Aus­tralia still em­braces mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism but frac­ture lines are deep­en­ing

The Guardian Australia - - World News/Opinion - David Marr

Aus­tralia is a de­cent coun­try where ugly dis­crim­i­na­tion is on the rise. We’re no longer lis­ten­ing when our lead­ers urge us to face down big­ots in the in­ter­est of calm and good sense. Most of us em­brace life in the new mul­ti­eth­nic Aus­tralia, but the con­stituency of those hos­tile to race is steadily grow­ing.

That is the ver­dict of the Scan­lon Foun­da­tion’s 2017 Map­ping So­cial Co­he­sion Re­port pub­lished on Wednesday. The mis­sion of the foun­da­tion is to mea­sure how this mi­grant na­tion hangs to­gether. The au­thor of its re­ports is a lead­ing ex­pert on the im­pact of race in Aus­tralia, Andrew Markus of Monash Univer­sity.

“We think of so­cial co­he­sion in

a coun­try like Aus­tralia as money in the bank,” says Markus. “But we’re run­ning out of re­serve funds. The num­bers still haven’t shifted very much, but there are some in­di­ca­tors that that re­serve, our ca­pac­ity to deal with shocks that might be down the way, is run­ning out. We’re not re­silient.”

Since his work be­gan in 2007, Markus has polled more than 40,000 peo­ple to find what we think of our coun­try and its fu­ture. About this time each year, he moves qui­etly around Aus­tralia, brief­ing politi­cians, bu­reau­crats and com­men­ta­tors be­fore each new re­port ap­pears. This is his 10th.

He cau­tions against both wild op­ti­mism and de­spair. Wild swings of opin­ion are not the danger he iden­ti­fies here. What he sees are fig­ures shift­ing a lit­tle each year into hos­tile ter­ri­tory. “It’s not just the num­bers,” he says. “It’s the way the num­bers move.”

Some barely budge. Set in stone, year af­ter year, is our pride and op­ti­mism; our hap­pi­ness and sense of be­long­ing in this place; our trust in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions; and our en­thu­si­asm for im­mi­gra­tion – blind to race and re­li­gion – on a big scale.

The 2017 re­port con­firms:

80% of Aus­tralians re­ject the no­tion of select­ing im­mi­grants by race,

85% be­lieve mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is good for this coun­try. “It’s a very strong brand,” says Markus. “You even go to ru­ral ar­eas and get amaz­ing ma­jori­ties of peo­ple who think it’s good for Aus­tralia.”

74% re­ject the idea of select­ing im­mi­grants by re­li­gion, and

56% of us be­lieve the num­ber of mi­grants Aus­tralia takes each year is ei­ther about right or too low.

In the world right now, ma­jor­ity sup­port for mass im­mi­gra­tion is re­mark­able. Par­tic­u­larly since the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, par­ties have sprung up ev­ery­where de­mand­ing gov­ern­ments shut the door on for­eign­ers. Brexit and Don­ald Trump rode that fear to vic­tory. “A num­ber of coun­tries are do­ing very badly,” Mar­cus ob­serves. “We con­tinue to do well.”

Pauline Han­son has mus­tered a fol­low­ing out on the right, but the Scan­lon sur­veys over a num­ber of years show her ef­forts have not – so far - shifted the fun­da­men­tals. In­deed, it’s the steadi­ness of sup­port for big im­mi­gra­tion that Markus cites as the sin­gle most in­ter­est­ing find­ing in his 2017 re­port.

“The num­bers on im­mi­gra­tion haven’t really moved. This used to be a mea­sure that jumped around. It’s sta­ble. That’s a sea change for Aus­tralia.”

But yet …

Also set in stone is our hos­til­ity to Is­lam. Year in year out, un­af­fected by ris­ing or fall­ing fears of ter­ror­ism, a quar­ter of Aus­tralians quizzed on the phone by Markus’s peo­ple ad­mit­ted to neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to Mus­lims.

Alert to the pos­si­bil­ity that in such sen­si­tive ter­ri­tory peo­ple may give poll­sters a po­lite re­sponse, Markus had the same ques­tions put to re­spon­dents on­line. Then the num­ber of Aus­tralians per­turbed by Is­lam rose to 41%.

Markus rates ei­ther fig­ure very high.

“On one level, we’re do­ing really well as a so­ci­ety,” he says. “We’re un­der pres­sure and we’re of cop­ing with that. There are all th­ese sto­ries about over­crowd­ing, pub­lic trans­port, hous­ing and every­thing. That could have gone neg­a­tive on im­mi­gra­tion and so on, but it hasn’t.

“But on an is­sue such as Mus­lims, there’s a lot of dis­quiet … there’s a re­source out there for peo­ple who want to work that con­stituency and it’s a size­able re­source. So as a so­ci­ety the risk level has gone up. We were bet­ter off in 2007 than we are in 2017.”

At this point, Markus turns to an­other grim find­ing that poll­sters for the Scan­lon Foun­da­tion con­firmed in 2017: the gen­eral col­lapse of faith in gov­ern­ment in this coun­try. The num­bers are unar­guable: it hap­pened un­der Rudd in 2010. “The pa­tient was dead at that point,” says Markus. “There’s been no signs of life since.”

That leaves us with­out the tra­di­tional bul­wark against race panic: in­spir­ing political lead­er­ship. “When Turn­bull gets up as prime min­is­ter and says ‘we are the most suc­cess­ful mul­ti­cul­tural coun­try in the world’ … peo­ple are not lis­ten­ing to him, pe­riod.”

Canada is his model. There’s a lot about Canada and its new prime min­is­ter in the 2017 re­port. It’s the coun­try so like us, yet with­out our race demons.

“When Justin Trudeau comes in and half his cabi­net are of a nonEnglish speak­ing back­ground and women are prop­erly rep­re­sented, that’s send­ing a sig­nal to the coun­try and it’s giv­ing lead­er­ship,” Markus says. “Here, the Lib­er­als can’t an­nounce a pol­icy with­out the rest of the Lib­eral party at­tack­ing it the fol­low­ing day, not to men­tion the La­bor party or the Greens. So that level of in­sta­bil­ity that we have in our coun­try means that is­sues such as this [race] can’t be ad­dressed.”

And it’s get­ting ugly out there. Markus is par­tic­u­larly dis­turbed by the steep rise in re­ports of dis­crim­i­na­tion over the past decade: “There are very few in­di­ca­tors that have shown that level of change where you’re get­ting dou­ble.”

The jump came in 2013. Markus isn’t sure why. Per­haps it had some­thing to do with the elec­tion of the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment. But sud­denly about a third of non-English speak­ers were re­port­ing ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion – per­haps yelling in the street but at times much worse than mere ha­rass­ment.

In 2015 a spe­cial Scan­lon sur­vey found the sit­u­a­tion far worse for Aus­tralia’s African com­mu­nity: 80% of them re­ported be­ing tar­gets of abuse or worse that year.

How can this be the coun­try that boasts such sup­port for im­mi­gra­tion and near-univer­sal back­ing for mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism?

“It seems to be con­tra­dic­tory,” says Markus. “It’s not, be­cause it doesn’t mean ev­ery­one across the pop­u­la­tion is en­gag­ing in dis­crim­i­na­tion. What I think this more means is that that mi­nor­ity which has strongly set its face against di­ver­sity, set it face again mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and so on, they’re em­bold­ened to act out their feel­ings, that the en­vi­ron­ment le­git­i­mates that. Pauline Han­son get­ting up and do­ing her burqa stunt and so on. All of those things have con­se­quences.”

Markus has gath­ered the best num­bers we have yet seen on One Na­tion vot­ers. They are elu­sive crea­tures, dif­fi­cult for poll­sters to cor­ner. But the 2017 Scan­lon re­port gives a vivid pic­ture of the pas­sions that drive them.

The easy political nar­ra­tive is that One Na­tion vot­ers are losers in the mod­ern econ­omy: protest vot­ers on the skids. Mar­cus’s fig­ures don’t sup­port that. His find­ings show Han­son’s peo­ple are set apart by their gloom, their con­tempt for gov­ern­ment and their deep loy­alty to white Aus­tralia.

The party break­down Markus gives for those “very pes­simistic “about Aus­tralia’s fu­ture is:

Greens: 6%

La­bor: 10%

Coali­tion: 7%

One Na­tion: 35%

One Na­tion vot­ers are pa­tri­ots of a kind who, far more than any oth­ers, strongly agree it’s im­por­tant to main­tain “the Aus­tralian way of life and cul­ture”:

Greens: 24%

La­bor: 57%

Coali­tion: 66%

One Na­tion: 92%

They are ut­terly pissed off with pol­i­tics and reckon our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment needs to be re­placed or have ma­jor changes:

Greens: 52%

La­bor: 36%

Coali­tion: 29%

One Na­tion: 80%

They dream of hav­ing strong lead­ers not shack­led to par­lia­ments. Markus re­veals a sur­pris­ing level of sup­port across the par­ties for such an au­thor­i­tar­ian world but One Na­tion vot­ers are way out in front:

Greens: 14%

La­bor: 25%

Coali­tion: 19%

One Na­tion: 37%

Han­son’s fol­low­ers are re­vealed not to be trou­bled by cli­mate change or per­turbed by drugs, mar­riage break­down or other so­cial is­sues fac­ing the coun­try. They aren’t par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about the gap be­tween rich and poor. They’re rather hos­tile to help gov­ern­ments give to those in need. Nor are they driven by fears about na­tional se­cu­rity.

Al­most the only plank in the their plat­form is hos­til­ity to im­mi­gra­tion. Im­mi­gra­tion they list above the econ­omy as the most press­ing is­sue fac­ing the coun­try. They strongly be­lieve im­mi­grants should be re­jected on the ba­sis of re­li­gion and race. They do not share the faith of most Aus­tralians that ac­cept­ing im­mi­grants from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries makes us strong.

But there is an­other coun­try in Markus’s fig­ures: the Aus­tralia of the young. Sev­enty nine per cent of 18 to 24 year olds be­lieve im­mi­gra­tion from all cor­ners of the world makes us stronger. Hardly any be­lieve we should cull ar­rivals by race and re­li­gion. Their sup­port for mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism runs at 94%. Only 15% ad­mit to neg­a­tive feel­ings to­wards Mus­lims.

Will they grow out of such gen­er­ous feel­ings? Will time turn them into crabby fig­ures in their 70s whose fears and sus­pi­cions colour the life of the coun­try?

Markus thinks not. “There are pos­i­tive signs we are deal­ing with not just the phe­nom­e­non of age. We’re also deal­ing with the phe­nom­e­non of ed­u­ca­tion … and of peo­ple en­gag­ing with the wider world through the in­ter­net.” To that list he adds the rel­a­tive pros­per­ity of the young th­ese days. “The way that this gen­er­a­tion en­gages with the world is dif­fer­ent from the gen­er­a­tion of their par­ents.”

The young are the hope of the side. “Of­ten they’re liv­ing in a world where race has no salience; where phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween peo­ple is noth­ing; where we em­brace dif­fer­ence, we live with dif­fer­ence. That’s what would in­di­cate what th­ese num­bers are por­tend­ing: a shift in the way the so­ci­ety op­er­ates.”

Mean­while, the drift of things in this coun­try right now doesn’t leave the man­darin poll­ster in a par­tic­u­larly pos­i­tive frame of mind. Was there one thing in this year’s re­port, I asked, that he would urge politi­cians to look at closely?

“They’ve ac­tu­ally got to look in the mir­ror,” he replied. “That’s what politi­cians have got to do. They’ve got to re­alise what they are do­ing to this coun­try by their form of political games­man­ship.”

He fears some­one more tal­ented than Han­son may come along and wreak havoc in this coun­try. “She’s so hope­less ba­si­cally that they can’t ac­tu­ally do much. But if you get an ef­fec­tive leader that comes into that space, there’s a con­stituency there …”

• Sup­port our in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism by giv­ing a one-off or monthly con­tri­bu­tion

On Mus­lims, there’s a lot of dis­quiet … there’s a re­source for peo­ple who want to work that con­stituency

A cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­mony by Syd­ney Har­bour. Year af­ter year Aus­tralians ex­press en­thu­si­asm for im­mi­gra­tion blind to race and re­li­gion in the Scan­lon re­port. Pho­to­graph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian

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