Australia still embraces multiculturalism but fracture lines are deepening
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:
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”:
One Nation: 92%
They are utterly pissed off with politics and reckon our system of government needs to be replaced or have major changes:
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:
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 …”
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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