hanson and her Senate colleagues may well feed off the government’s negative narrative...
Without a coherent, positive, government-led narrative on immigration, public attitudes will go backwards.
Finally, George Megalogenis's brief Tweet-storm on Australia's long history of racist and otherwise exclusionary immigration sentiment (and the declining share of humanitarian immigration of Australia's total migratory intake) is worth a read.
Photo: Getty Images/Lisa Maree Williams