There is no shortage of expert commentary on current shifts in public opinion, understood as a revolt against political elites.
Within Europe and the United States interpretations are supported by the British vote to leave the European Union, the increasing popularity of far-right parties campaigning on anti-immigration and nationalist platforms, and the success of Donald Trump in winning the US presidency.
In Australia, commentators point to instability in politics, elections that fail to return clear majorities, the loss of office of first-term governments in Queensland and Victoria, growing minor party representation in the Senate, and public unease at immigration policy and the Muslim presence.
In a recent article titled “Immigration system is groaning under influx of new migrants”, The Australian columnist Judith Sloan argued:
Our program is no longer working in the national interest … My guess is that more people are beginning to appreciate this fact, particularly as they bear the costs of congestion, loss of amenity and safety, and declining housing affordability.
A different perspective on the Australian political mood is provided by the 2016 Scanlon Foundation survey. Contrary to Sloan’s “guess”, survey data indicate a continuing low level of concern over immigration.
In 2016 just 34% of respondents considered that the immigration intake was “too high”, the lowest recorded in the Scanlon Foundation surveys. This matched the findings of recent Lowy Institute and Roy Morgan polls.
There are grounds for caution in drawing lessons from British and US votes, while ignoring developments in Canada and New Zealand. Structural factors, notably the impact of the global financial crisis on employment and the housing market, and uncontrolled cross-border population movement, do not have the same impact on public opinion in Australia.
Australia bucks the trend
The annual Scanlon Foundation survey, the ninth in a series that began in 2007, was conducted in the weeks following the 2016 federal election. It employed a probability sample with 1,500 respondents, and comprised more than 60 questions. It provides the most reliable measure of the trend of Australian opinion.
There is consistent high-level agreement with the proposition that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia”, in the range of 83% to 86% across the 2013-16 Scanlon Foundation surveys.
The ideal of “assimilation” appeals only to minorities. In Australia, 28% agree with the proposition:
It is best if all people forget their different ethnic and cultural backgrounds as soon as possible.
A relatively high proportion indicate that they are “very negative” or “negative” towards Muslims: 25% of respondents in 2016, compared to 5% with negative views towards Christians or Buddhists.
However, this level is not close to 50% – as indicated by a recent survey. And the trend of opinion shows little change: over the course of six Scanlon Foundation surveys, the proportion negative to Muslims has been consistently in the range of 22% to 25%.
The Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion, which aggregates the results for 18 questions, finds more evidence of stability and social cohesion than of deterioration, although there are some negative indicators. In 2016 the index is at 89.3, down from 92.5 in 2015 – but close to the average of the last four years.
Not all good news
The findings, however, are not all neutral or positive.
The proportion of respondents indicating experience of discrimination over the last 12 months on the basis of skin colour, ethnicity or religion increased from 15% to 20%. This is the highest level recorded by the Scanlon Foundation surveys.
There are heightened negative indicators in questions concerning neighbourhood. Agreement that “people in your local area are willing to help their neighbours” fell from 85% to 81%. Concern “about becoming a victim of crime in your local area” increased by a large margin, from 26% to 36%.
Questions on the working of Australian democracy continue to find low levels of trust in parliament and political parties. An increased proportion agree that “the system of government we have in Australia … needs major change”, up from 23% in 2014 to 31% in 2016. A further 11% would like to see the system replaced.
The lack of trust in the political system may in part reflect the failure to tackle socially progressive issues supported by a majority of electors.
The 2016 Scanlon Foundation survey sought views on current environmental and social issues. It found 80% support “medically approved euthanasia for people suffering terminal illness”, and 67% support “marriage equality for same-sex couples”. Climate change was considered with reference to “legislation for reduced reliance on coal for electricity generation” and found support at 70%.
The 2016 Scanlon Foundation survey thus provides grounds for caution in applying overseas comparisons. The key finding points more to stability than change, which is measured at less than five percentage points in response to most questions.
At the same time, there is an increased reporting of discrimination, heightened neighbourhood concerns and mounting dissatisfaction with Australian democracy.