How do Australian voters’ view the level of immigration? TAPRI and Scanlon compared

Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell

Republished from John Menadue’s site, Pearls and Irritations

There has been growing controversy about Australia’s level of overseas immigration. In the year to March 2017 Australia’s population is estimated to have grown by a massive 389,100, some 231,000, or 60 per cent of which was due to net overseas migration. For the last few years around two thirds of the net growth in migrants have been locating in Sydney and Melbourne.

The consequences are becoming obvious and are being reflected in increased public concern about urban congestion and other quality of life issues.

But are these consequences resulting in increased opposition to high migration? In order to explore this issue The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) commissioned a national online survey of Australian voters in August 2017 ( ‘Australian voters’ views on immigration policy’.)

The survey found that 74 per cent of voters thought that Australia does not need more people. Furthermore, 54 per cent wanted a reduction in the migrant intake. TAPRI also found that big majorities think that population growth is putting ‘a lot of pressure’ on hospitals, roads, affordable housing and jobs. Thus it seemed reasonable to conclude that these concerns were manifesting in concern about migration levels.

This conclusion has been challenged by the 2017 Mapping Social Cohesion report from the Scanlon Foundation, which surveyed Australians at about the same time as the TAPRI survey. Scanlon reports that only 37 per cent thought immigration levels should be reduced (up just three percentage points from 2016).

When interviewed by David Marr on these findings, the author of the report, Professor Andrew Markus, said: ‘On one level, we’re doing really well as a society… There are all these stories about overcrowding, public transport, housing and everything. That could have gone negative on immigration and so on, but it hasn’t’ .

Who is right? The answer is of major consequence for Australia’s political class. In Western Europe concern about immigration levels has manifested in anti-migration parties gaining 15-20 per cent of the total vote. Is Australia an outlier, immune to sentiment of this sort?

Australian political elites appear to believe that they have little to fear on this front. This is because their main source of information about public opinion on the issue has been the Scanlon Foundation.

For instance, Labor’s shadow Deputy Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, has recently asserted that Australian attitudes to migrants are warm and ‘becoming warmer over time’ (Choosing Openness). According to David Marr, ‘more than almost any people on earth, we are happy for migrants to come in big numbers’ (The White Queen ). Both sources draw these conclusions from successive Scanlon reports.

This remarkable outcome, at least by comparison with the anti-immigration protests across Europe, has prompted a special report in The Economist magazine. The report notes recent efforts, as by Dick Smith, to sound the alarm about Australian migration levels. Yet, so the magazine judges, relatively few Australians seem to be concerned. The authors’ main source, once again, is the Scanlon Foundation. The Economist states that:

Regular surveys conducted by the Scanlon Foundation, which works to integrate immigrants, show that the sense that immigration is too high has fallen substantially since the 1990s.

Why the difference in results?

The TAPRI survey was completed online by a random sample of 2057 voters, (with quotas set with a 10% leeway, in line with ABS distributions for age, gender and location). The sample was drawn from a panel of 300,000. Thus TAPRI used the same methodology as is now employed by Newspoll and by Essential Media.

It is true that, despite the demographic weighting, the panels in question may not be representative of the overall population of voters. For example, the TAPRI sample had a higher representation of graduates than that of the voting population as a whole. This means it probably underestimated the opposition to migration since we found that only 41 per cent of the graduates amongst our respondents favoured a reduction in migration levels, compared with 61 per cent of non-graduates.

However, there are at least as many problems with probability samples done by telephone. The Scanlon poll was based on a telephone sample of 1,500 Australian residents drawn from the entire population of residents. It therefore included many respondents who are not citizens and therefore not eligible to vote.

Citizenship requires a four-year stay in Australia, at least one year of which must be as a permanent resident and, of course, the desire to make the application. As the TAPRI survey conformed, Australian-born persons are much more likely to take a tough line on immigration numbers than are overseas-born persons (unless they are UK-born).

There are also significant issues concerning the reliability of telephone interviews when probing  sensitive issues. As the highly credible Pew Research polling organisation has indicated, respondents may be more likely to provide socially undesirable responses in the relative anonymity of the internet.

Research by Scanlon supports this point. The 2017 report got quite different answers to the question ‘Is your personal attitude positive, negative or neutral towards Muslims?’ when the question was asked in its telephone survey and when asked in a separate online survey that Scanlon funded. In the telephone survey 25 per cent said ‘negative or very negative’, while 41 per cent responded this way in the online survey .

Similarly, Scanlon found a much larger share of respondents favoured a reduction in immigration numbers in a different online survey that it funded which used methodology similar to that used by TAPRI. In the telephone survey 37 per cent said that immigration was too high.  In contrast, 50 per cent of this online sample agreed that the immigration intake was too high, rising to 53 per cent when the findings were limited to those who were Australian citizens.

This result is almost identical to the TAPRI finding. It may well be that because attitudes to immigration numbers, like attitudes to Muslims, are sensitive, voters responding online feel freer to express negative opinions.

If TAPRI’s and Scanlon’s findings when using panel methodology are reliable they have great political significance. The TAPRI report found that 57 per cent of Liberal voters and 46 per cent of Labor voters thought that the immigration intake should be reduced.

If the immigration issue were to be contested at the next federal election both parties would be vulnerable. One Nation or any other party with a fierce low-migration agenda could draw voters from both the Liberal and Labor parties. Alternatively, should the Liberal party stake out a low migration agenda, it could draw votes from the Labor Party.

Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell are with the Australian Population Research Institute, a non-profit think tank.

Australian voters’ views on immigration policy

Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell,  26 October 2017
Australia’s population grew by a massive 384,000 in the year to March 2017, some 217,000, or 60 per cent, of which was due to net overseas migration.

Immigration is the dynamic factor in this population surge, reflecting a record high permanent migration program and generous settings for temporary-entry visas.

The consequences are becoming obvious and are being reflected in increased public concern about quality of life and questions concerning ethnic diversity.

The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) commissioned a national survey of Australian voters in August 2017 to assess the extent of this concern and its causes.

The survey found that 74 per cent of voters thought that Australia does not need more people, with big majorities believing that that population growth was putting ‘a lot of pressure’ on hospitals, roads, affordable housing and jobs.

Most voters were also worried about the consequences of growing ethnic diversity. Forty-eight per cent supported a partial ban on Muslim immigration to Australia, with only 25 per cent in opposition to such a ban.

Despite these demographic pressures and discontents, Australia’s political and economic elites are disdainful of them and have ignored them. They see high immigration as part of their commitment to the globalisation of Australia’s economy and society and thus it is not to be questioned.

Elites elsewhere in the developed world hold similar values, but have had to retreat because of public opposition. Across Europe 15 to 20 per cent of voters currently support anti-immigration political parties.

Our review of elite opinion in Australia shows that here they think they can ignore public concerns. This is because their main source of information about public opinion on the issue, the Scanlon Foundation, has consistently reported that most Australians support their immigration and cultural diversity policies.

How could Australia be so different from other Western countries? It has long been argued, including by the Scanlon Foundation, that Australians were insulated from the economic shocks of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-2009. This means that we have a lower share of angry ‘left behinds’ than in Europe and the US, that is, people suffering from economic stress who can be mobilised around an anti-immigration banner.

This is why Labor’s shadow Deputy Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, can assert that Australian attitudes to migrants are warm and ‘becoming warmer over time’ and that ‘there is solid support for the principle of non-discrimination’. It is also why, according to prominent writer David Marr, ‘more than almost any people on earth, we are happy for migrants to come in big numbers’.

The TAPRI survey refutes these findings. It shows that 74 per cent of voters believe that Australia does not need more people and that, at the time of the survey, 54 per cent wanted a reduction in the migrant intake. This includes 57 per cent of Liberal voters and 46 per cent of Labor voters. This result is far higher than the 34 per cent of respondents wanting a lower migrant intake reported in the last Scanlon survey (in July-August 2016).

Australian voters’ concern about immigration levels and ethnic diversity does not derive from economic adversity. Rather it stems from the increasingly obvious impact of population growth on their quality of life and the rapid change in Australia’s ethnic and religious make-up.

Such is the extent of these concerns that they could readily be mobilised in an electoral context by One Nation or any other party with a similar agenda, should such a party be able to mount a national campaign. If this occurs, the Liberal Party is likely to be the main loser.

The full text of the report is here.

Population growth, polls and politics

Katharine Betts
13 June 2016

For the past ten years Australians have been subjected to an exceptionally high level of population growth and now they are losing patience.

The graph shows the steep increase in numbers since 2006 (data from here). If this continues the population will grow from 24 million today to around 41 million in 2061 (see the 2013 ABS projection series 29 and 41).

KB's graph

In November 2015 a survey commissioned by Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) found that 51% of voters thought Australia did not need more people. Then in May this year a survey done for SBS TV found that 59% of people thought that the level of immigration over the last 10 years had been too high.

The SPA survey asked respondents to give reasons for their opinion. Many of those who thought we did not need more people said our cites were overcrowded (with too much traffic)—consequences of rapid growth all too apparent to urbanites. Others spoke of job competition. And many worried about the effects of growth on Australia’s fragile environment. Concern about too much cultural diversity and migrant enclaves was also high on the list.

The SBS survey focused on immigration and found that dissatisfaction with immigration was even higher than with growth in general. It asked about multiculturalism and 46% of respondents said that this had failed. It had brought social division and religious extremism to Australia (43% of those who were immigrants themselves agreed).

It was reasonable for SBS to focus on immigration because this accounts for the major part of the current population boom — around 58%.

Immigration is a product of government policy. It’s the outcome of decisions made by political elites, prompted by lobbyists for property developers, employers, and other businesses that profit from population growth. The two surveys show that the electorate is fed up with the unwanted growth that this power elite has wished upon them.

The record numbers of migrants in the 2000s were partly justified by the push to keep affordable skills coming during the investment phase of the resources boom. But since 2012 that justification has evaporated and economic growth has slowed. Despite this, Governments, both Labor and Coalition, have kept immigration high. Now the motivation is to keep the housing and development interests happy. They continue to profit from a stream of new customers, a stream which also keeps the construction industry going and creates the appearance of a busy economy. But this strategy has not increased per capita income. Quite the reverse.

It’s not just that forced population growth leads to clogged infrastructure, cultural disruption and environmental deterioration, it is also comes with financial stress.

Leith Van Onselen writes that:

While headline GDP growth across Australia has held-up reasonably well over the past decade, thanks to high immigration, per capita real GDP is trending down so sharply that it has fallen to levels not seen since the early-1980s recession. …

While real GDP has been rising since December 2011, net disposable income (NDI) per capita has been falling. See graph below. (NDI is explained here.)

LvanO's graph

Urban voters are also angry about the level of densification forced on them by undemocratic planning authorities determined to accommodate developers. Groups such as Planning Backlash, BRAG (Boroondara Residents Action Group), Save our Suburbs, RAGE (Residents against Greedy Enterprise) and the Carlton Residents Association all express deep frustration about over-development, loss of heritage and declining quality of life.

So far the growth lobby has been able to keep on profiting from ballooning numbers, partly because few voters fully understand what is being done to them. They know that conditions are getting worse but they don’t fully understand the key role played by population growth.

The SPA survey tested respondents’ knowledge of demographic change. The minority (16%) who had a good understanding were the most likely to say that Australia does not need more people. But 82% knew very little. Though they were unhappy about time-devouring traffic jams and ugly new high-rise apartments, they didn’t always know why these miseries were being wished upon them, or why they felt so powerless.

But their unhappiness has political effects, effects which can explain why governments have been toppling so fast. Kelvin Thomson calls this the witches hat theory of why governments fail. Mark O’Connor summarises it thus:

[S]taying in power, and keeping the electorate happy is a little like an advanced driving course, one in which a government is required to thread a kind of slalom course between a series of witches’ hats — meaning the orange inverted cones that mark out the course. These hats, which the government, like the driver, needs to avoid knocking over, include such things as keeping electricity and water costs down, reducing hospital queues, keeping housing affordable, preserving the environment, providing full employment, restricting inflation, etc.
And the faster a country’s population is rising, the harder it is to do this… It’s like trying to negotiate the course at double speed
.

As Thomson himself puts it:
[W]hen politicians … look in the mirror and ask ‘Why don’t they like me?’, the answer might well be that they are driving the car too fast and knocking over those witches’ hats. They should slow the car down and focus on solving people’s real-life problems.

It is not surprising that Dick Smith, outspoken critic of mindless population growth, is now the most trusted public figure in Australia. Or that mainstream politicians are among the least trusted.

An op-ed piece based on this blog was published under the title ‘Exceptional rates of population growth are causing stress on many fronts’ on 22 June 2016. It appeared in The Canberra Times, The Age, and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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