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Capital punishment still has majority support in Australia

By Sinclair Davidson and Tim Fry - posted Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The death penalty has been reignited, if only briefly, as an Australian election issue. Just days before the fifth anniversary of the Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians and wounded a further 209, the ALP called for a concerted and consistent regional campaign against the death penalty.

It has been bipartisan policy that the Australian government opposes the death penalty in Australia and opposes the execution of Australians overseas. Even Mark Latham supported that policy. Indeed, Mark Latham had no objections to the execution of Saddam Hussein. According to shadow foreign affairs minister Ian McClelland elements within the ALP do now have objections. They apparently object too to the execution of the Bali bombers.

Kevin Rudd was very quick to over-rule his shadow foreign minister. The speech had been vetted by his office, but such a fundamental change in policy, it seems, went unnoticed. More likely the Australian’s front page coverage spooked Rudd. It won’t do to be seen to be soft of terrorism.


What is quite remarkable is the notion that “Australia opposes capital punishment”. It is not at all clear that everyday Australians oppose the death penalty. Recall the outbreak of joy and exuberance when Bali bomber Amrozi was sentenced to death. Recall the anger when Abu Bakar Bashir received a light prison sentence. Opposition to the death penalty is an elitist concern.

According to the 2004 Australian Election Study 51 per cent of Australians support the reintroduction of the death penalty for murder. That is down from nearly 68 per cent in 1993 and 66.3 per cent in 1996. So support for the death penalty has eroded during the Howard era. Nonetheless a majority of Australians apparently still support capital punishment.

There is a massive amount of economic literature that investigates the incentive effects of the death penalty. The question being, does it deter further murders? In other words, does the execution of a murderer prevent still more people from being murdered?

If yes, then a strong case exists for capital punishment. Indeed, many supporters of the death penalty do so for that very reason. If no, however, then there is little rational basis for execution. As a punishment it does not rehabilitate offenders, but it does prevent recidivism. The empirical evidence is contested. Economists have debated the evidence for over 30 years, and tempers fray quickly.

Rather than enter into that debate we looked at the demand for the death penalty, especially in light of concerns about terrorism. We make the reasonable assumption that terrorism involves mass murder. We made use of the Australian Election Survey from the 2001 and 2004 elections. National security issues have been at the forefront of voters’ minds at the last two elections.

The 2001 election took place in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and the 2004 election after the Bali bombings. During the campaign the Australian embassy was bombed, with the loss nine lives, but no Australians.


We control for factors such as age, gender, political persuasion, and national pride in our analysis. For example, older people, males, right-wingers and extreme patriots are more likely to support capital punishment, while practising Christians are less likely to do so. In particular, we were interested in concern for terrorism and attitude towards the death penalty.

It turns out, everything else being equal, that those individuals who thought, at the 2001 and 2004 elections, that terrorism was an extremely important issue had a 55.3 per cent higher level of support for the re-introduction of capital punishment. At the last election that constituted 51 per cent of the electorate.

The bottom line is this: it doesn’t pay in electoral terms to oppose the execution of terrorists. The ALP should have realised that before McClelland’s speech. That, of course, is not the same issue as opposing the execution of drug mules. Unfortunately, our data is very specific - it only looks at murder and not other crimes.

The electorate is quite capable of making nuanced distinctions. It is not unreasonable for the Australian government to oppose the execution of Australians overseas. It might be somewhat undemocratic not to allow capital punishment within Australia, but the prime minister did raise that issue in August 2003 and no state government, nor state opposition wanted to have that debate. It seems neither does Kevin Rudd.

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The research reported in this article was supported by an ARC Discovery Grant.

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About the Authors

Sinclair Davidson is a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and Professor in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University.

Professor Tim Fry is Professor Of Econometrics at RMIT University's School of Economics, Finance and Marketing.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Sinclair Davidson
All articles by Tim Fry

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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