Fairfax Media

New research throws doubt on the poll that shocked Australia

Researchers say poll said poll questions on Muslim ban ‘skew responses’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 3:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 November, 2016, 3:38pm

By Michael Koziol

Remember the poll that shocked the nation - and the world? Half of all Australians want to ban Muslim immigration. Multiculturalism shattered to pieces.

Politicians were taken aback, Muslim Australians were distraught and even the pollsters were so stunned they repeated the survey twice just to be sure.

The figure was keenly reported by national news outlets, including The Sydney Morning Herald, and picked up by overseas organisations including Time magazine, Britain’s Daily Telegraph and US alt-right website Breitbart.

While the limitations of the research were noted - it was an online survey of 1000 regular panel members and, at the end of the day, it was just one survey - the 49 per cent statistic was too significant to ignore.

But new research has thrown some doubt over the finding. The long-established and respected Mapping Social Cohesion study has detected “no statistically significant shift” in Australians’ attitude towards Muslims, despite the rise of One Nation and Donald Trump.

Monash University professor Andrew Markus, who authored the report, excoriated the poll and the way it was reported. “People in the media aren’t in the business of carefully analysing survey results and methodology,” he said. “You get a number and you think: ‘Oh wow, that’s big’ – but big compared to what? That’s really quite a common fallacy.”

Professor Markus also criticised the binary nature of the Muslim ban question. “Those sort of questions skew responses,” he said. “You don’t ask ‘are you racist or not’, yes or no. You actually try to get a more subtle way of understanding what opinion is like.”

He also pointed to research undertaken over many years by Roy Morgan which found little change in attitudes to Muslim immigration since 2010. When it asked about the subject in October, 58 per cent of respondents said they supported Muslim immigration, while 33 per cent were opposed - up from 28 per cent in 2015, but lower than the 35 per cent recorded in 2010.

The annual Mapping Social Cohesion study did not ask specifically about Muslim immigration but looked at sentiment: a quarter of those surveyed said they had negative feelings towards Muslims, and 14.1 per cent had “strong” negative feelings (up from 11.3 per cent). Just over 30 per cent had positive or strongly positive feelings, and about 40 per cent were indifferent.

Professor Markus noted that anti-Muslim sentiment was “relatively high”, but while fears over terrorism and national security had increased, there had been “no statistically significant shift in negative opinion towards Muslims over the course of the six surveys”.

When the Essential Poll came out in September, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insisted Australia was still “the most successful multicultural society in the world”. Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, meanwhile, said the poll showed “we’re not doing a good enough job as national leaders” to bring harmony to the community.

Perhaps both of those observations are still true. Whether it’s 49 per cent or 33, a big chunk of Australians are lock-stock with Donald Trump when it comes to putting the brakes on Muslim immigration. But maybe Australia’s great experiment in multiculturalism hasn’t failed as bluntly as one surprising poll might lead us to believe.