Public Opinion and Public Advocacy (Part One: Opinion)

Amidst the news reports of the Intervention, a new book appeared on the library’s shelves recently, Murray Goot and Tom Rowse’s Divided Nation?: indigenous affairs and the imagined public (Melbourne University Press, 2007). I’d had a taste of the research behind this monograph in Tim Rowse’s contribution to Moving Anthropology: critical indigenous studies (Charles Darwin University Press, 2006), which I wrote about in my July 8 post

The new book is an extended study of public opinion polls conducted on Aboriginal affairs–some reaching back to the 1930s–focused on key events in the recent history of indigenous policy-making. The four moments the authors have selected for analysis are the 1967 referendum; the land-rights controversies of the mid-80s, focused especially on the question of an indigenous mining veto; the reaction to the Mabo decision; and the late 90s responses to Reconciliation, including the question of an apology to the Stolen Generation and dashed hopes for the adoption of a formal program of reconciliation by December 31, 2000 in time for the centenary of Federation.

Divided Nation? is a rich and engrossing book that shows the authors have done careful research and that also presents their results in a convincing narrative. There are helpful tables, and statistics are quoted usefully, but the reader is not drenched with cold buckets of numbers over the head. Rather, the authors take a narrative approach to their subject, addressing each of their four cases in separate chapters that offer short summaries of the issues that generated the polls. They select illustrative questions from a cross-section of public opinion polls, highlight the respondents’ answers, and attempt not merely to report those answers but to interpret them.

Goot and Rowse go behind simplistic or sensationalist headlines to try to discern what generates these polls, how the commissioning body ultimately affects the results, and more importantly, what a deep analysis of the form of the questions and the responses to them tells us about non-indigenous Australian attitudes towards the place of Aboriginal people in the broader Australian society. As an aside, and with no disrespect to the authors intended, I have rarely been so conscious of the linguistic traps involved in such discussions, where “Australian” all too often comes to exclude “indigenous,” and the “Aboriginal question” (much less “problem”) is likewise one that indigenous people are not asked to answer.

In our cynical and media-heavy environment these days, it will come as no surprise that organizations will hire pollsters to solicit confirmation of pre-determined points of view, or that journalists who report the results of such surveys will reduce the story told to the headline that sells the most newspapers by confirming the bias of their readership. Goot and Rowse provide a service by detailing how this has been done in recent years, showing for instance, that when respondents were provided up front with facts or background information, their responses were generally more favorable to proposition supporting social justice for indigenous people. 

Similarly, language known to be inflammatory or simply prejudicial significantly affects outcomes in surveys. Even simple words can have pronounced effects: people are more likely to support a costly program if the question suggests that it be funded by “the government” and far less likely to voice support if the cost is to be borne by “taxpayers,” even though in the end the money comes from the same pockets.

The authors also unsurprisingly assert that government policy should not always be dictated by public opinion and indeed often is not so directed. In their conclusion they offer several instances where the Howard government has declined to be driven by expressions of collective sentiment, for example in introducing the GST or proceeding with the privatization of Telstra. Governments choose when to invoke the sanction of the electorate: 

The Prime Minister, who would not apologise to the Stolen Generations for lack of a popular mandate, went to war in Iraq without seeking one. In Howard’s term as Prime Minister we this see an excellent example of the political leader making choices about when ‘public opinion’ is relevant to political justification (p. 162).

The part of the book that I found the most interesting and disturbing was the discussion, adumbrated in Rowse’s contribution to Moving Anthropology, of how polling can turn mere phantoms into political juggernauts. Like the “Silent Majority” in America to whom Richard Nixon appealed for support in the face of increasing anti-Vietnam protests in the late 1960’s, “middle Australia” emerged from polling surrounding Aboriginal land-rights issues in Australia in the 1980s. The handback of Uluru to its traditional owners in 1985 provoked outrage in some quarters by appearing to cede ownership of an Australian icon to a small group of (indigenous) people and also raised fears that even more valuable land might fall under such control.

Initially committed to pursuing the land rights agenda outlined by Whitlam and Fraser, Bob Hawke’s government commissioned the Australian National Opinion Poll to do research which would develop and enable a political strategy for making national legislation for indigenous land rights successful. Although the 1967 referendum had given the Commonwealth the power to legislate such comprehensive measures, that power had never been invoked in this context, and there was great concern about offending supporters of “States’ rights.”

In the end this proved to be a self-defeating proposition, as the poll apparently uncovered the “middle Australia” phenomenon, representing a large bloc (as much as 50%) of the electorate that would need to be won over to the cause of land rights. At the same time, polls commissioned by the mining industry, especially in Western Australia, created the notion of a white “backlash” occasioned by the perceived “special rights” being created for Aboriginal Australians.

Combined, these two specters of political persuasion ended up eroding the Government’s willingness to undertake the work of enacting national legislation. What Goot and Rowse demonstrate is that “middle Australia” was largely comprised of people who had no strong opinion on the matter of land rights, one way or another, and who most likely found Aboriginal issues to be so marginal as to take no notice of them. Far from being a unified, identifiable force to be reckoned with, middle Australia was a statistical chimera, an entity that could be defined only by what it was not: neither informed nor concerned.

Indeed, the authors repeatedly stress that in many polls, a large number (35-40%) of the respondents opt not to answer questions, admit that they do not know about the issue being poll, or otherwise have no response to offer. Another significant segment can be misinformed, such as those who believed it “unconstitutional” for the Commonwealth to legislate nationally with regard to Aborigines. And yet when results are reported and headlines written, this large portion of the population usually disappears from the story. The truth, it seems, is that many non-indigenous Australians care not at all about Aboriginal policy.

The touchstone of modern indigenous issues is certainly the 1967 Referendum, which gave the Commonwealth power to legislate for the nation on Aboriginal matters. It also decreed that indigenous people should be included in the census, with a consequent implication for the composition of voting districts. Yet even the Referendum is shown to be an insubstantial and unenlightening guidepost. 

Far from pointing the way towards inclusion of indigenous people in a meaningful Australian polity, the survey results from the years following the Referendum yield, in Goot and Rowse’s analysis, a clear support for the notion of equality, an extremely vague notion of what equality might mean in practical terms, and no indication of support for any specific and particular government policy based on that notion of equality.

To cite a final instance of insight I gained from this book, Goot and Rowse, almost in passing, note the contrast between the use of opinion polling to influence policy in the Aboriginal sphere in the past few decades with the manner in which “public opinion” engaged with questions of social justice for Aborigines in the first half of the 20th century. In earlier days, the work of dedicated but numerically small numbers of people often had great influence on policy. Missionaries, benevolent societies, academics, even the press themselves, engaged in efforts to influence policy through programs of letter-writing, editorializing, and education.

These were “interested citizens” who acted upon their beliefs, who formed the Australian Aborigines League (Victoria) in 1932 or protested the handling of the Caledon Bay murders and the arrest and trial of Dhakiyarr two years later. In the persons of men like A. P. Elkin or most importantly of all, W. E. H. Stanner, they had enormous impacts on Australian society and on the perception and treatment of indigenous Australians. When contrasted to the mythical “middle Australia” their affirmative behavior and achievement mocks the emptiness of a contemporary “public” that may be greater in number but is sorely lacking in substance.

In the end, the authors suggest that polls do not really tell us if Australia is the “divided nation” that media reports like to point to. They suggest that while there is a general belief in principles of equality and justice there is little engagement or knowledge about specific policy initiatives and their impact. 

In our view, assertions about the public and about whether the public is relevant are part of the political process itself; they are claims made in order to secure advantage, block opponents, win time, discredit ideas, or commend ideas. ‘The public’ is a kind of political currency, a stick to wave, a key word in the idiom of democratic politics, an imagined figure–sometimes central, at other times ignored (p. 161).

Or as Gertrude Stein once famously said of Oakland, California, when it comes to the public “there is no there there.” Given the current state of affairs that the Prime Minister is foisting upon indigenous Australia, I think I am relieved that I have not been reading the results of polls about the Intervention. But I am left to ponder the role of public advocacy, of Elkin’s “interested citizens,” and I will take that up another day in Part Two of this essay.

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