Something happened in 2017. Australia is second only to Canada in welcoming immigration on a large scale. Our faith in the benefits of accepting newcomers of all faiths and races is rock solid. But a couple of years ago we began to grow impatient about the government’s management of the immigration program, impatient in particular about overcrowding in our cities.
This is the verdict of the Scanlon Foundation’s 2019 Mapping Social Cohesion report, published on Tuesday. The mission of the foundation for the past decade or so has been to measure how this migrant nation hangs together. In that time an extraordinary 50,000 of us have been polled to track the hopes and fears that sweep Australia – and not just about immigration.
The author of the reports, Prof Andrew Markus of Monash University, finds most Australians now share “an underlying concern about the government not properly managing the situation – the impact on overcrowding, house prices, environment”.
Markus is one of this country’s leading authorities on the politics of race and this is the 12th report he has written for the Scanlon Foundation. His findings are a civilised rejoinder to those who skew politics to the far right in this country that their racist constituency does not speak for the nation.
But in 2019 Markus fears impatience with government management might imperil majority support for Australia’s immigration program. “This has not yet occurred, but the potential is evident.”
We are not Europe. Asked every year to name the most important problem facing their countries, Europeans have lately nominated immigration. “It’s sort of cooled down a bit now,” says Markus, “but even to the present day when people are asked what’s the main issue for the EU, they still nominate controlling population movement and immigration.”
Not in Australia. We always put the economy at the top of the list. Immigration came in third in 2019, nominated by 6% of us. In second place on the list, after an abrupt rise, is the environment and climate change.
Markus has never seen such a sudden surge. The last was after the the Lindt cafe siege, when for a few years about 10% nominated national security and terrorism as the great problem facing the nation. “But this year climate change went not to 10, it went to 19,” says Markus. “And that’s so far ahead of the third issue. There’s a lot of daylight there.”
The importance of the shift is underlined by the discovery that climate sceptics have all but lost traction. In 2011, when 11% of us said climate change was our biggest worry, another 6% nominated overreaction to those fears as the great problem facing Australia. The following year, the sceptics outnumbered the climate worriers almost two to one.
Not any more. Against the 19% nomination for climate change in 2019, the sceptics could muster, at best, a contrary 1%. Markus sees this shift as an acute challenge to Canberra. “Morrison has got an opportunity to actually rebuild some capital in effective government,” he says. “But he’s got this issue of climate change. If he doesn’t deal with that, which is emerging as a major issue, that could very seriously damage this government.”
Steady as she goes
Markus began his work at the end of the Howard era and the arrival of Kevin Rudd. In those years of hope and renewal, the Scanlon survey showed nearly half of us believed government did the right thing for the Australian people almost always or most of the time.
But with Rudd’s collapse in 2010 went a good measure of trust in government. It has never recovered. In the weeks before Malcolm Turnbull’s downfall, the Scanlon survey of 2018 revealed only 29% believed in the good intentions of Canberra. After the re-election of the Morrison government this year, the figure is essentially unchanged at 30%.
It’s a long slide, but Marcus disputes claims in other surveys that Australia is experiencing a catastrophic loss of faith in democracy. “There are some people out there who do surveys with small samples,” he says. “And with small samples from one year to the next you will get variability. And that produces headlines.
“But we’ve got I think the most rigorous way of surveying. We actually do it in two different modes – by telephone and by self-administration – and what that is showing is much more a picture of ‘steady as she goes’ rather than dramatic decline.”
The education line cuts across the immigration debate like a mighty trench
They shift a little, and the shifts have lately been gloomy, but year in and year out the steady findings of the Scanlon surveys define Australia:
90% of us have a sense of belonging to this place.
87% are proud of the Australian way of life.
85% agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia.
84% report having a happy 2019.
80% welcome resettlement in Australia of refugees assessed abroad.
79% oppose selecting immigrants by race.
73% believe Australia is a land of economic opportunity where, in the long run, hard work brings a better life.
71% believe globalisation is good for the country.
68% believe accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger.
62% are optimistic about Australia’s future.
Then there’s the darker side:
61% of Australians disapprove of asylum seekers making their way here by boat.
47% of us have little or no concern about the treatment we mete out to asylum seekers in PNG and Nauru.
40% in 2019 admit negative or very negative feelings towards Muslims.
The level of hostility to Muslims was masked until a couple of years ago, when the Scanlon Foundation began parallel tracking its research. Telephone interviews over the years showed 21% to 25% of us hostile to Islam. But these figures essentially double when surveys are completed in private and online.
The gap between the two sets of results shows us to be a polite people. We hesitate to admit personal unhappiness or gloom for the future of the country. We clearly don’t enjoy confessing to strangers that we’re in financial trouble. A little of our optimism about the impact of mass immigration evaporates online. We’re even shy of confessing to strangers that we don’t much like Christians – only 4% would own up to that on the telephone in 2019, but 14% said so clearly online.
Markus argues that while our sunny picture of the country darkens a little when we answer in private, those Australians most hostile to race speak loud and clear however they are surveyed.
“The views of the hardcore negative types are pretty constant irrespective of the surveys,” says Markus. “And often it’s around 10% of the population. Now it would be a worry if self-completion surveys then showed it wasn’t 10% but it was 20% to 25%. But it’s actually pretty constant.”
So who are the most hostile to immigration?
Easy answer: One Nation voters. The 2019 report shows One Nation voters are profoundly pessimistic about Australia’s future; loath globalisation; don’t give a rats about the environment; are scathing about the motives of government; dismiss multiculturalism; are fiercely hostile to Muslims; couldn’t care less how harshly we treat asylum seekers; and are the only group in the survey – young and old, rich and poor, city and country – where most still hanker for the old White Australia policy of selecting migrants by race and religion.
What divides us?
How important here is the city/country divide?
Not at all on the importance of climate change. Wherever we live in cities or the bush, we agree that after the economy, the climate is the single biggest problem facing Australia today. But on immigration, the gap between city and country widens significantly.
The 2019 survey found that outside the capital cities there was an 8% drop in support for multiculturalism; a 4% rise in those wanting immigrants selected by race and religion; a 6% fall in those concerned about the treatment of refugees; and, though the bush is where migrants don’t settle and governments are desperate to send them, a nine-point jump to 49% of those who believe Australia’s immigration intake is too large.
The fundamentals are sound, even as about one in 10 of us continue to rage against this new Australia of many faiths and many cultures
But this is not the most dramatic divide revealed in the Scanlon surveys over the years. The education line cuts across the immigration debate like a mighty trench:
Only 27% of university graduates say Australia takes too many immigrants, but for those who never finished high school the figure is 70%.
Nearly 90% of graduates applaud multiculturalism but only 61% of those who never finished school.
Among graduates, 58% worry we treat refugees too harshly, but their fears are shared by only 32% of who never finished school.
While a rump of 14% of graduates still wish immigrants could be chosen by race, support for the old White Australia position more than doubles to 35% who never finished school.
Western Australia emerges from the survey as a fascinating puzzle: wildly optimistic about the future of the nation, peculiarly trusting in government, little perturbed by climate change and not particularly worried about the size of the immigration intake. But of all mainlanders, West Australians are most keen to select immigrants by race and are, by a long shot, the most hard-hearted about Australia’s treatment of refugees.
Nothing Canberra has done to its prisoners in PNG and Nauru in the past couple of years has budged the national 50:50 split between the indifferent and the sympathisers. Markus says: “It’s pretty rock solid.”
But when these figures are broken down by political alignment, Markus sees signs of movement.
Thirty per cent of the Liberal constituency say Australia is being too harsh, compared with 87% of Greens. The 2019 figure for refugee sympathisers in Labor ranks is 61%.
“It is a huge problem for Labor,” says Markus “because the government with its constituency can keep doing what it’s been doing, but it really wedges Labor.”
Are Christians notably more compassionate? Certainly not Anglicans. In 2019 only 39% of them could muster some sympathy for the asylum seekers Australia is putting through the mill out in the Pacific. Markus doesn’t blame their God. He says gently: “Conservative old Australia.”
Though not quite so bleak, the figures for the other faiths put paid to the notion that the churches are mighty reservoirs of sympathy for refugees. On the subject of the Pacific solution, Catholics come in slightly under the national split, with only 46% of them reporting some or a great deal of concern for what Australia is doing to refugees.
That’s typical. On issues such as the size of the immigration intake, support for multiculturalism, a hankering for the right to pick migrants by race and confidence that immigrants improve our society by introducing new ideas and cultures, the churches don’t put the attitudes of the rest of the community to shame. At best they merely mirror them.
Markus ran some figures for Guardian Australia which show that on nearly all questions asked in the survey – including concern for climate change – the progressive horse to back is those who nominate No Religion.
Overall, Markus is a grim optimist. Reports of discrimination are too high, but not for the moment growing higher. The fundamentals are sound, even as about one in 10 of us continue to rage against this new Australia of many faiths and many cultures. It’s in the government’s hands whether we continue to support what is in world terms very high support for large scale immigration.
Markus is at pains to emphasise that multiculturalism backed by almost all of us is a two-way street. “They’re saying we recognise that diversity is good, that diversity has made us a better country. You get very high levels endorsing the notion that immigration improves society by bringing new ideas and cultures.
“But on the other hand, it’s two-way because the expectation is that immigrants will, over time, be more like us. It’s not an endorsement of pluralism. It’s an endorsement of a two-way change and obviously in that change the immigrants are changing more than the host society.”
But we’re all changing? “Yes. We’re moving. But they’re moving more.”