The annual Mapping Social Cohesion report by the Scanlon Foundation provides survey results on Australians’ attitudes to social issues including population, immigration and multiculturalism. The 2019 report is the twelfth in the series, building on survey data collected since 2007.
Over the course of the surveys, the reports reveal a picture of general stability of attitudes, with many positive reflections on the cohesion and openness of Australian society. However, the author also notes a limited downward trend in some indicators and certain aspects that warrant more examination.
The key findings on contentious topics such as climate change and attitudes towards Muslims were widely reported. The full report examines a broad range of factors which make up social cohesion with the aim of forming an evidence base that can be used to compare changes over time. This post looks at the report’s methodology and its capacity to provide a resource for those wishing to explore further, before covering some of the major points of interest on immigration issues.
The Scanlon website has a microsite summarising the key findings in a graphic format, while the full report provides more in-depth analysis and interpretation. It is arranged into sections grouping the questions into aspects of social cohesion, including life satisfaction, ranking of issues of most concern, globalisation, trust in democracy, immigration, refugees and asylum seekers, multiculturalism, and discrimination. There are also sections providing context for the results, including on population growth in Australia and a comparison with Canada.
The survey uses a comprehensive questionnaire (90 questions), representative sampling procedures and comparison across the annual surveys, making it more robust than media polling. This consistency enables analysis of trends in public opinion and exploration of the complexity of the responses.
The methodology employs a subset of the survey responses to calculate the Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion (SMI). This measure tracks five key concepts of social cohesion—belonging, worth, social justice, political participation, and acceptance/rejection—as a way of summarising an overall national trend. The 2019 index is at 89.6, compared with the baseline of 100 from the first survey in 2007. This level has been relatively steady since 2013, whereas it had been more volatile in earlier years.
Sitting underneath this single trend line, the depth of the survey allows analysis of where public opinion is relatively steady, where it is changing, and how breaking down the broader results can offer insights.
A significant change recorded this year was in the responses to the open question on ‘the most important problem facing Australia today.’ The economy has been by far the number one issue across the surveys and remains so, but the 2019 survey saw concern for the environment jump from 10 per cent to 19 per cent over the past year. This makes it now the second most important problem raised by respondents, well ahead of immigration and government or politicians.
The report speculates that this may be due partly to a rise in prominence of environmental issues and majority acceptance of the reality of climate change, as well as a decline in the prominence of immigration as a political and election issue compared with previous ‘peak’ years.
Immigration and multiculturalism
Questions relating to the benefits of immigration and multiculturalism continue to return positive responses, with little change in the results over the span of the surveys. The level of agreement with the question ‘accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger’ has been between 62 and 68 per cent, and since 2013, 83-86 per cent of respondents agree that ‘multiculturalism has been good for Australia.’
Australians may see the benefits of immigration, but they are also worried about adverse impacts, with larger numbers reporting concern with the perceived effects on overcrowding of cities, house prices and the environment. Multiculturalism may be seen as beneficial, but most respondents also agreed that migrants should integrate into Australian society. These concerns have not yet had an impact on the overall levels of support for immigration generally as reflected in the survey, but the report highlights the potential for them to do so.
Breakdowns by demographic factors including age, education and intended vote can also be revealing. While young, highly-educated people share similar levels of concern on some of the impacts of immigration (house prices, the environment) to the general sample of respondents, many fewer disagree that immigration is beneficial. For example, only 11 per cent disagreed that ‘accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger,’ in contrast to 28 per cent of the overall responses, and 54 per cent of respondents aged over 65 without a university degree.
Expanding on the work of the surveys, the Scanlon Foundation has now consolidated its social cohesion research into the new Scanlon Foundation Research Institute. The Institute aims to link academic work on immigration and population with the public by making it more accessible and useful to communities. Its website holds publications including discussion papers and the previous Scanlon survey reports, and a migration and population dashboard bringing together publicly available data.