Why voters are ignored on immigration

Katharine Betts
This article originally appeared in The Herald Sun, 10 May 2018

For more than 10 years Australia’s population has been growing fast, mainly through immigration, and most of the new arrivals have found their way into Sydney or Melbourne.

As these cities buckle under the weight of numbers voters are shifting from discontent to anger. They resent crush-loaded trains, jammed roads, clogged schools and hospitals, outrageously expensive housing, and an eroding natural environment.

Despite stressed infrastructure and growing evidence of voter resistance both Coalition and Labor maintain their bipartisan commitment to even more years of high migration.

In 2016 the Australian Election Study (AES) found that 42 per cent of voters wanted immigration to be reduced. By August 2017 The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) found that 54 per cent wanted lower immigration (and at an April 2018 Essential poll this had risen to 64 per cent).

Why do political elites continue to ignore voters’ unhappiness?

One answer is that politicians ignore voters because they can. They believe that voters have nowhere else to go, except for minor parties such as Sustainable Australia or One Nation.

The 2016 AES Candidates study provides evidence for elite indifference. Sixty per cent of election candidates wanted even higher immigration, including 67 per cent of Labor candidates. (Labor candidates were much closer to Greens candidates and Greens voters than to their own supporters.) An elite indifference driven by special interests leaves voters sidelined.

But there is a second answer to the question of why voters are ignored. Taking their concerns seriously risks breaking a rule stronger than politeness. It risks courting immorality.

This makes the division of opinion between political elites and voters more comprehensible. It stems from elite origins in the growing class of university graduates, a class imbued with progressive values.

A clear majority of professionals working in the media want even higher immigration, as do 49 per cent of university academics and teachers. Politicians and professionals are drawn from a similar pool of graduates, many of whom embrace progressive values including enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism, globalism, diversity and social justice.

Within this world view scepticism about high migration easily equates to racism. For example, Greg Jericho writes in the Guardian Australia that ‘because there are many desperate to hate – [the subject of immigration] must be treated with extreme care by politicians and journalists’ (24/2/18).

If scepticism about immigration is fueled by racist hatred, voters asking for reductions should not be taken seriously; their pleas are nothing more than poorly sublimated racism.

Beliefs of this kind have been held in elevated circles for some time. Politicians and their close associates are aware of them, and many share them. An in-group culture remote from the average voter, attention from well-heeled lobbyists, and a co-dependent relationship with media elites all contribute to creating an insider class. On the immigration question they live in a world remote from that of most Australians.

The TAPRI survey confirms that many progressives think that immigration sceptics are in fact racist. It also found that 65 per cent of voters know that this belief is widely held and that nearly half are inhibited by it.

The survey also found that, while many graduates can be termed ‘guardians against racism’, many other graduates feel threatened. They fear the slur. Because of this they are reluctant to speak their minds. After all they were likely to be working with other graduates imbued with progressive beliefs, and may even value such people as friends. Saying openly that immigration is too high puts them at risk of public shaming as well as exclusion from social groups that they care about.

TAPRI’s findings and those of the AES show that voters who are not university graduates are much more concerned about high migration than are graduates. Those who are the most concerned are non-graduate business managers, closely followed by a broad group of technicians, tradespeople, machinery operators, drivers and labourers. These non-graduates are less likely to fear ostracism but are also less likely to be in positions of influence. They can however say what they think in anonymous surveys such as those run by the AES, TAPRI and Essential Research.

They can also make their dissatisfaction felt at the ballot box. This, of course, is provided that there is at least one mainstream party courageous enough to stand against progressive opinion and the vested interests of the business lobby.

Taking a strong stand against racism is a core principle of progressive identity. And rightly so. The problem lies in the ill-informed reflex that is too quick to equate any discontent with high migration to racism.

This reflex helps to silence critics. It also gives the business lobby a free pass to enjoy the benefits its narrow constituency gains from population growth. As property developers bank their profits they can claim to be on the side of virtue or, if that is too far a stretch, they can safely deplore any opponents as xenophobes.

Katharine Betts is deputy head of The Australian Population Research Institute and author of ‘Immigration and public opinion in Australia: how public concerns about high migration are suppressed’, released this week on tapri.org.au.

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.