The ties that bind Australia

| November 29, 2019

For the past 12 years, the Scanlon Foundation has been conducting annual health checks on Australia’s great multicultural experiment.

First, some context. Among OECD countries with populations larger than 10 million, Australia has the highest proportion of residents born overseas. According to 2016 census data, people born overseas or with a parent born overseas comprise half the population.

The 2019 Mapping Social Cohesion Report allows researchers to assess community attitudes to migration over time, and also to gauge how these attitudes are influenced by political and world events. It has consistently told a positive story about a nation that accepts immigration and multiculturalism, while also exploring why, for instance, our harsh border protection policies persist.

“Because we have 90 questions in the survey, we get a nuanced understanding rather than a one-dimensional understanding,” says Professor Andrew Markus, who’s been involved in the report since it began in 2007.

“So, most surveys would have two, three, four questions, and even large overseas organisations will often do surveys with 15 questions,” with the questions changing depending on the news cycle. But most of the Scanlon questions are consistent, year on year, allowing researchers to track shifts in attitudes.

He estimates that since the project began, more than 50,000 Australians have been surveyed by interview, and, in recent years, a combination of personal interviews and online questionnaires. Respondents are randomly selected in both categories. It’s the only report of its kind in the world.

The happiness factor

So how happy are we? How confident that good times lie ahead? What are the issues that concerns us most?

The 2019 report confirms that, on the whole, Australians feel better about themselves than news bulletins might suggest.

When asked to assess their happiness level in 2019, 84 per cent of respondents described themselves as “very happy” or “happy” (86 per cent in 2017). At the same time, 62 per cent said they were “very optimistic” or “optimistic” about the future (60 per cent in 2017), while in answer to the question “To what extent do you have a sense of belonging in Australia?”, 90 per cent said to a “great” or “moderate” extent (92 per cent in 2017).

Positive attitudes towards immigration also continued to predominate. In 2019, 68 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that “accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger” (up from 63 per cent in 2017), while 85 per cent agreed that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia” – a level of support that has remained steady since the question was first posed in 2013.

Restrictions rejected

Immigration restriction, as advocated by right-wing or populist parties, continued to be rejected by a majority of respondents, with 81 per cent disagreeing with discrimination based on race or ethnicity (80 per cent in 2017), and 79 per cent disagreeing with discrimination based on religion (74 per cent in 2017).

“But when we’ve asked questions about boat arrivals, only 25 per cent of people have said that they should be eligible for permanent settlement in Australia,” Professor Markus says. Over the past two years, in answer to the question “Do you think the government is too harsh in its treatment of asylum seekers?”, Australians have been equally divided.

“Of the people who are concerned that Australia is too harsh in its treatment of asylum seekers, 87 per cent are Greens, 61 per cent Labor, 30 per cent Liberal or National, and 16 per cent One Nation,” he says.

“So not only do we see a 50-50 split, but we see it’s very strongly polarised. There’s a big difference between supporters of the Labor party and the Liberal party, which means that Labor is in a very difficult position, because its supporters are more likely to say it’s harsh, but they’re not necessarily going to pick up votes if they take a strong stance.”

How can this division be reconciled with our positive views of immigration generally?

“I think it’s a historical characteristic of Australia to be very strong on border protection,” he says. “So during the White Australia policy, we wanted to shut out people who were not of the right race. Now, only 20 to 30 per cent of people at the maximum would agree with that form of discrimination.”

Throughout the life of the survey, the percentage of Australians with strongly negative views towards immigration has stayed fairly consistent, at 10 per cent. At the same time, strongly positive views have declined – with the number of people saying they feel a “great sense of belonging” dropping from 77 per cent to 63 per cent, for example.

And those reporting discrimination because of “skin colour, ethnic origin or religion” has more than doubled, from 9 per cent in 2007 to 20 per cent in 2017.

Since the survey began, Australia’s population has grown by more than 5.6 million, from 19.9 million in 2006 to an estimated 25.5 million in March 2019. Of the overseas-born Australians, 83 per cent live in capital cities.

In 2019, 68 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that “accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger” (up from 63 per cent in 2017), while 85 per cent agreed that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia”.

“The report is picking up a relatively high level of unease with the impact of immigration on quality of life,” Professor Markus says. “A majority are looking for government to be more in control of what’s happening.” In 2019, 41 per cent of respondents said immigration levels were “too high”, up from 34 per cent in 2016, but down from 43 per cent in 2018.

Australians appear to view the task of integration as a matter of give and take. A majority agreed that “we should do more to learn about the customs and heritage of different ethnic and cultural groups in this country”, yet a majority also supported the notion that “people who come to Australia should change their behaviour to be more like Australians”. For the first time, the 2019 survey asked for a response to the proposition that “too many immigrants are not adopting Australian values”. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents agreed.

Muslim unease

Australians are most likely to feel uneasy about Muslim immigrants than other faith groups. Negative sentiment towards Muslims ranged from 21 to 25 per cent in the interview-based surveys, and 39 to 41 per cent in the online questionnaires, indicating that respondents were more likely to express negative views when they filled out the forms without an interviewer present.

Other predominantly Asian-based faiths were viewed more positively. For example, negative attitudes to Buddhists was 3 per cent to 7 per cent, depending on the survey mode, and for Hindus it was 6 per cent to 10 per cent. (Interestingly, negative sentiment towards Christianity reached 14 per cent.)

Asked to nominate the most striking finding in 2019, Professor Markus said it was the response to the open-ended question that starts the survey: “What do you think is the most important problem facing Australia today?”

Concern about the environment and climate change was nominated by 19 per cent, up from 10 per cent last year – the largest annual increase since the survey began. “And that’s before the bushfires,” he says. “People are taking it much more seriously.”

This article was published by Lens.