Six Years ago!

George Rehder

Australia in 2014: ‘stop the boats’ helps nation feel warmer to immigrants

Tony Abbott’s crusade against terrorism has worked a miracle. Suddenly we are less cynical of Canberra and more enthusiastic than ever about the Australian way of life. We may not have taken Abbott to our hearts, but government is having a big win. Patriotism is on the march.

This is the news from the Scanlon Foundation which produces a beautiful set of figures every year to map Australia’s shifting moods. The purpose of these surveys, says their author Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University, “is to further understanding of social cohesion in Australia”.

Andrew Markus

His teams were in the field as usual in June and July but early this month they went back out again to check the impact of the heightened concern in Australia over terrorism in the Middle East and its domestic repercussions. They were surprised to find no greater hostility to Muslims; no less support for immigration and multiculturalism; but this flowering of trust in Canberra.

That has been in short supply since the death in 2010 of the high hopes inspired by Kevin Rudd. Trust sank even further under Julia Gillard and didn’t recover with Abbott’s election. Only a quarter of those polled the first time round this year thought Canberra did the “right thing for the Australian people” almost always or most of the time.

Abbott’s election

That jumped 10 per cent in September when Abbott turned the nation’s attention to terrorism. Those who felt they belonged to Australia “to a great extent” rose 12 per cent to 73 per cent. Worry about the quality of government disappeared from the top five concerns of the nation to be replaced by a focus on defence, national security and terrorism. Next on the list was sudden anxiety about racism.

Trust in Canberra is back where it was in Rudd’s heyday. Even so, we remain remarkably cynical about politicians and government. Year after year the Scanlon surveys confirm we are a happy people with a deep attachment to our country and its culture. But 62 per cent of those Markus polled in the last few weeks still feel Canberra does the right thing by us only some of the time or almost never.

Scanlon Foundation

The mission of the Scanlon Foundation is to measure how a migrant nation hangs together. The work is done in collaboration with the Australian Multicultural Foundation and the Monash Institute for Global Movements. The 2014 survey was the seventh since 2007 and the headline verdict is reassuring. Markus concludes: “Australia remains a highly cohesive society.”

But there are signs of fracture. We are less optimistic these days. In the age of Abbott we are more aware of injustice. We are remarkably welcoming to immigrants but our hostility to boat people is barely diminished. Anglo Australians remain deeply hostile to Muslims. We see ourselves as a tolerant nation but discrimination is at a new peak. This is not the best time in Australia to have an Indian face.

Australians remain deeply hostile to Muslims

“It’s not a one-way street,” Markus told Guardian Australia. “There are very positive findings but mixed findings in some areas. It means that immigration – resettling in a new country, being of a different culture – is never easy. No society scores 10 out of 10. Australia scores about four out of 10. Most societies struggle to score one out of 10. That’s what makes Australia distinctive.”

But his latest survey Mapping Social Cohesion is richer than an audit of our dealings with migration. It’s a portrait of the nation.

Happy Australia

Year in, year out, about three quarters of us report we are satisfied or very satisfied with our own financial situation. The GFC didn’t shake our confidence. Every year roughly 90 per cent of us say that taking everything into account the last year has been a happy one – perhaps not very happy, but happy.

And nothing shakes the confidence of about 80 per cent of us that this is “a land of economic opportunity where in the long run, hard work brings a better life”. Though there’s been a little cooling off here in the last year (those who strongly agree with the proposition have dropped from 40 to 35 per cent) this result remains, says Markus, distinctively Australian.

He told Guardian Australia: “You have all this international polling about the countries that have the best quality of life. They use different indicators but end up with the same message that Australia is at or near the top.”

Change under Abbott

More of us worry about the future in 2014. When these surveys began seven years ago half of us were unabashed optimists, confident our lives would be better in three or four years’ time. Pessimists made up only a 10 per cent rump expecting their lives to be worse.

Australia’s optimism took a hit under Rudd, rose under Gillard but then slid away under Abbott. The split is now: optimists 43 per cent; those of us who expect our lives to be no better or worse unchanged at about 33 per cent; and pessimists growing to 19 per cent.

We are more troubled about the gap between rich and poor. A significant change since the late Gillard survey of 2013 is a jump to 37 per cent in the number of us who “strongly agree” that that gap is too large. Another 39 per cent “agree” with the proposition. Only 18 per cent of us remain unconcerned.

Australians are happier than ever with the level of immigration. “It’s an amazing statistic,” says Markus. “We know because the question has been asked forever that this is a very volatile measure. In the early 1990s we were getting above 70 per cent of people saying we’ve got too much immigration. The expectation in the current economic circumstances is that that would go up to 50 or 55 per cent negative. And it is extremely surprising that it went south.”

The welcoming country

Nearly six out of 10 Australians believe the number of migrants coming here these days is about right or even too low. Only 35 per cent of us think the intake is too high. Markus says: “This is possibly the highest current level of positive sentiment towards immigration in the western world.”

Markus puts this down to Canberra stopping the boats. “This success has conveyed the message that the government has effective border control measures and can be trusted to manage immigration.”

More of us than ever believe “accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger”. The figure jumped 5 per cent in the last year to nearly 70%. An unbudgeable quarter of the country remains hostile to immigration but Markus says: “In Europe it is 70 per cent.”

Only a foolish Australian politician would mount a frontal attack these days on multiculturalism. In 2014 more than eight out of 10 Australians agree that whatever the word means, multiculturalism has been good for the country.

“But there isn’t one definition,” cautions Markus. “There is hard multiculturalism and soft multiculturalism. For a lot of people it means integration. And when you unpack that result there is more ambivalence than that figures indicate.” Nevertheless, he insists that the brand is a great success. “In many other countries, multiculturalism is a dirty word. It hasn’t become that in Australia.”

The keen are very keen about the impact of migration on Australia. There is some ambiguity among the half of Australians who pledge themselves, perhaps not with such enthusiasm, to the idea of multiculturalism. Then comes a steep fall to the old, not so well off and not so well educated living outside the main cities who remain implacably hostile. But their numbers are tiny.

And whatever we feel about immigration and multiculturalism, we have a cosy belief that people of different races get on well in our neighbourhood. Yet that seems less so, says Markus. His teams have found over the past couple of years that 5 per cent of Australians of all races and religions experience discrimination at least once a month.

5 per cent of Australians of all races and religions experience discrimination at least once a month.

A rise of discrimination

Markus doesn’t blame the political uproar in the last few years over refugee boats. Nor does he tie the sharp spike in reported discrimination in the last two surveys to new fears of terrorism.

He told Guardian Australia: “There is no question that it is a huge issue, but it may well be that these figures are, in part at least, a function of the way people are being encourage to speak out and to name racism.”

Muslims, Indians and Chinese people

The pattern is familiar: Muslims, Indians and Chinese people, particularly those under 45, bear the brunt of discrimination. “As in past surveys,” Markus writes, “those of non-English speaking background reported the highest experience of discrimination, 26 per cent compared to 16 per cent of those born in Australia.”

But this year for the first time the Scanlon teams also asked where discrimination happens. The worst place by far is the local neighbourhood; next comes shopping centres and workplaces; next is public transport; safer than all of those it seems, are sporting events.

The relief of stopping the boats

The political uproar over the boats which Markus has seen in the past to be a negative for social cohesion in Australia, has ceased. He told Guardian Australia the advantages were a fact: “On a number of indicators where we have had downward trends, we have arrested the downward trend.”

Whatever we might think of Rudd and Abbott blocking the boats, it’s a hugely popular policy which has staunched an open wound.

Scanlon surveys over the last few years confirm a large majority of Australians have little understanding of the number of asylum seekers who reached the country by boat. And they were convinced these people were illegal immigrants merely seeking a better life. Hostility to them was more than matched by warmth towards refugees selected from camps abroad. They now enjoy the support of 75 per cent of Australians.

We seem to have become a little more compassionate as a result of our cruelty. With the boats stopped, we are showing a little more sympathy for giving refugees who arrive by sea permanent residence. Even so, the obligation we took on when we signed the Refugee Conventions is still a minority view across the board however prosperous, well-educated and young we are. Only one group identified in the Scanlon surveys supports permanent residence for boat people: the Greens.

Turning back the boats is also a minority view which in 2013 is backed by a little less than a third of us. But Markus’ teams made a curious discovery: though only a couple of boats ever landed in Queensland years ago, Queenslanders are really keen to push refugees back out to sea. Support for the idea runs at 37.6 per cent in that State.

But Western Australia where almost all the boats have reached the mainland over the last 40 years is the most reluctant to see them forced back out to sea. Only 24.2 per cent of West Australians support the policy. Being there seems to engage our human sympathies.

How much do white Australians fear muslims?

Markus was keen to discover what third generation Australians thought of Muslims. These are Australians born of Australian-born parents. Almost to a man and woman they are white.

Markus conducted parallel polls: one on the phone and another on the internet for pollsters believe impersonal exchanges on the internet elicit more truthful answers. On the internet there is no need to parade your virtue. The answers tallied on most questions he asked them about race and migration. But the gap was dramatic on two.

Multiculturalism: these white Australians seemed not particularly hostile on the phone. Twelve per cent said they disagreed that multiculturalism was good for Australia. But online, that figure rose to 22 per cent.

Muslims: on the phone, 28 per cent of these Australians admitted to negative or very negative feelings towards

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