There is a widely accepted narrative that in the course of 2015, during the last period of the Abbott prime ministership, there was a failure of communication, a failure to enact policy and an irretrievable loss of support for the government. In other words, there were few positives and an increasingly troubled Australia.
The Scanlon Foundation’s 2015 survey, the eighth in a series that began in 2007, finds evidence that both supports and questions this narrative.
The Mapping Social Cohesion survey, conducted in June-July, finds continuing low levels of trust in the federal parliament and political parties. This finding is more marked in some regions of Australia than others, and is especially a feature of pubic opinion in Victoria.
The sense of social justice in Australian society declined in 2014 and further declined in 2015. For example, the proportion “strongly agreeing” that the “gap between those with high incomes and … low incomes is too large” increased from 34% in 2013 to 37% in 2014 and 44% in 2015.
The level of concern over national security and terrorism increased significantly. When asked an open-ended question, “What do you think is the most important problem facing Australia today?”, the proportion of respondents indicating defence, national security and terrorism increased from less than 1% to 10%.
Social cohesion improves
However, contrary to the negative depiction of the last period of the Abbott government, the survey finds that its Index of Social Cohesion, while still relatively low, recorded the strongest positive movement since the first survey in 2007. The index registered decline in only one of the five domains of social cohesion. This points to a number of positive findings in the survey.
The reported experience of discrimination on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity or religion has fallen from 19% in 2013 and 18% in 2014 to 15% in 2015.
Survey questions on neighbourhood find no evidence of heightened tensions. In response to the proposition that in “your local area … people from different national or ethnic groups get on well together”, 9% strongly disagreed or disagreed in 2012, 10% in 2014 and 9% in 2015.
Opposition to the current level of immigration is indicated by 35%. This is the same proportion as in 2014 and the lowest level recorded in the Scanlon Foundation surveys.
Majority support for a diverse immigration intake has remained largely consistent across the surveys. It is supported by 67% of respondents in 2015.
The 2015 survey asked whether the government should have the power to discriminate on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity in its selection of immigrants. Less than 10% of respondents strongly agree, another 10% agree, while more than 75% strongly disagree or disagree.
The government’s asylum seeker policy continues to receive a high level of support. Just one-in-four respondents (24%) indicate preference for a policy that provides a pathway to permanent residence for arrivals by boat. Another 41% support the turning back of boats or deportation of arrivals, and 31% support temporary residence only.
It is likely that negative opinion reflects views on mode of arrival, not on providing opportunities for refugee resettlement. Scanlon Foundation surveys between 2010 and 2012 asked for views on the humanitarian program and found a large majority, in the range of 67%-75%, in support. This finding is consistent with the lack of criticism of the government’s September announcement that Australia would permanently resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees.
Multiculturalism gets a big tick
The surveys also find a continuing high level of support for multiculturalism. In 2015, 86% of respondents agree that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia”. This is almost identical with the findings in 2013 and 2014. The strongest positive association of multiculturalism is with its contribution to economic development and its encouragement of immigrants to integrate into Australian society.
The 2015 social cohesion report provides new analysis of state differences. It finds that the highest levels of support for cultural diversity are in Melbourne and Canberra. Support is lowest in the regional and rural areas of Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.
A question that continues to create public controversy is whether Australia is a racist country. The focus of the Scanlon Foundation survey is on the balance of opinion in Australia, not on a generalisation that seeks to answer a complex question with a yes/no response.
Discrimination against minorities is to be found in all countries. In Australia, however, there is majority support of immigration and multiculturalism, in contrast with nearly all of Europe.
When asked about experience of cultural diversity in neighbourhoods, less than 5% indicate strong negative opinion. Only a small minority, less than 10%, strongly support racial or religious discrimination in immigrant selection. These findings indicate the extent of attitudinal change since the White Australia policy ended in the 1970s.
Building on the Scanlon Foundation surveys and led by the author, the Australia@2015 survey is being conducted in 20 languages to reach a broad demographic. Readers can complete the online survey here.
Andrew Markus has received external grants to research Australian public opinion from the Scanlon Foundation, the Australian Research Council and the Australian government.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor