COMMENT: Are Australians really opposed to death penalty?

AS A nation, Australia has a clear official opposition to the death penalty.

It's been close to 50 years since the last judicial execution in this country.

However, despite that official opposition, the position of Australia's citizenry has been unclear.

Since 1947, pollster Roy Morgan has gone to the Australian public 17 times with the question: "should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?"

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In only four of those polls - and two of those were conducted a month apart - has the majority answer come back "imprisonment".

In all other cases, the answer has been "death", often with a wide margin and often with those backing the death penalty topping 50% (the survey also includes an "undecided" option, which has ranged, over the years, between 6% and 17%).

So you might say, looking at all the polls, we Australians don't really know how we feel about the death penalty but, if you force us to choose one or the other, we'll most likely back it.

However, the results of the most recent polls tell another story.

In November 2005, only 27% of Australians backed the death penalty, down from 53% in 1995. A month later that result was confirmed when only 25% backed the death penalty. In 2009, the figure was 23%.

Results of Roy Morgan polling, asking
Results of Roy Morgan polling, asking" "In your opinion, should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?”

Interestingly, attitudes towards the death penalty in the US remain consistently in favour.

Gallup polls dating back to 1937, asking Americans if they are in favour of the death penalty for murder back capital punishment in all but one poll - in 1967, at the height of the flower power decade.

Comparing the results, it's worth noting that while Australians over the past 70-odd years have largely backed the death penalty, our enthusiasm for it has almost always fallen well short of the Americans'.

Gallup polls tracking 75 years of attitudes towards the death penalty in the US.
Gallup polls tracking 75 years of attitudes towards the death penalty in the US.

It will be interesting to see the result the next time Morgan trots this question out, but it appears something has changed.

Perhaps the change is generational.

Many more of the people who responded to the 2005 and 2009 polls would have lived their entire lives in a world where we never executed people, no matter how grievous their crime. On top of that, our older generation is now dominated by baby boomers, who grew up in the 1960s and still hold some of the attitudes that era was known for.

Whatever the reason, it appears opposition to the death penalty is no longer a moral stand taken only by politicians and the judiciary. It is now part of the national psyche.

And in that context, the looming executions of apparently reformed Australian drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran by the Indonesian judiciary is a tragedy that should sadden us all.



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