A poll published in January found that a slim majority of Australians support the death penalty for convicted Bali 9 drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The methodology has rightly attracted harsh criticism and the fact that it is now being used as propaganda to justify the execution should give those who requested the poll pause for thought.

Such indelicate and unsophisticated handling of a life and death issue at a politically critical time is arguably morally irresponsible. By way of explanation, a single question was put to those surveyed: In your opinion if an Australian is convicted of drug trafficking in another country & sentenced to death, should the penalty be carried out?

The question does not ask about the specific circumstances of the Bali 9 case, nor does it offer any explanation for the positive response. There are no follow up questions about alternatives, such as imprisonment. Without such context, it cannot and should not be used as evidence that Australians support the death penalty for Chan and Sukumaran.

Polling has a profound power over politicians, regardless of what they say. The fuss over the parliamentary Liberal Party leadership is an obvious example of how polling can spur politicians to action (or inaction as the case may be).  This makes this particular poll about a life and death question all the more important.

This ethics of this poll, first requested and reported on by Triple J’s Hack program, was discussed on Media Watch this week, with Paul Barry condemning the Hack’s producers for encouraging the Roy Morgan poll. But a little more digging reveals that the poll has a historical context. The specific question has been asked before, though it has traditionally been asked together with other questions that would have given a fuller picture of Australian’s attitudes to the death penalty. Unfortunately this did not happen and there has been no explanation provided as to why.

Interestingly, the percentage recorded as answering yes was actually lower than last time the poll was taken. The percentage of positive responses to this question has generally declined over time (from a high of 80 per cent in the 1980s). While a majority still answered yes, it was certainly not overwhelming, nor did it represent a hardening in attitudes. Yet this is not how the January poll was reported by the media or is being used politically.

There are good grounds for thinking that the majority of those polled on this issue base their answer on respect for sovereignty. A more specific question in this regard – querying respect for the death penalty in South East Asian countries where it is law – has historically provided similar results to the recent January poll, for example. Half of people polled in 2009 agreed that the death penalty should be carried out if it was a lawful sentence, but this has also declined considerably over time.

Moreover, support for the death penalty in principle for the more serious crime of murder is far less enthusiastic. In 2009, a poll found that only 23 per cent of Australians support the death penalty as the penalty for murder over imprisonment. Support for the death penalty in Australia has waned over time, from a high of 67 per cent in 1947. The poll in 2009 was the last time the question was asked by pollsters Roy Morgan and it is the lowest ever support recorded during their sixty years of polling on the topic.

On another level, this January poll should come as no surprise. In September last year, a similar result to the recent poll was recorded in respect of people’s attitude to terrorist activity. 53 per cent of respondents favoured the death penalty for a convicted terrorist who engaged in an attack that causes loss of life. This result was billed by Roy Morgan as ‘a substantial increase in support for the death penalty since August 2009.’ But such a claim loses its lustre, given that the question included a reference to the hyper politicised concept of terrorism, rather than the less emotive term of murder. Given the saturation of mainstream politics with references to the threat of terrorism, which are out of proportion to the material risk, such a result should be no surprise to anyone who reads the media with a critical eye..

The politicians who make use of polls are arguably more bloodthirsty than those who are actually polled. Imagine, for example, if those polled has been told about the case of Satinah Binti Jumadi Ahmad. Ahmad is an Indonesian domestic worker who has been on death row in Saudi Arabia since 2010 after murdering her employer Nura al-Garib. The Indonesian government has lobbied extensively to save the life of Ahmed (rightly in my view). It has successfully negotiated a commutation of the sentence, provided the family pay a hefty compensation.

This highlights the hypocrisy of those who claim the sovereignty of Indonesia must be respected. The Indonesian government plainly does not share the same view. The efforts of the Indonesian government put those of our own government to shame.

What is also uplifting is that support for the death penalty is also declining in the US. There are probably a few reasons for this, but the increasing difficulties in administering lethal injections have been grabbing headlines of late. This has come about as a result of anti-death penalty activists targeting European drug suppliers who have being embargoed from continuing to facilitate executions. It is a touch mysterious to a lay person why it seems to be so difficult to kill someone using drugs. Some states, like Texas, use a single drug and don’t seem to have such problems. But even so, the constitutional uncertainty is a problem for all of the Union.

Undoubtedly, a big part of the increasing opposition comes down to cost. Carrying out the death penalty is often tallied in staggering multiples of the cost of life imprisonment. Many activists feel slightly uncomfortable about reducing a fundamentally ethical question into dollars. However, there are compelling political arguments that also underpin this approach. The cost to society (both actual and metaphorical) is greatly reduced if we focus on the prevention of crime, rather than punishing offences after they occur. Integral to this argument are the ideas that the effectiveness of deterrence through punitive justice is questionable and crime is a function of social policy, not just individual propensity. The shift away from the punitive also finds its roots in compassion. It is about recognising the potential for redemption as well as the real risk of miscarriages of justice. The arguments around justice reinvestment apply in many ways to experience in Australia.

The January poll may look problematic, but the story is bigger than that. Popular opinion is arguably a firm basis for rethinking our approach to crime and punishment. We just need our politicians to actually listen. Meanwhile, Chan and Sukumaran look set to pay the ultimate price for this callous indifference from those in power.

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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