Granular social cohesion in Australia

On Monday, the Scanlon Foundation released new research undertaken by Andrew Markus into social cohesion for new migrant arrivals and, more importantly, for five local areas. This research has steadily gained greater attention in recent years. This is critical as there is a growing sense something is not quite right.

Of the five local areas examined, Logan in Queensland and Mirrabooka in Perth, are the two to closely examine. Both are growing suburbs in growing cities. One could easily characterise these suburbs as the frontier of migrant Australia. Logan has experienced a decade of strong immigration from New Zealand and the Pacific and in 2011, 15 per cent of the population were born in the Pacific. Mirrabooka is different and has been at the forefront of Asian migration in Australia. Over 15 per cent of the population was born in Asian countries, an unprecedented number to consider 10 years ago.

Before getting into the social cohesion research, some context is important. Logan is in the third percentile for socio-economic disadvantage while Mirrabooka is in the eleventh. These are relatively poor areas of Australia, showing stark difference to other parts of Brisbane and Perth. The unemployment rate for Logan is over 13 per cent while Mirrabooka is 7.4 per cent. For people aged 25-54 nationally, about 40 per cent of people have a degree. In these two areas, that percentage shrinks to 18 (Logan) and 32 (Mirrabooka). This disadvantage will manifest itself in any insight into social cohesion for local areas when compared to Australia as a whole.

In part because of this disadvantage, social cohesion is lower in these two suburbs than for Australia as a whole. According to the Scanlon-Monash social cohesion index, Logan has an 18 per cent variance from the national average while Mirrabooka is 6 per cent. Drilling down, we see where this variance comes from. Social justice and equity in Logan is a full 38 per cent below the national average, as well as 16 per cent below in relation to acceptance. In Mirrabooka, social justice and equity is 9 per cent below the national average and 12 per cent in terms of participation.

I’ve read the full set of these reports and nothing I have seen to date is as despondent as the negative sentiment around social justice in Logan. One in four people living there don’t believe hard work will result in a better life, compared to less than 15 per cent nationally. This is a worrying sign of a community which feels excluded. Logan also shows lower levels of trust and higher levels of experienced discrimination. To top it all off, 58 per cent of respondents say there is too much immigration, compared to 42 per cent nationally.

There are strong messages here to those who will listen, and not just about immigration and settlement patterns. This research highlights the growing dissatisfaction in parts of suburban Australia where equality of opportunity is slipping away. Logan is a story with a central point. Many of those Pacific and New Zealand born people who have arrived in the last decade have no recourse to Australian citizenship. They work hard – participation rates of New Zealand citizens in Australia are amongst the highest for any country of origin – yet they don’t get ahead.

Australia has a proud record of social integration and cohesion. Permanent settlement outcomes, combined with employment and language for new migrants, have ensured ethnic isolation disappears by the second generation. This is not something other countries can lay claim to, apart from perhaps Canada.

This research shows we are at a critical point in very specific local areas. Nationally, the picture remains rosy. Yet scratching beneath the surface, an emerging issue presents. When a quarter of a community doesn’t believe hard work will result in getting ahead, long term incentives which hold communities together fracture. There is a the real possibility this leads to inter-generational disadvantage, something Australia has thankfully been good at avoiding. This is a policy issue for government and it needs attention now. Further, we need to examine and reexamine a host of other areas to better understand this particular issue of social cohesion.

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