Australians Today: Where to Next?

Australians Today is a landmark survey on social attitudes in Australia. Andrew Markus, working with, and supported by, the Scanlon Foundation, has taken a spot check of our society and pushed to better understand what these attitudes mean. By asking over 10,000 people, and complementing this with 51 focus groups, the results are large enough to break down into smaller sub-groups, allowing comparison and contrast to highlight where we are heading as a society. What we could only infer and hint at in the past is now on firmer ground.


The immediate media response focused the most pressing differences of attitudes and experiences. Here is David Crowe’s lead from the Oz:

Deepening divisions over immigration and racism threaten to shatter Australia’s acceptance of new migrants according to a disturbing study revealing a “polarisation” in attitudes that will shape a growing fight over multiculturalism and free speech.

Gabrielle Chan at the Guardian:

The report – titled Australia Today – illuminates a people who are both hopeful and sometimes hurtful, largely cohesive but segmenting in a way that is becoming increasingly common in the midst of a communication revolution. It is fair to say we are mostly happy with our lives and what our country offers, though our background often determines our values.

When I attended the pre-launch of this report, Assistant Minister for Social Security, Zed Seselja, said we needed to own and recognise the “ugliness” which exists in society, saying “we need to be honest about it”.

This is positive sentiment from a fresh faced Assistant Minister. These concepts and what they mean are hard to grapple with and I was impressed he sat through the presentation even after having a personal briefing that same morning. This shows multiculturalism and social cohesion isn’t a left-right issue in Australia, as it used to be, but one which is embedded in our approach to social policy regardless of who holds government.

Here is a handful of questions asked by the survey and my take on what the results mean.


Table 10: ‘Australia is a land of economic opportunity where in the long run, hard work brings a better life.’ Au@2015 survey, by year of arrival (%)

Disagree or strongly disagree:

  • 1991-1995: 18%
  • 1996-2000: 14%
  • 2001-2005: 13%
  • 2006-2010: 10%
  • 2011-2015: 6%

The rose-tinted glasses of new migrants fades over time, at least with regard to the link between effort and reward. This corresponds with a modern research agenda showing generational mobility and ‘getting ahead’ might not be as straightforward as it once was. However it strikes me as counterintuitive when it comes to migrants, as I’ve always assumed the biggest barriers to a ‘better life’ are in the first five or so years of arrival, with things settling down and getting easier after that.

My instinct tells me this occurs for a number of reasons, including facing social and economic barriers to participation because of discrimination. But before these types of inferences can be made, it’s a trend I would like to know more about. Why do migrants change their mind on the question of hard work over time?

Table 23: ‘What do you most like about Australia?’ first choice, Au@2015 (%)

AU born (%) O/S born (%)
Lifestyle / Australian way of life 39 23
There is freedom and democracy 22 20
The standard of living 13 12
Weather / Climate 2 9
Education system / opportunity for children 2 9
Beauty of the land / country 7 7
Friends and family are close by 7 4
Cultural diversity / multiculturalism 3 6
Clean environment 1 3
People are kind and friendly 1 3
N (unweighted) 5061 5487

Table 25: ‘Which three things about Australia do you least like?’ First response, Au@2015 survey (%)

  AU born (%) O/S born (%)
Cost of living / housing 25 24
Racism / discrimination 18 15
No opportunity to stay 4 8
Taxes are too high 8 8
There is corruption 7 2
High unemployment 5 4
Hard to find a job in profession 1 4
Weather / climate 1 4
Inadequate public transport 4 3
There are too many immigrants 17 3
Australians are not friendly 1 1
Family and friends aren’t here 1 12
N (unweighted) 5061 5487

While there are differences around the edges, for the most part, Australian-born and first-generation migrants agree on what there is to like about Australia. Lifestyle, democracy and the standard of living get a big tick of approval across the board. The most interesting difference is the small bump in educational opportunities and opportunities for children attributable to migrants, supporting the oft-cited reference that first-generation migrants make significant sacrifices for their kids given the importance of settling down. These common themes across the board lend strong support for what bonds our society together, regardless of where you come from originally. This is easy to overlook but should not be forgotten. The societal fundamentals work well in Australia.

This positive news is offset by the one serious outlier about what we don’t like about living in Australia. While we can all agree to shake our heads at the Australian housing market, attitudes to immigration alongside concern about discrimination show substantial disagreements amongst Australian-born people.

17 per cent of Australian-born nominate ‘too many immigrants’ as what they least like about Australia. These people are in direct contrast to the 18 per cent of Australian-born who nominate ‘racism /discrimination’ as what they least like about Australia.

These are not small numbers. About one in five are strongly opposed to the current set of immigration policies. Another one in five (assuming very little crossover) are strong supporters of Australia’s diverse society, to such an extent discrimination is one of the most disturbing features of society.

While leaving a large middle ground, those on the edges are loud, know how to be heard and often dominate the media and reporting on issues around migration. The 60 per cent who sit between these positions must often wonder what all the fuss is about.

17 per cent of people nominating ‘too many immigrants’ is more than I had expected based on based research about acceptance of immigration in periods of economic growth and low(ish) unemployment. What happens to that number with a recession?

One positive note about the dislike figures is this information should kill off the constantly repeated trope about how many recent immigrants don’t support a multicultural society and the last ones in want to shut the door behind them. Not quite.

Table 59: ‘Do you consider yourself to be very religious, somewhat religious, not very religious, or not at all religious?’ Au@2015, respondents of the Islamic faith

Very+somewhat religious (%) Population (2011 Census)
Cyprus 81 3149
Australia 77 179 081
Pakistan 69 26 465
Afghanistan 55 26 043
Eritria 53 1520
Turkey 49 25 311
Iraq 26 15 395
Iran 14 12 686
All Muslim 59 476 290
[All AU Born] 29
[All O/S Born] 40

Attitudes to and about Muslim Australians is an important part of our social cohesion. The sheer noise on the topic tends to drown out considered analysis. And while this isn’t a topic conducive to polite debate, these figures tell an interesting story. Muslim Australians born in Iraq and Iran are much less likely to self-identify as “very religious” or “somewhat religious” (26 and 14 per cent respective). This is in contrast Muslim Australians who were born in Australia, with over three in four saying they were very or somewhat religious.

I don’t imagine most people would guess an Iraqi-born Muslim Australian would be on average less religious than a randomly selected Australian-born person of any religious background. I certainly didn’t before reading this and it goes to show some assumptions are very dangerous when combined with a lazy understanding of modern Australia.

As Hass Dellal eloquently puts it, Muslim Australians are not a homogenous group and “recognition of diversity within the Muslim Australian population is significant, as it not necessarily fully recognised in public discussion”. As he writes, one focus group participant said there is a “massive generation gap in thinking and behaviour between people, parents, our elders who came here from overseas and settled and their kids and grandkids”.

The information above is just a taste of the broad and deep set of findings in Australians Today. When you combine the information in this report with over a decade of social cohesion research, I see three clear take-away points:

  • Australia remains a positive society for a strong majority of the community but the trend is in the wrong direction, with a small – but growing – group of people who want to return to a society which doesn’t exist anymore.
  • Discrimination against migrants is manageable for most, occurring a handful of times each year, but severe for a small number of communities. The greatest effects likely come from labour market discrimination because of the critical link between employment and settlement into Australian society.
  • The ground zero for thinking about Australia’s social cohesion is in shrinking regional communities where migrants don’t live and in high growth suburbs where non-English languages are the norm.

So what comes next? Building on this research means asking more questions but with a view towards better understanding behaviour.

For individuals, what, if anything, works in terms of changing negative attitudes? Is it important for people to meet people from other backgrounds? Do positive role models make a difference? Do these behaviours change under different socio-economic and geographic environments? What does it mean if nothing “works” and the status quo remains, with increasing divisions?

For migrants, the most pressing concern appears to be discrimination. My belief is employment is probably the single most important factor when new migrants settle, so discrimination in the labour market should be the starting point. Andrew Leigh et al demonstrated some years ago this was a major concern. What is the magnitude today? What groups are most affected? Does this differ by industry? What can employers do to address this?

These are not easy questions. There is no set of answers. Hopefully interest will continue to grow in this important field.

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