Although I profoundly disagree with the Government's policy on asylum seekers, the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll indicates that it has been successful in at least three ways beyond the bald statistic that no boats have arrived in Australia for over 150 days.
First, by and large Australians support the policies. Of those polled, 71% support turning back boats when it is safe to do so, 59% support offshore processing in places like Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the number of those who support the policy of issuing temporary protection visas is about the same as those who do not. In other words the Government is quickly winning back public confidence in asylum policy; no mean feat when you remember that just a few months ago incompetence in this area was helping bring down the last Government.
Second, the Government has begun to take the heat out of the debate. True, 48% of those polled identify asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat as a 'critical threat', ranking fifth in a list of 12 threats to Australia's vital interests. Unfortunately these results cannot be compared with earlier Lowy polls, but I bet that last year Australians would have ranked boats above Iran's nuclear program or cyber attacks, for example, both of which now rank higher. And when the percentage of those who identify these 12 threats as a 'critical threat' and an 'important but not critical threat' are combined, boats drop from fifth to last place in the list.
Third, and very importantly, the Government's asylum policy has not infected public attitudes to immigration more widely. Thus almost half of those polled think the number of immigrants coming to Australia is about right, and those who think it is too high cite jobs, not security, as their main concern.
Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Angus Campbell have been sensible in guarding against complacency; who knows when another boat will make it to Australia, or what the fallout will be from the report on the riot in the Manus Island detention centre. Still, the results of the Lowy Poll create a window of opportunity to reap the benefits of stopping the boats. The public has renewed its trust in Government policy, media and public scrutiny have died down, and immigration is firewalled. Opening this window may also help unwind some of the collateral damage of the Government's policy: a demotivated public service, a vexed judiciary, an alienated civil society sector, strained relations with critical regional neighbours, and international opprobrium.
First, the Government should make a commitment to progressively increase its quota for refugee resettlement. Second, it should redouble efforts to build the capacity to protect and assist asylum seekers and refugees in South East Asia. Third, Australia should take a lead on convening international action on responding to the prospect of 'climate change refugees'.
None of these initiatives would jeopardize current asylum policy, and neither in my opinion will they justify them. But they may combine with the current policy into a comprehensive framework to deliver sustainable positive results in Lowy polls to come.