Social Cohesion – Australia and the World

The sixth Scanlon Foundation “Mapping Social Cohesion” report was released last week. A slew of articles were published (Julia Baird, David Marr and John Masanaukas with good coverage in the Herald Sun were amongst the better ones). The report is thoughtful and considered, as was the coverage.

The trend of social cohesion in Australia is undoubtedly one where generally positive attitudes are slowly changing, becoming more complex. The five measured domains – belonging, worth, social justice, participation and acceptance and rejection – were all below the 2007 benchmark level, meaning the Index of Social Cohesion recorded its lowest level to date. This informed all of the coverage, where the negative shift of social attitudes was emphasised. This is completely understandable and a very important concept for public discussion.

However I feel this is a small case of missing the forrest for the trees. Professor Markus says compared to international standards, “Australia remains highly cohesive”, where “life in Australia continues to satisfy the new arrivals”. Too often this is overlooked, where our success at building a cohesive society is diminished. A quick peek overseas should act as a good reminder.

Lets start with the share of migrants in Australia. In an oft-quoted figure, about 1 in 4 Australians are born overseas, and 1 in 2 having at least one parent born overseas. Perhaps this isn’t impressive anymore. It should be:

Migrants as a proportion of population

(Source: OECD)

Amongst rich, developed countries with sizeable populations, Australia is unique. While the U.S. is the traditional home of the immigrant dream, Australia is a much better reflection of that reality. This underscores social cohesion, as people mingle economically, socially and culturally. This is the core of multiculturalism in Australia and while the rest of the world struggle with what this means for society, we only struggle with what the word means. As the Scanlon Report says, multiculturalism is now accepted across society.

Next, the labour market:

Migrants and Natives: Unemployment

(Source: International Migration Outlook 2013, OECD)

This shows the difference in unemployment between migrants and domestic born populations for OECD countries. Australia is in the sweet spot, with basically no difference in unemployment between the two groups. Differences can appear, i.e. 6.7% of migrants were unemployed in 2009 compared to 5.3% of Australian-born, yet they tend to smooth out quickly. This is not the case for other developed countries. Migrants struggle in many labour markets, stifling integration into society and damaging social cohesion. This isn’t a perfect picture. Despite some recent convergence, participation rates, especially for women, tend to be lower for migrants than Australian-born.

These labour market results are one of the foundations of strong social cohesion in Australia. A job is important for a host of individual reasons but also for social integration. Having a job helps prevent geographic migrant clustering (“migrant ghettos”). It also prevents migrants acting as a fiscal drag. While you will occasionally read fluff pieces about migrants addicted to welfare or simply coming to Australia for the public benefits, it’s completely incorrect.

migrants and natives: fiscal contribution

This shows the different fiscal contribution of migrant and domestic households. Basically, how do migrants contribute to the budget? Those big blue lines on the left indicate countries where there is a substantial gap between migrants contribution and domestic contributions. Australia doesn’t have a blue line, either negative or positive, meaning migrant and Australian-born households have the same fiscal contribution.

These differences come back to the labour market, and are due to a range of factors, including Australia’s two decade plus journey towards prioritising skilled migration. Family migration and asylum seekers, which are much more prominent in Europe, tend to contribute less to government budgets than domestic-born households. This happens in Australia as well, but is offset by the large proportion of skilled migrants. I believe this has a strong impact on social cohesion, as people don’t associate migrants with the dole in Australia, preventing negative sentiment from escalating. Again, this doesn’t mean things are perfect. If migrant and Australian-born employment rates were equal, the budget would improve by ~0.5%, the fourth largest gain in the OECD.

I don’t mean to ignore the changing trends of Australian attitudes to social cohesion and immigration. There is a shift, and its negative since 2007. However, social cohesion in Australia relative to the rest of the world is unprecedented. Much like how the Australian economy has softened since the GFC, it remains the envy of the developed world. This is despite the vitriol of Hansonism, the fall out from the Tampa and the Cronulla riots. These negatives have failed to rapidly change social cohesion in Australia, which remains strong. This is important to recognise as it demonstrates what has worked in the past.

Andrew Markus recognises this. The Scanlon surveys are a vital insight into Australian society and hopefully his research this year fulfils one of its central objectives, the provision of an early warning against threats to social cohesion, and creating a public environment to “foster informed debate on the challenges necessarily accompanying the maintenance of a successful large scale immigration program”.

Note: the OECD’s annual International Migration Outlook is an excellent document, with useful accompanying country summaries, here is Australia (.xls)

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One thought on “Social Cohesion – Australia and the World

  1. Thanks Henry – really interesting and I appreciate your explanation of the graphs (if it isn’t a pie or a bar graph – I’m graphically challenged). I think we have much to be proud of in terms of our migration program and social cohesion and these results should be championed more.

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