Survey: 72% of Australians are sick of population growth

By Leith van Onselen

Dr Bob Birrell and Dr Katharine Betts from the Australian Population Research Institute have released a new research paper examining Australian voters’ attitudes towards immigration, which is based on a random survey of 2,029 voters conducted from October/November 2018. Below is the Executive Summary along with the key charts:

Previous research has shown a wide split between elite and non-elite opinion on topics such as cultural diversity, globalisation and immigration. Media professionals and most politicians share these elite views, but large swathes of the electorate do not.

The current findings of the survey conducted late in 2018 by The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) on attitudes to immigration and population growth confirm this. They show that the split between elite and non-elite opinion is mirrored in the divisions between voters who are university graduates and voters who are not. This is logical as most elites are now recruited from the graduate class.

The gap is wide. Overall 50% of voters want a reduction in immigration. But this proportion rises to 60% of non-graduates while only 33% of graduates agree.

Overall 72% of voters say Australia does not need more people, a proportion that rises to 80% of non-graduates and falls to only 59% of graduates (Figures 1 and 2). But these findings nonetheless present a puzzle. Given elite domination of cultural and political institutions, why haven’t the non-graduate majority fallen into line on population growth and immigration?

To answer this question we need to look more deeply into the second major finding of the TAPRI survey: the central relationship between attitudes to the cultural consequences of high immigration and a desire for the rate of growth to be slowed right down. (See pp. 19-34.)

We now know that most Australian voters are unhappy with the heavy growth that immigration policies impose upon them. Survey data and numerous complaints about congestion and unaffordable housing attest to this. The TAPRI survey asks whether there is anything more to their disquiet than practical and economic problems.
In 2016 commentators were taken aback by two unexpected and, seemingly, unrelated events: the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US.

Analysts scrambled for explanations and initially settled on the idea of voters who had been ‘left behind’, people economically pinched by the evaporation of manufacturing jobs in the heat of globalisation. These ‘left behinds’ had sought relief from their common misfortune by choosing the populist side in each of these two elections.
From this perspective the two events were related after all: economic pressures could explain them both.

But now there has been time for more research and opinions have become more nuanced. A number of analysts have found that it is not always the most destitute who have swung to the populist side. On the contrary, in both countries they are often people of middling means who are not as distressed by low wages and job losses as much as they are by the high immigration of ethnically diverse people and the cultural changes that they bring with them.

The divide is not so much between the well-to-do and the poor and unemployed. Rather it is between the graduate class, immersed in a cosmopolitan world view, and non-graduates attached to the ethos of their national home. Immigrants can share this attachment. Indeed it may have been the pull of the national culture which encouraged them to migrate in the first place. Because of this some of the new populists may be immigrants themselves.

Eric Kaufmann uses the analogy of Londoners moving to Cornwall because they are attracted by the local culture. They are less than pleased if their fellow Londoners stream in after them and turn Cornwall into just another London suburb.

These more recent analysts also note that social taboos can stifle open expressions of scepticism about high immigration; the risk that honest expressions of concern about population pressures will be read as racism can inhibit open discussion. These constraints on public debate may mislead growth enthusiasts into believing that voters are more acquiescent than they actually are. Such constraints can also mean that people at all levels of society are less well informed about demography than might otherwise be the case.

Could a similar dynamic be influencing the attitudes of Australian voters, both native-born and possibly immigrant as well?

The TAPRI survey finds that this is possible. After all, in the safety of an anonymous online survey, 50% per cent of voters say they want immigration to be reduced and 72% say that Australia does not need more people.

Voters see property developers, big business, and new migrants as the main beneficiaries of immigration, not themselves or even the economy as a whole. They are also keenly aware of population pressures on vital institutions such as hospitals, transport and schools (Figures 5-8).

But consistent with the imposition of speech taboos, they are not well informed about the nature of the demographic challenge. The survey’s questions about demographic knowledge show that, while voters who know the most are the most sceptical about growth, the more ignorant are both more compliant and more numerous (Figures 3 and 4).

But the strongest division that the survey uncovered was between graduates and non-graduates. As we have seen only 33% of graduates want a reduction in immigration compared to 60% of non-graduates.

Just as Kaufmann found that many immigrants are sceptical about the benefits of further large-scale immigration, TAPRI found that some groups of migrants, those born in English-speaking background (ESB) countries and in Europe, tend to be even more sceptical about immigration than are the Australian-born. Fifty per cent of the Australian-born wanted immigration to be reduced compared to 58% of the ESB-born and 56% of those born in Europe. In contrast only 33% of voters born in Asia wanted a reduction (Figure 14).

The survey asked a number of questions designed to measure attitudes to cultural change, including attitudes to asylum seekers arriving by boat. This is a question at the heart of the rift between graduates and non-graduates. Should national sovereignty as manifested in strict border controls supersede compassion for outsiders? We found that 60% of voters supported turning back the boats, a proportion rising to 66% among non-graduates and falling to 50% among graduates. Sixty-seven per cent of the voters who supported turning back the boats wanted immigration to be reduced compared to only 17% of those who were opposed to turn-backs (Table A23).

The survey also found that 47% of voters supported ‘a partial ban on Muslim immigration’, a proportion that rose to 53% among non-graduates and fell to 39% among graduates. The voters supporting and strongly supporting this policy were the most likely to want all immigration to be reduced (70%). (See Figure 37 and Table A42.)

A further question read: ‘Some people say that today Australia is danger of losing its culture and identity. Do you agree or disagree?’ Fifty-six per cent per cent agreed and, of this group, 68% wanted a reduction in immigration. Among non-graduates this proportion rose to 76% (Table A30 and A31).

There was also widespread support for economic protection: 63% of all respondents said that ‘we should protect Australia’s manufacturing, using tariffs if necessary’. Among non-graduates the proportion was 66% and among graduates it was 59%. (Only 16% of all respondents said ‘we should get rid of all tariffs so that we can buy goods more cheaply from overseas’).

Fifty-eight per cent of all those who supported protection also wanted lower immigration, as did 69% of non-graduates. However only 38% of graduates shared this view. Support for economic protection was also strongly associated with support for other forms of cultural protection (Figure 44).

In contrast, individual experiences of unemployment, job insecurity and financial hardship showed only a modest association with support for reducing immigration. Among the small proportion experiencing economic hardship so extreme that they would find it ‘nearly impossible’ to find $400 in an emergency, 61% wanted immigration to be reduced (pp. 38-42 ). Among non-graduates this rose to 68% but was exceeded by the many who wanted national economic protection — 69% of non-graduates who favour protection also want a reduction in immigration.

(It cannot be the case that enthusiasm for protection is caused by widespread experience of economic stress. Sixty-three per cent of respondents say they want economic protection while only 10% say that it would be ‘nearly impossible to find $400 in an emergency’.)

The survey also found a high level of agreement (67%) with the statement ‘that people who raise questions about immigration being too high are sometimes thought of as racist’. Overall 24% of the sample thought that this assumption was justified because such people ‘usually are racist’ while 43% thought it ‘unfair because very few of them are racist’ (p. 47) .

The former were termed ‘guardians against racism’ and the latter the ‘threatened’. Guardians were more numerous among university graduates (33%) and the threatened more numerous among non-graduates (47%). Guardians are much more likely to want an increase in immigration (48%, as compared to 25% in the sample as a whole) while the threatened are much more likely to want a reduction (66%). (See Figure 60.) Guardians are also disproportionally likely to vote for the Greens and, to a lesser extent, for Labor. The threatened prefer the Coalition, One Nation, or ‘other’ parties (Figure 59).

In sum, the TAPRI survey found that concern about cultural change, including border control, has a stronger association with the desire to reduce immigration than do economic variables. (Support for economic protection and lower immigration sits between these two different sets of variables.)

Most graduates endorse high, or higher, immigration as well as other elements of the cosmopolitan agenda. Yet despite their dominance of Australia’s cultural institutions, most non-graduates are unconvinced.

The TAPRI data support the new hypothesis developed by Kaufmann and others that many voters, especially non-graduates, are quiet non-conformists to the cosmopolitans’ high immigration agenda. The data also show that these non-conformists are motivated more by dissatisfaction with cultural change than they are by economic hardship.

But to date non-graduate dissension from this agenda has not resulted in political populism. Opposition to further high immigration is strong in Australia but this does not mean that it is the most salient problem for most voters. Unlike citizens of the UK and the US, they have not experienced serious economic contraction and, unlike the Europeans, they have not had to deal with a significant influx of asylum seekers and other undocumented immigrants.

Furthermore there are no major media outlets supporting their views. Australia does not have a local version of America’s Fox News nor of Britain’s Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

These differences mean that, provided conditions remain fairly stable, political and media elites, with their cosmopolitan supporters among the graduate class, can continue to feel relaxed. Their political experiment with high immigration, ever growing diversity, and globalisation will continue to be free of serious political challenge.

Political implications

This assumption pervades the run up to the 2019 federal election. The dominant view within the media is that the Coalition faces serious threats of losing centre-left voters in blue ribbon Coalition seats. This is because such voters appear to be attracted by relatively strong Labor/Green policies supporting the progressive agenda.

This is a realistic possibility. The TAPRI survey shows that a minority of Coalition voters do hold such views. For example 26% of Coalition voters want immigration to be further increased and 21% want it to ‘remain about the same as it is’ (Table A12), 8% of Coalition voters do not support turning back the boats (Table A20), 20% of Coalition voters disagree with the statement that Australia is in danger of losing its culture and identity (Table A26), 14% oppose the idea of a partial ban on Muslim immigration (Table A39), 16% think we should abolish all tariffs (Table A45), and 31% say Australia needs more people (Table A13).

However there has been a notable absence of commentary on the majority of Australian voters who do not share these progressive views.

If there were to be an effort to mobilize this majority around their cultural priorities, as has been the case in recent elections in Europe and the US, it is likely that it would shape the votes of many.

The potential for voter response is much larger than is likely to be the case in blue-ribbon seats and would impinge on many more seats. Since Labor has stamped itself as the centre/left champion it is Labor that would be most at risk. For example 44% of Labor voters want immigration to be reduced (Table A12), 49% support boat turn-backs (Table A20), 47% agree that Australia is in danger of losing its culture and identity (Table A26), 38% support a partial ban on Muslim immigration (Table 39), 61% support economic protection (Table A45), and 69% say Australia does not need more people (Table A13).

A similar response is likely should the political contest in Australia be framed between parties in favour of high migration and parties opposed to this stance. As we have seen the TAPRI survey shows that 69% of Labor voters are in favour of lower population growth and 44% want lower migration.

Not only that. The survey also shows that most of those favouring lower migration also oppose the elite progressive agenda. We argue that this is because most of these anti-immigration voters think that high immigration is a threat to their sense of identity and their nation’s sovereignty.

It is true that any attempt to mobilize this voting block would prompt a ‘guardian’ response asserting that such advocacy was shameful and illegitimate. The experience in Europe and the US suggests that this tactic may have only a limited effect (as with the Brexit campaign). This is especially likely if those involved in the mobilization include credible, mainstream political figures (like the Tory party grandees, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who led the leave campaign).

Full report here

Leith van Onselen

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