Every year, come January 26, Australia Day revives the annual dialogue around notions of national identity, our values and what it means to be Australian. It’s an opportune time to reflect on the findings of Australia’s largest national survey of attitudes to our way of life, cultural diversity and social cohesion. The Scanlon Foundation’s annual Mapping Social Cohesion report provides a “running commentary” on Australian attitudes.
Interestingly, the World Values Survey, which has been conducted since 1981, asks a question on pride in nationality. In the sixth wave of surveying, conducted between 2010 and 2014, it found that 70% of Australian respondents indicated that they were “very proud” and a further 25% “quite proud” – a combined 95%. This compared to 56% of Americans indicating “very proud”, 40% Swedes, 29% Russians and 24% Germans. Only 4% of Australians indicated that they were not proud of their nationality.
The Scanlon Foundation surveys, consistent with the World Values and other polling over the last 30 years, have found that the vast majority of Australians have a high level of identification with their country.
What questions does the survey ask?
Three questions on identity are included in the Scanlon Foundation national surveys, seven of which have been conducted since 2007. The survey database now comprises over 12,000 respondents.
The first two questions ask:
To what extent do you have a sense of belonging in Australia?
To what extend do you have a sense of pride in the Australian way of life and culture?
Respondents can indicate two levels of agreement (great/moderate) and two levels of disagreement (slight/not at all). They can also decline to answer or indicate that they do not know.
Across the seven surveys the proportion who give a negative response, or who do not answer, is consistently below 10%, while positive response is above 90%.
A third question presents respondents with the proposition that:
In the modern world, maintaining the Australian way of life and culture is important.
Again respondents have the option of two levels of agreement and two levels of disagreement, with the additional option of a neutral response (neither agree nor disagree).
Is there an ‘Australian way of life’?
The notion of the “Australian way of life” is problematic for many social analysts. It is seen as a term that is vague and open to a range of interpretations, perhaps meaningless in a survey context. In surveying, when questions do not make sense or are confusing, a substantial proportion of respondents decline to answer.
But the Scanlon Foundation surveys have found that in response to questions about the Australian way of life, the proportion of the more than 12,000 respondents who have responded “don’t know”, declined to answer, or indicated that they neither agree nor disagree, is a combined 3%. In contrast, 92% agree that it is important to maintain the Australian way of life. Just 5% disagree.
The large sample makes possible analysis by a range of subgroups. Analysis is here provided by country of birth, age, religion and educational attainment.
With aggregated “strong agreement” and “agreement”, there is little difference among birthplace groups. Of those born in Australia, 92% agree; those born in an English-speaking country, 91%; those in a non-English-speaking country, 92%.
Analysis by age groups finds agreement in the range 89%-95%; by religious groups, 90%-96%; and by educational attainment, 86%-95%. The lowest proportion, 86%, was indicated by those with post-graduate educational qualifications.
Differences of opinion only by degree
Substantial difference is evident only in the relative proportions indicating strong agreement and agreement on the importance of maintaining the Australian way of life. Thus among faith groups “strong agreement” is at 68% for Anglicans, 61% Roman Catholic, 48% Muslim, 43% Hindu and 34% Buddhist.
Relatively low proportions of “strong agreement” were indicated by those aged 18-24 (44%), with a post-graduate qualification (44%) and with a university degree (48%), but the main finding is the aggregated high level of agreement across subgroups.
In 2013, the Scanlon Foundation conducted a survey of immigrants who arrived between 1990 and 2010, using an online panel of respondents and a broad range of questions on identity. Viable samples were achieved for a number of European and Asian countries and for New Zealanders. An identity scale was constructed, comprising aggregated responses to questions.
The finding was a high level of identification with Australia across the national groups. The levels were highest among those born in the United Kingdom, Ireland, India and Sri Lanka, and at lower levels for those born in China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and New Zealand. Identification strengthened with increased length of residence.
The findings also indicate the complexity of identity, which is multi-faceted rather than one-dimensional. Thus of those born overseas who indicated that they identified as an Australian, 75% also identified with their local community in Australia, 70% agreed with the proposition that “I just see myself as an individual”, 61% agreed that “I see myself as a world citizen” and 61% identified with their country of birth.
Survey finds some signs of social fracture
Lines of fracture are also evident in survey findings. A VicHealth survey conducted in 2013 found that 40% of respondents agreed that there were racial or ethnic groups that “did not fit in Australian society”, with Muslims the most frequently mentioned. A comparison with the results of a 2006 VicHealth survey found that agreement that some groups did not fit had increased substantially.
VicHealth found that 22% of respondents were negative towards Muslims. That is similar to the proportion obtained by the 2012 and 2014 Scanlon Foundation surveys (24%-25%). However, it is likely that the level is considerably higher, as an interviewer-administered survey fails to accurately gauge the level of negativity when socially sensitive questions are asked.
In 2014, the Scanlon Foundation survey found that among respondents born in Australia of Australia-born parents (close to half the Australian population), 28% were negative towards Muslims when asked by an interviewer, but 44% were negative when completing an online survey.
The most recent Mapping Social Cohesion report produced a particularly interesting set of findings. It’s worthwhile reflecting on what these findings reveal about the distinctive characteristics of Australian identity and the challenges ahead.