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Marles blind to Fiji poll benefits

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This post is part of the The Lowy Institute's Fiji Poll debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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6 October 2011 09:38


This post is part of the The Lowy Institute's Fiji Poll debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

My colleague Jenny Hayward-Jones has rightly called out Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, over his attempt to discredit an opinion poll we conducted in Fiji. But, for a different reason, I am glad he made the comments, because they highlight the fact polling in other countries is very rarely used by Australian foreign-policy-makers. By contrast, the US, Japan and others are longtime and clever users of these polls. 

As Jenny points out, it is a bit disingenuous of Marles to question our polling methodology. It is hard to believe that, as a politician, Marles is unable to tell a quality poll from a rubbish poll, and the methodology for the Fiji poll was independently reviewed by one of Australia's leading pollsters.

It is also, as Jenny points out, strange to claim polling cannot be undertaken in non-democratic states. Marles would no doubt be aware of the extensive and frequent polling conducted by a wide range of highly respected polling organisations in far more autocratic states than Fiji. 

So why question the poll? The obvious answer is politics. A few of the poll findings grate with current Australian policy towards Fiji, so why not try and undermine the credibility of the data that is calling it into question? It would certainly not be the first time attempts have been made to discredit a Lowy Poll with inconvenient findings.

For me, that strategy is a bit short sighted. Is Marles forgetting the poll was conducted completely independently of the Fiji government and that the findings represent the views of the very people he hopes will rise up, throw the Bainimarama dictatorship out and be the principal participants in any future democracy?

What the poll reveals are the domestic constraints and opportunities faced by Bainimarama, and ultimately these will be important factors shaping Australian policy towards Fiji. If Marles chooses to ignore the views of the Fiji people in making Australian policy then it will be little wonder if the policy fails. Like Marles and Jenny, I don't support Bainimarama, and while some of the findings might be uncomfortable, many others provide some very handy feedback on Australian policy. Some follow-up polling by DFAT or AusAID could help to develop a better targeted approach to Fiji.  

At the moment, I'm based in Washington DC and one of the things I'm researching is the State Department's use of opinion polls conducted in foreign countries, many of them non-democratic. The US government takes polling in foreign countries seriously, as a means of better understanding the views of foreign populations when making foreign policy. Without that knowledge, how can you know how the people in country X will react to your country's approach or how opinion will shape and constrain domestic politics? That is especially so in autocratic states, where public opinion is harder to gauge. 

If Marles is serious about Fiji, he should take a leaf out of the US playbook and ask DFAT or AusAID to conduct a follow-up poll in Fiji to delve a little deeper behind some of the findings and test current and new Australian policy positions among the Fijian public. 

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