Refugees who arrive in Australia by boat should be allowed to resettle in the country, a majority of Australians believe, new polling released just days before the election shows. A poll of more than 1,400 people commissioned by The Australia Institute found 63% of respondents oppose the bipartisan policy that refugees who arrive in Australia by boat should never be allowed to settle in the country, instead saying those found to have a valid claim for protection should be brought to Australia.
As well, two-thirds of Australians believe doctors working in Australia’s offshore detention regime should be free to speak out about conditions in detention centres, and a majority believe New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru should be accepted. The poll findings defy bipartisan political support for Australia’s current policy of offshore processing and regional resettlement for boat-borne refugees. No refugee who arrives by boat will ever be settled in Australia under current government policy, and Labor has consistently said it has identical asylum policies to the Coalition.
But the polling commissioned by The Australia Institute and conducted by Research Now in May and June, revealed widespread disquiet over Australia’s offshore detention regime on the islands of Nauru and Manus, where several hundred people have been held for more than 1,000 days, in often violent and oppressive conditions, with little or no prospect of resettlement.
Nauru has refused to permanently resettle any refugees, and efforts to resettle a handful of refugees on Papua New Guinea have almost all failed. Australia’s $55m Cambodia Solution has resulted in only one person moving and staying there.
The polling found only 22% of respondents supported the position of both the Coalition and Labor parties that any asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat should never be allowed to come to Australia under any circumstances.
35% said asylum seekers should be sent to offshore camps for processing, but that those found to be refugees should be resettled in Australia, with those found not to have a valid claim for protection returned to their country of origin.
28% said asylum seekers should be brought to Australia and processed onshore. Those found to be refugees should be resettled in Australia, and those not judged to be refugees returned. The Australia Institute poll of 1,437 people using nationally representative samples by age, gender and state or territory, also found 66% of respondents believe it should be legal for doctors to speak publicly about conditions in immigration detention centres and report incidents of abuse to police.
While some protections remain in the Public Interest Disclosure Act, the Australian Border Force Act 2015 specifically imposed a penalty of two years’ jail for any “entrusted person” – which includes a member of medical staff within a detention centre – who discloses details of conditions in the camps.
Doctors and psychologists such as Peter Young and Paul Stevenson – who have publicly condemned what they have described as widespread systemic physical and sexual abuse in detention – have been investigated by the Australian Federal Police, at the government’s request, for speaking out.
No-one has yet been charged under the Border Force Act.
The poll also asked whether Australia should “accept or reject” New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 of the refugees currently held on Nauru or PNG’s Manus Island each year.
61% of respondents said New Zealand’s offer should be accepted, while 20% said it should be rejected. 19% of respondents were unsure.
Acceptance of New Zealand’s offer was supported by a majority of men (62%) and women (60%), and by a majority of Coalition (58%), Labor (62%) and Greens (72%) voters.
Ben Oquist, executive director of The Australia Institute said the polling showed a “real disconnect” between the government’s specific asylum seeker policy measures and public expectations.
“The vast bulk of political discourse from the major parties on this issue has been broad ‘tough on border security’ rhetoric. And while that tone may be perceived to be popular, the actual details of the policy do not appear to have public support.
“Australians, based on this polling, don’t support the ‘never be settled’ policy when it comes to those found to be refugees. Efforts to conflate refugees with all immigrant arrivals may have successfully confused the public about just who is in Manus and their refugee status.”
Oquist said whichever party won Saturday’s federal election, the next Australian government would need to find a resolution to the Manus and Nauru detention centres.
Tim O’Connor from the Refugee Council of Australia told Guardian Australia the major parties were in “lockstep” over sending asylum seekers to offshore detention.
“Neither has a plan for how they will resolve the crisis they have both created.
“Australians are rightfully worried that thousands of people are suffering intolerably and interminably in our detention camps. Neither major party has a plan to resolve this crisis of their own making.”
O’Connor said Australia needed to genuinely engage with the international community in resolving the global challenge of mass worldwide displacement.
“It’s clear that the more Australians find out about what is actually happening in Australia’s offshore detention camps, the more their concerns grow. The government has been extremely secretive about what is happening in its offshore camps and we know from experience that we should be worried when our government tries to cover things up.”
The issue of asylum policy has been a consistent feature of the election campaign, with the government insisting it was the only party that could be trusted to stop the boats.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, did not “have the willpower” to maintain a deterrent policy on boat arrivals.
“The challenge of people smuggling is greater than it has ever been. The only thing that stops them is the steely resolve of my government to turn those boats back.
“Imagine the chaos that we would be presented with under a Labor, Greens, independent government? Even now, before the election day, they are abandoning critical elements in our border protection policy.”
Shorten said Labor’s policy was identical to the Coalition’s, and that a Labor government would maintain boat turnbacks and offshore processing.
“[Immigration minister] Mr Dutton and Mr Turnbull have tried to run a line that on 3 July with a different government there will be a different policy. They should be ashamed of themselves … I led my party and I said we will turn back boats. We will deter people smugglers.”
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