Mapping Social Cohesion 2020: are we 'all in this together'?


The 2020 edition of the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion report was released on 4 February 2021. In a year when so much seemed to change, the report found that Australia’s stability and resilience largely held firm. However, there are some surprises in what is different and what has stayed the same.

What has changed?

Surveying through the pandemic: This is the thirteenth report since the national surveys began in 2007. The report is usually released towards the end of the calendar year, with the annual survey taking place mid-year. Of course, 2020 was different. In order to track public opinion through the COVID-19 pandemic, two rounds of surveys were held, in July and November. In July, the survey was completed by 3,090 respondents, and the November survey was completed by 2,790 respondents.

The survey uses the Life in Australia panel, developed by the Australian National University’s Social Research Centre. The panel is selected using random probability-based sampling to provide a balanced reflection of Australia’s population. It uses primarily an online survey, but a telephone option is available for respondents who prefer it, and those without internet access. Since the 2018 survey, this method has been adopted to move beyond the limitations of telephone interview-based surveying.

COVID-19 is the key issue: Unsurprisingly, the ‘most important problem facing Australia’ in 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous surveys, the economy rated ahead of all other issues. In the July survey, the impact of COVID-19 was rated by 63 per cent of respondents as the key issue. By November, the proportion of respondents rating COVID-19 as the most important problem had reduced to 32 per cent. However, this was still greater than the proportion of respondents rating the economy as the most important problem (24 per cent). 

Trust in government is stronger: In the 2018 panel survey, only 28 per cent of respondents agreed that the federal government could be trusted ‘to do the right thing for the Australian people’. In 2019, it was 36 per cent. This rose to 54 per cent in July 2020 and 55 per cent in November, the highest level recorded across the surveys. In addition, most respondents—85 per cent—agreed that the federal government was handling the response to the pandemic well.

People of Asian background may experience more discrimination: Asia-born respondents have previously reported higher levels of discrimination than the general community. In 2018–19, 41 per cent of respondents born in Asia indicated they had experienced discrimination in the last twelve months because of skin colour, ethnic origin or religion, compared with 13 per cent of those born in Australia and between 16 and 18 per cent for all respondents. The 2020 responses were consistent with previous years: in July 2020, it was 39 per cent of those born in Asian countries compared with 14 per cent of Australian-born respondents and 18 per cent of all respondents. However, in answer to a question specifically on their experience since the beginning of the pandemic, of those who reported experiencing discrimination at all, people born in an Asian country reported experiencing it more often than before: 39 per cent of those born in Asian countries in the July survey, compared with 14 per cent of those born in Australia.

In addition, 59 per cent of Asia-born respondents agreed in July 2020 that racism in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic was ‘a very big problem’ or ‘a fairly big problem’.

Attitudes towards specific national groups also reflected greater negative sentiment towards Chinese nationals. In the 2013 survey, 13 per cent of respondents indicated negative views of Chinese nationals, but this increased to 47 per cent in July 2020. While negative views of Iraqi and Sudanese nationals recorded higher rates of negative views—49 and 56 per cent, respectively, in November 2020—the increase in negative sentiment towards Chinese nationals is a considerable increase and higher than the increase in negative views towards other nationalities. The proportion of negative sentiment towards Chinese nationals had dropped slightly to 44 per cent of respondents in November.

There is evidence of overtly COVID-inspired abuse of people of Chinese and other Asian backgrounds. However, anti-China sentiment may not be only (or exclusively) COVID-related: trade tensions, foreign interference allegations, human rights concerns and the Hong Kong protests were all heightened issues in 2020. An ANU study also documented the variation of experiences of Asian Australians during the pandemic.

What hasn’t changed?

Australia supports multiculturalism and integration: The Scanlon surveys have consistently found strong support for multiculturalism and immigration. These indicators have remained steady or even increased in 2020. For example, 71 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger’, higher than 63 per cent of respondents in 2018 and 66 per cent of respondents in 2019. Support is also relatively stable for integration, or what the report calls ‘two-way change’, that is, that immigrants should adapt to Australia and that Australia should adapt to immigrants. One indication of this is that 60 per cent or respondents agreed in both July and December that ‘too many immigrants are not adopting Australian values’, although this proportion is lower than the 67 per cent in 2019.

The survey contains a range of questions on immigration, integration and globalisation, and the consistency of the responses across the survey indicates that the pandemic, closing of borders and economic recession have not increased negative sentiment in these areas.

Discrimination and negative attitudes remain high in some areas: Attitudes towards different faith groups have not changed significantly. Negative responses towards Muslims were at 37 per cent in July and 35 per cent in November, marginally lower than the 40 per cent in 2019.

What next?

The Scanlon surveys provide an overview of attitudes in Australia over a number of years, enabling an insight into trends across a range of issues. Although there are areas where social tensions are apparent, the picture from the 2020 survey indicates an underlying steadiness through a time of crisis. This may reflect broad stability in society, good management of COVID-19 across levels of government, and the Australian community’s approach to dealing with the pandemic. In future editions, the results may show how much of an impact the COVID-19 pandemic really had on society. If the pandemic crisis passes, and the economy and climate change return as the most important issues for Australia, will the levels of trust in government and anti-China sentiment be maintained, or will they shift again? The survey results, and the year 2020 generally, show that what may seem like a single-issue crisis may not have straightforward outcomes.

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