Mapping Social Cohesion 2021: immigration and diversity in a time of closed borders

The report of the 15th Scanlon Mapping Social Cohesion survey was released on 30 November 2021. The survey again indicates that social cohesion in Australia remains strong, showing general resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. A closer look, including through a new interview component, reveals where parts of the community may be more affected by the impact of the pandemic, and raises questions about shifts in Australians’ views and perceptions more generally.

This year saw the return to a single annual survey, conducted from 12 to 26 July 2021, following the 2020 report which covered two surveys conducted in July and November 2020 in order to capture responses in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 report continues to focus on the impact of the pandemic, but covers a broad range of social issues consistent with previous years’ surveys. This FlagPost looks in particular at issues of immigration and multiculturalism.

The pandemic again rated as the number one issue of concern facing Australia (59% of respondents). This is lower than the 63% recorded in July 2020, but higher than the 32% in November 2020. The report notes that prior to the pandemic, economic issues consistently came in as the key issue (at 26–36% between 2011 and 2019). Concern with immigration and population growth has consistently ranked as a key issue, but at a lower level, generally below the environment and general social issues. After marking a high point of 10% in 2019, concern with immigration fell to 2% in July 2020 and 3% in November 2020, and down to 1% by July 2021 (pp. 32–34).

The survey itself cannot really tell us the reasons for the responses and why they shift, but beyond the obvious dominance of the pandemic as an issue, other current factors can be assumed, such as Australia’s borders having been largely closed to migrants since March 2020. It may be too simplistic to state that because there are few migrants entering Australia, immigration is suddenly not an issue, but perhaps the issue is not so immediate and future policy is less certain. Debate around which migrants should or should not be allowed in under Australia’s border restrictions, and whether migration should look different when the restrictions are lifted, has continued throughout the pandemic.

Support for immigration and multiculturalism remains high

The proportion of people who think immigration is too high was 31%, lower than previous years (it was 41% in 2019). The proportion who think it is ‘about right’ was relatively steady at 50%, while the proportion who think it is too low rose to 17%, when it had been 13–15% since 2018. However, even though the question in 2020 and 2021 was amended slightly to ask ‘what do you think of the number of immigrants accepted into Australia in recent years’ (instead of ‘at present’) to account for the pandemic measures, it is possible that some people had border closures in mind when responding.

Responses to other questions on immigration and migrants included:

  • Disagreement with the statement ‘immigrants improve Australian society by bringing new ideas and cultures’ was at 15%.
  • Disagreement with the statement ‘immigrants are generally good for the Australian economy’ was at 14%.
  • Agreement with the statement ‘immigrants take jobs away’ was at 24%.

These results were similar to or less negative than in 2020, and less negative again than in 2018 and 2019 (pp. 53–55).

Responses to the statement ‘multiculturalism has been good for Australia’ show a similar pattern: only 14% disagreed, and 86% agreed, with a slight trend towards positive responses over recent years (pp. 56–57).

But discrimination is a problem

The 2020 surveys indicated that 39–40% of people thought that racism was a problem in Australia. In 2021, the proportion was 60%. The report notes that this was an unexpected jump and the reasons for it are not clear. The 2020 question asked specifically ‘how big a problem is racism in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic’, while the 2021 question did not refer to the pandemic, so some people may have ‘relativised’ the problem in 2020, with COVID-19 being more of an issue comparatively (p. 48).

The report’s author, Professor Andrew Markus, suggests that another possible factor is recent greater exposure of extreme right-wing activities and views, which may be leading to a wider awareness of such views. This could include media coverage of protest movements, potential terrorist threats or social media activity. It is also possible it builds on increased awareness that was already in train following the Black Lives Matter movement in America and its flow-on effects in Australia. While there was no hint of this in the 2020 surveys, it is possible it was masked by COVID-related issues or the format of the question.

Some people may be more affected than others

The report details the breakdown of respondents to the question about whether racism is a problem, noting that agreement was higher among Greens and Labor voters, young people, the less economically well-off, women, and the university-educated, but lower among Coalition and One Nation voters, those aged 75 or older, and the lowest educated.

Similarly to 2020, people born in an Asian country were more likely to view racism as a problem: 69%, up from 59% in July 2020 and 55% in November 2020. However, despite the differences across demographics, the increase in agreement with the statement is across the range of respondents (pp. 48–49).

For an additional perspective, this year’s report also includes the results of interviews, drawn from the same panel of respondents as the main survey and conducted over Zoom between July and September 2021. The interviews concentrated on ten local government areas with relatively high cultural and religious diversity. They were intended to capture a more detailed view of the impact of the pandemic on local communities, including particular segments such as recent migrants, refugees and people from culturally diverse backgrounds (see Part 3 of the report for more details).

Common issues were reported across the locations, including social disconnection; a rise in domestic violence; mental health issues; economic impacts; and impacts on children. Some communities also reported increased problems with homelessness; food insecurity; impacts on international students; and technological and linguistic barriers to information and support for culturally diverse communities.

Although both the survey and the interviews also pointed to optimism and resilience among communities, they indicate that there remain vulnerabilities and challenges to address in order to build on the strengths of social cohesion.



Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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