Politicians may be panicking about immigration. Australians are not

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Australia has not lost faith in immigration. The political narrative has darkened but not the fundamental view of ourselves as an immigrant nation. Most of us remain convinced that we are in so many ways better off for newcomers of all races and creeds who have come in large numbers to our shores.

That is the verdict of the Scanlon Foundation’s 2018 Mapping Social Cohesion Report published on Tuesday. The mission of the foundation is to measure how this migrant nation hangs together. Over the last decade 48,000 of us have been polled to fathom the panics that sweep this country and the steady underlying views Australians have of immigration.

“Immigration is a growing concern,” says the author of the report Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University. “But for media commentators and some politicians it has become an obsession. They are in the business of creating heightened concern, of crisis. But what the survey shows is rather a picture of stability.”

Markus is one of Australia’s leading authorities on the politics of race. This is the 11th report he has written for the Scanlon Foundation. Year in year out his reports show about 80% of us believe immigrants are “generally good” for Australia’s economy and that ours is a better society for the “new ideas and cultures” that immigrants bring to this country. Support for multiculturalism in 2018 stands almost as high as ever at 85%.

“A number of international surveys that look at Australia, America, Canada, a range of European countries from eastern Europe to western Europe, and also countries in other parts of the world, have a consistent finding that on attitudes to immigration and cultural diversity, Australia is within the top 10% of countries which are open to and welcoming of immigration,” says Markus.

Putting into perspective the renewed political contest over immigration is the underlying purpose of the latest Scanlon report. This year Fraser Anning called for a return to White Australia; the notion of exiling new migrants from Sydney and Melbourne was seriously debated; and political leaders in all parties called for cuts – sometimes savage – to immigration numbers.

“Politicians present their views on immigration as if they are speaking for the nation,” cautions Markus. “The reality is that their words are directed to that segment of voters in marginal electorates that supports their party, or that may be attracted to their party, or may be lost to their part

Rising concern about numbers was a particular focus of this year’s report. This has kicked up significantly in the last few years. In 2016 only a third of Australians believed the migrant intake was too high. Now 43% of us are worried.

In the past, concern about numbers has moved up and down in lockstep with employment figures. Not this time. And the Scanlon pollsters set out to identify what was driving fresh fears in 2018.

“The program itself is something that’s marketable, something that finds a receptive audience,” says Markus. “But there’s a growing concern – still a minority position, but growing concern – that the immigration program is not being well managed.

“This is linked to people’s perceptions of overcrowding, public transport, housing costs, and so on. These issues are much more complex than just immigration intake. That’s what we’re picking up. That’s a risk for Australia going forward.”

Our rising national anxiety about numbers has been measured by a number of pollsters. Lowy, Essential and Newspoll all found a majority wish for the intake to be cut. Ipsos and Scanlon reckon the balance is slightly the other way with 52% of us for keeping – or even increasing – the number of migrants we take.

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