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.