Politicians may be panicking about immigration. Australians are not

Good summary of the latest Scanlon Foundation report and the point about how important perceptions are regarding how well immigration is managed particularly relevant to Canada:

Australia has not lost faith in immigration. The political narrative has darkened but not the fundamental view of ourselves as an immigrant nation. Most of us remain convinced that we are in so many ways better off for newcomers of all races and creeds who have come in large numbers to our shores.

That is the verdict of the Scanlon Foundation’s 2018 Mapping Social Cohesion Report published on Tuesday. The mission of the foundation is to measure how this migrant nation hangs together. Over the last decade 48,000 of us have been polled to fathom the panics that sweep this country and the steady underlying views Australians have of immigration.

“Immigration is a growing concern,” says the author of the report Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University. “But for media commentators and some politicians it has become an obsession. They are in the business of creating heightened concern, of crisis. But what the survey shows is rather a picture of stability.”

Markus is one of Australia’s leading authorities on the politics of race. This is the 11th report he has written for the Scanlon Foundation. Year in year out his reports show about 80% of us believe immigrants are “generally good” for Australia’s economy and that ours is a better society for the “new ideas and cultures” that immigrants bring to this country. Support for multiculturalism in 2018 stands almost as high as ever at 85%.

“A number of international surveys that look at Australia, America, Canada, a range of European countries from eastern Europe to western Europe, and also countries in other parts of the world, have a consistent finding that on attitudes to immigration and cultural diversity, Australia is within the top 10% of countries which are open to and welcoming of immigration,” says Markus

A glance at the Scanlan report 2018

Putting into perspective the renewed political contest over immigration is the underlying purpose of the latest Scanlon report. This year Fraser Anning called for a return to White Australia; the notion of exiling new migrantsfrom Sydney and Melbourne was seriously debated; and political leaders in all parties called for cuts – sometimes savage – to immigration numbers.

“Politicians present their views on immigration as if they are speaking for the nation,” cautions Markus. “The reality is that their words are directed to that segment of voters in marginal electorates that supports their party, or that may be attracted to their party, or may be lost to their party.”

Rising concern about numbers was a particular focus of this year’s report. This has kicked up significantly in the last few years. In 2016 only a third of Australians believed the migrant intake was too high. Now 43% of us are worried.

In the past, concern about numbers has moved up and down in lockstep with employment figures. Not this time. And the Scanlon pollsters set out to identify what was driving fresh fears in 2018.

“The program itself is something that’s marketable, something that finds a receptive audience,” says Markus. “But there’s a growing concern – still a minority position, but growing concern – that the immigration program is not being well managed.

“This is linked to people’s perceptions of overcrowding, public transport, housing costs, and so on. These issues are much more complex than just immigration intake. That’s what we’re picking up. That’s a risk for Australia going forward.”

Our rising national anxiety about numbers has been measured by a number of pollsters. Lowy, Essential and Newspoll all found a majority wish for the intake to be cut. Ipsos and Scanlon reckon the balance is slightly the other way with 52% of us for keeping – or even increasing – the number of migrants we take.


This picture of a country divided but still open to mass immigration comes with a fundamental caveat: the boats have stopped.

“I think that John Howard was very successful in that mantra of ‘we control who comes into this country’,” says Markus. “That clearly resonates very strongly. Australia maintained its White Australia policy – very strictly controlled – for decades beyond other countries who abandoned theirs quite quickly after the second world war. Australia has stuck to that very religiously.

“I think it’s been established that the policy of stopping the boats, whatever people will understand by that, is a very strong buy-in. People in Australia in large numbers will turn their gaze away from what happens at offshore detention.”

Not published in this year’s Scanlon report but made available to Guardian Australia are figures obtained for the first time showing what the nation thinks of penning refugees on Manus and Nauru. They demolish the idea that Australia has fundamentally changed its mind about the Pacific solution. The best that can be said is that we’re split on the issue.


And Markus’ teams established we hardly give a damn what the world thinks of us for doing what we do to these people.


From the start in 2007, the Scanlon reports have been mapping the dark side of this story. The constituency of those worried about immigration is not small but Markus puts the number of us markedly hostile at only about 10% – though a noisy 10%.

“They paint immigration as somehow transforming Australia, making Australia unrecognisable,” he says. “They see multiculturalism as a threat. Within some of these groups, it gets to the level that they see these activities as treasonous.

“One of the stories that goes around within these circles is that somehow the Australian people were never given a choice. Dangers have been foisted upon the Australian people. Australian people never approved of any of the White Australia policy. You need to have a referendum on that.

“It’s Pauline Hanson’s line, but also far-right groups and it’s been there for decades. What these learned commentators on Australian society seem to miss is that we actually have elections in this country every three years. If people were so upset then they would vote the government out of power and they would vote in One Nation or whoever. We would have Fraser Anning as our minister of immigration if people were so upset.”

Markus found that worries about immigration are uppermost in few of our minds. We are far more worried about the economy, the environment and the poor quality of government. Asked to name the most important problem facing the country today, only 7% of respondents in 2018 picked immigration.

But the figure for One Nation voters was 25%.

Longing for a White Australia has died down over the years but has never died out. Once again the Scanlon report reveals a considerable constituency for keeping new arrivals white and Christian – or at least, not Muslim.

In face-to-face interviews in 2018, 15% of Scanlon respondents agreed it should be possible for immigrants to be rejected simply on the basis of their race or ethnicity. And 18% agreed they could be sorted solely by religion.

As well as conducting 1,500 face-to-face interviews, the teams engaged by the Scanlon Foundation quizzed 2,260 people online, respondents who tend, sitting on their own, to be a little more frank about their negative views.

Online, 22% of us supported sorting immigrants by race and 29% of us for sorting them by religion. These figures mark clear minority positions in modern Australia but they are not insignificant, as the report shows by showing support for the Keep Australia Christian brigade within political parties:


It speaks quite well for religion. But the latest Scanlon Report offers not much evidence that the nation is warming to Islam. The online survey reveals only a tiny fall from 41% of us last year to 39% of us this year who admit to very or somewhat negative attitudes to Muslims.

“It is a notable finding that across the two modes of surveying, and with a different range of questions, discriminatory immigration policy fails to gain support from more than 30% of respondents,” writes Markus. “Nonetheless, the level of negative sentiment towards those of the Muslim faith, and by extension to immigrants from Muslim countries, is a factor of significance in contemporary Australian society.”

Year after year the Scanlon reports have mapped national divisions over race and immigration. The pattern is clear. Whether the issue is the sheer numbers coming to our shores or their colour and creed, much the same rifts appear between young and old, city and country, prosperous and struggling, those with higher education and those who never finished school.

Typical is the breakdown for the Keep Australia White brigade.


“That divide between people who have had the opportunity to go on with their education in a formal way at universities and so on, and those who don’t is a very strong divide,” says Markus. “It’s not something unique to Australia. It would be true certainly of western countries that I’ve looked at.”

Markus admits being stumped by the marked – but still minority – hostility to race and immigration shown by people working in trades. And he is not advancing any easy explanation for the relaxed attitudes of graduates. He believes life on multiracial campuses may have a good deal to do with it. But he places greater weight on study itself.

“Respect for reason is at the heart of a university education,” says Markus. “It’s not what you hear down the pub that goes down. You learn there is a discipline. We arrive at conclusions within a discipline whatever you study. Respect for knowledge and respect for reason is perhaps what drives people away from the camp which embraces delusions and xenophobia.”

Markus is heartened by the victory of Daniel Andrews in Victoria. Commentators and politicians were obsessed throughout the campaign with black crime. The fear is there in the Scanlon figures – a third of Australians generally but 41% of Victorians are afraid of becoming victims of crime – but these fears could not be marshalled to deny Andrews victory.

Though Melbourne is the fastest-growing city in the land with immense pressures on infrastructure, Melburnians aren’t calling for cuts to immigration. “And despite the opposition running hard on black gangs etc, the issue didn’t decide the election,” notes Markus.

More than ever, Melbourne looks like the future of this immigration nation.

Source: Politicians may be panicking about immigration. Australians are not

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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