CANBERRA (Reuters) - New opinion polls added pressure on Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Monday to take a tougher stand against asylum-seekers and end a standoff involving 78 boat-people picked up by an Australian ship off Indonesia.
The stream of boats arriving in Australia this year has reignited a divisive political debate over illegal immigration and forced Rudd to defend his border-security policy, which critics say has been softened and is attracting more arrivals.
A poll published in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald dailies found the issue had hurt Rudd, with his disapproval rating rising five percentage points in the space of a month to 28 percent.
However, government support dropped only 1 percent in the month to 56 percent on a two-party basis compared to 44 percent for the opposition, meaning Rudd remains well ahead.
A separate Newspoll in the Australian newspaper Monday also found the asylum-seeker issue had damaged Rudd’s standing, with 53 percent of respondents saying he was doing a bad job on the policy and 46 percent saying his approach was too soft.
The polls come as Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith talks to his Sri Lankan counterpart to stop the flow of boats to Australia after the end of Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war.
Nielsen pollster John Stirton told state radio the issue had not made a serious dent in Rudd’s overall ratings.
“There’s a great deal of goodwill toward Kevin Rudd,” Stirton said. “He still has one of the highest prime ministerial approval ratings that we have seen.”
Seventy-eight Sri Lankans were rescued last month from a sinking refugee boat in Indonesian waters and have refused to leave the ship, saying they want to be taken to Australia to have their refugee claims processed.
Australia and Indonesia have ruled out the use of force to remove the Sri Lankans from the ship, but both nations are keen to resolve the standoff by the end of this week.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. said Australia and Indonesia were close to finalizing a deal to end the standoff, with Australia offering to fast-track resettlement for those who were found to be genuine refugees.
The deal would also include finding community housing for the 78 while their refugee claims were being processed.
Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Mark Bendeich