UPDATED 13th October: see final paragraphs.
An article in today’s Irish Times by Stephen Collins, published on the front page, says that ‘a majority of voters believe asylum seekers should be kept under direct State provision’.
Unlike other results of the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll published this week, the wording of the corresponding question has not been made available, so the reader has no means of evaluating the limits to the reliability of the data. The reader has no means of evaluating, for instance, how exposed the respondent is to the issues surrounding the Direct Provision regime. All we know is that a majority is in favour and a minority are against.
It is impossible to pose a poll question from a position of neutral objectivity. No such position exists. If you are asking a question about a particular thing, it’s because you are interested in that particular thing, and the way in which you are interested will determine the way you pose the question.
Let me give an example, by way of yesterday’s published poll results.
The question posed by the poll on government policy in relation to the budget was as follows:
‘If the government was to loosen the purse strings, what one thing would you most like them to do in next week’s budget’?
On the surface, the purpose of this question is to discern the priorities of the electorate in the forthcoming budget. But in seeking to bring certain priorities to the fore, it removes consideration of broader perspectives on how the budget ought to be conducted.
For example: a budget will either redistribute in favour of the wealthy or in favour of the poor or it will have no redistributive effect. Such a consideration will elicit varying responses. The underlying contest for resources between different sections of society is the essence of democratic politics. Here, however, this is literally out of the question.
The question also uses a colloquial term -loosening the purse strings-, recalling the era before electronic transactions and even the modern State, as if the government were a medieval mayor, or a prudent head of family, that places the government in the position of a custodian of the public finances that is under no obligation to accede to popular demands: the key word here is ‘if’: the government may do otherwise, and, it is tacitly proposed, if if did not, that would be fine too.
So, in the posing of the question, the general social vision behind the budget is kept from view, the underlying conflict in society over the distribution of resources is kept from view, and democratic accountability -the idea that the government should tax and spend in such a way because it is directed to do so by the population, not because it reserves the right to go against the wishes of the population as it sees fit- is replaced by a sense of feudal petitioning.
This idea of government is not so much by the people for the people but rather, as the popular rhyme used to have it: “Holy Mary Mother of God/Send us down a couple of bob”.
The issue of Direct Provision has come to the fore in recent months as a consequence of protests and mobilisations carried out by asylum seekers at various centres across the country.
Their mobilisation has pressured the government into an awkward position: as long and as far as the degrading conditions of Direct Provision are made visible, and as long and as far as those protesting the degrading conditions appear as human beings seeking the same rights as any other person, the political credibility of the Fine Gael Minister for Justice is placed under question: how can a Minister for Justice administer a situation of patent injustice?
The mobilisation has also brought to the fore tensions at the level of the political establishment, the Department of Justice earlier this week vetoed a visit by the President, Michael D. Higgins, to the Direct Provision centre in Athlone.
Whilst the Irish Times poses a heavily conditioned and loaded question with regard to budget policy — one that forecloses on basic questions of democratic accountability and the kind of society people might want to live in — the presentation of the survey results on Direct Provision (in the front page article there is no mention of the recent history of protests) appear as simplicity itself: a majority want to maintain Direct Provision.
There are symbolic effects that flow from this presentation of data — after all, if a particular policy is something that a majority wants, doesn’t it oblige the government to maintain it? Isn’t this the elementary workings of democratic government?
Again, we don’t have the precise wording of the question posed to the respondents polled, so we can only hypothesise and speculate. But how likely is it that the survey question was foregrounded by some explanation of the conditions of Direct Provision, or the context behind the issue coming to the fore, or the voices of the asylum seekers who have protested the degrading conditions of their confinement and demanded the right to be treated like anyone else?
How likely is it that the survey question was worded something like this: Given that asylum seekers have shown they are human beings like anyone else and given that Direct Provision has been exposed as degrading, do you think the government ought to a) maintain Direct Provision; b) abolish Direct Provision and allow asylum seekers to work and avail of the same rights as anyone else?
I am not suggesting that such a question would be more ‘neutral’ or ‘balanced’ in scope. On the contrary, as with the Irish Times’s survey question, it is a question based on certain assumptions and values, in this particular case, the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So it is worth wondering what it means for an organ of respectable opinion in a society to ask questions on contentious political matters that omit such assumptions and values as a matter of course.
The point here, then, is that behind the matter-of-fact scientific veneer of the poll lies a whole series of evaluations and omissions that work to produce a particular picture desired at the outset: one of a government that is seen respond to the wishes of the majority, but only when the opportunity arises.
And the production of this picture means not only preventing the political activity of asylum seekers from impacting public consciousness, but of presenting their treatment as the natural matter of one group -’the electorate’, which, as we have seen above, appears free of divisions between rich and poor when it comes to vital matters of redistribution and delegates all agency to the Government- being able to exercise absolute rights over another group whose voice naturally and always already counts for nothing.
UPDATE 13th October. The precise wording of the question is available in the report published at this link.
The question was worded as follows:
Q16. I’d now like you to think about people who come to Ireland seeking asylum. If their application is refused and they appeal this decision or apply to stay in Ireland, which of the following do you think should happen while their appeal/application is being processed?
The range of answers were:
-They should be kept under direct provision
-They should be given refugee status and allowed to work/claim benefits
Based on the wording of the question, the first thing we can conclude about the headline published by the Irish Times on Saturday is that it is false. A majority of people surveyed did not say they believed asylum seekers should be kept under Direct Provision.
The specific question posed does not ask the respondent to give views on whether Direct Provision is appropriate. It contains the tacit proposition that Direct Provision is appropriate, and it then asks the respondent whether Direct Provision ought to be used under a specific set of circumstances.
The question is also misleading, in that the alternatives proposed do not take account of the reality: not all asylum seekers are actually ‘kept under’ Direct Provision. And it is a loaded question, because the phrase ‘to be kept under’ has disciplinary/hygiene connotations, which when taken alongside the consideration that the hypothetical individuals involved have had their application refused, invites the respondent to consider Direct Provision as a self-evidently necessary national security/health measure, and asylum seekers as a threat/disease.
The manipulation involved here is simply scandalous.