Australia's Changing Attitudes To Immigration

29/10/2015 6:31 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
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A close up of a passport stamp for immigration to Australia

The Scanlon Foundation surveys, for the first time in Australian research, provide an annual measure of attitudes to immigration, cultural diversity and social cohesion.

The eighth national survey was conducted in 2015, with total respondents now numbering more than 25,000. The results provide a deep understanding of the constant and changing elements in national attitudes to cultural diversity and ethnicity.

On the basis of nine years of surveying, and mapped against findings of other surveys conducted since the 1970s, there is indication of fundamental shifts in Australian opinion.

The White Australia policy sought to maintain what was seen as a homogenous culture grounded in racial exclusivity. The policy underwent gradual change in the post-war decades, with the pace of reform lagging behind the liberalisation of attitudes in segments of the Australian population. The policy was formally abolished in the first year of the Whitlam government, elected in 1972.

Much else has changed. Surveying of views of immigration indicates considerable volatility, in large part influenced by fluctuations in the Australian labour market. During the early 1990s, in the context of economic recession and with unemployment in excess of 10 percent, more than 70 percent of those surveyed indicated that the immigration intake should be reduced.

Since the late 1990s, majority opinion has favoured immigration, indicating broad acceptance of the view that Australia continues to be an immigrant nation and benefits from population growth. While a minority, in the range of 35-40 percent, remain convinced that immigration should be reduced, a larger segment of the population, close to 60 percent, consider that the immigration intake should be retained at the present level, or increased.

This level of support is in contrast with most of the developed world, where immigration is supported by a minority. For example, the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey found that 56 percent agreed that immigration 'should be reduced a lot', with a further 21 percent supporting some reduction.

In keeping with this view of Australia as an immigrant nation, when presented with the proposition that 'multiculturalism has been good for Australia', 86 percent of respondents agreed.

When asked if government should support ethnic minorities to enable them to retain their customs and traditions, only a minority of Australians indicate agreement, but over the course of the Scanlon Foundation surveys this minority has steadily increased from 32 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in 2015.

One of the drivers of change is the attitude of younger Australians, who are more accepting of immigration and cultural diversity than their parents and grandparents.

Analysis of the 2015 survey findings was conducted by three age groups: young adults (aged 18-29), the middle-aged (40-49), and older respondents (60-69).

The finding is that on some issues there is little difference. Across the three age groups, a majority of close to 70 percent indicate that they trust the federal government 'almost never' or 'only some of the time', 'to do the right thing for the Australian people'.

In response to the proposition that 'in the long run, hard work in Australia brings a better life', there is again little difference, with the proportion in strong agreement or agreement in the range 79-81 percent.

But a lower proportion of the younger respondents indicate strong agreement in response to questions on national identity. When asked 'to what extent do you take pride in the Australian way of life and culture', 64 percent of both middle-aged and older respondents indicate 'to a great extent', almost double the proportion of young adults, at 35 percent.

In contrast, it is the young adults who are most positive when asked for their view of multiculturalism. In response to the proposition that 'we should do more to learn about the customs and heritage' of immigrant groups, 85 percent of young adults strongly agree or agree, compared with 67 percent of middle-aged and 59 percent of older respondents.

On the question of government assistance to ethnic minorities for cultural maintenance, 65 percent of young adults strongly agree or agree, compared to 34 percent of middle-aged and 31 percent of older respondents.

The experience of many young adults, even more the experience of teenagers, is of lived experience in a diverse cultural environment and engagement with virtual worlds of their own choosing.

Australia is passing through a time of accelerating change, one whose impacts warrant greater attention from the older generations.

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