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 2019. Below is the Executive Summary along with the key charts:
Until Covid-19 a Big Australia seemed impregnable. It represented a commitment to an open, globalised economy, featuring progressive cultural values and high immigration. The concept of a Big Australia had achieved the bipartisan support of the major Australian political parties. In the case of Labor the focus was on the cultural values, strongly and sincerely held by Labor’s leaders and its supporters, especially among university graduates. High immigration was interwoven with progressive values because of the diverse ethnic and cultural streams of migrants that it was delivering.
In the case of the Coalition, the cultural values aspect scarcely received lip service. However, the immigration component has, or had, become central to the party’s economic objectives. These emphasised maximum growth in the economy and in jobs. Migration was understood to have helped deliver 29 years of uninterrupted growth in GDP.
Prior to Covid-19 population growth in Australia had been around 1.5 per cent a year, of which net overseas migration (NOM) comprised about one percentage point. By contrast, NOM is currently adding 0.3 percent a year to the population of the US, and 0.4 percent a year in the UK.
Australia appears to be an outlier. In the UK and the US, previous government commitments to a similar globalising, high immigration agenda have been successfully challenged by protest movements, represented by Brexit in the UK and Trump’s presidential victory in the US.
The story we tell in this report is that Australia, too, is vulnerable to a similar reaction.
Survey data collected by The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI), and by other pollsters, show that around half the Australian electorate want a reduction in immigration.
A majority of all voters think Australia does not need more people and believe that high immigration is responsible for the deterioration of the quality of life in Australia’s big cities, as well as stressing its natural environment. Moreover, at least half the electorate do not support the progressive cultural values that left elites (including Labor’s leaders) regard as legitimating high immigration. Nor do they support the economic arguments advanced to justify it.
Most of the voters who take this stance are not university graduates. On the other hand most graduate voters support progressive values and a significant minority of them say that immigration should be increased still further.
Non-graduates swing right and graduates swing left
Since the 1990s a majority of Australia’s non-graduates voters have moved from supporting left-leaning parties (mainly Labor) to supporting right-leaning parties (mainly the Coalition). Over the same period many graduate voters started to move in the other direction. On average, from 2001 to 2019, 55 percent of non-graduates have voted for right-leaning parties and 54 percent of graduates have voted for Labor or the Greens. This crossover in political alignments represents a fundamental realignment of Australian voters’ preferences. And as we show, it mirrors what has happened in both the UK and the US.
An important factor in this realignment is that the Coalition has clearly and openly rejected Labor’s progressive cultural agenda. Nevertheless, it has maintained a Big Australia immigration commitment, despite the fact that most of its non-graduate supporters do not concur with this. In effect, Labor, having driven much of its former working-class support base into the Coalition ranks, has left these voters with nowhere else to go. Bipartisan support for high immigration means that these voters are homeless as far as this question is concerned, but at least they have a refuge within the Coalition to shelter from progressive cultural values.
The Coalition has clearly been the winner in this crossover because, currently, non-graduates make up around 75 per cent of the electorate. Labor has been left behind, unable to attract a majority of non-graduate voters and vying for graduate voters with the Greens.
We outline the historical background to this transition. This starts with the Hawke/Keating Governments’ commitments in the 1980s and early 1990s to a globalising economic agenda and to a high immigration program, welcoming Asian migrants and the cultural diversity that they and others brought with them.
This emphasis on diversity was challenged by the Coalition, especially at the time of the 1996 election, a challenge leading to a strong Coalition victory fuelled, in part, by support from non-graduate voters.
The vulnerability of a Big Australia
Most Australian commentators think that the immigration component of a Big Australia is impregnable. First, it has the bipartisan support of the major parties. Second, it has accumulated a swag of vested interests in the city building and service industries supplying Australia’s rapidly growing population. These include the construction and property industries and the state governments who see their economies as tied to population growth.
There are critics, including us, who think that it is unwise to pursue this policy in a context where Australia’s international trade has become reliant on exports of mineral, energy and rural commodities. Population growth in these circumstances creates an ever-larger workforce dependent on jobs in people servicing and city building industries. Critics also worry about pressure on Australia’s natural resources and on the supply of water. But such assessments have made little headway.
Supporters of a Big Australia think that Australia’s relatively stable record of economic growth has limited the number of voters who have been ‘left behind’ in an economic sense. Thus there is little fuel to feed the fire of insurrection. Moreover, Australia has not experienced the challenges Europe has endured — one and a half million undocumented migrants in 2015 alone, added to the long and severe repercussions of the global financial crisis. These differences, they believe, mean that any voter concern about immigration in Australia will be muted compared to events overseas.
Some analysts also think a movement against a Big Australia will never catch on here because of the march of progressive values through the population. This is the thrust of the post-materialism thesis put by Ronald Inglehart and his colleagues. According to this argument young people have embraced these values, including support for immigration, and will carry this support on into their adult years. We test this hypothesis for Australian voters and find that it is not correct. Older voters, especially non-graduates, largely reject progressive values, including support for immigration.
Another factor thought by some to consolidate a Big Australia is the size of the migrant vote. This vote is crucial to the Democratic Party in the US, in part because of migrant voters’ support for a substantial immigration policy. Our research shows that this does not apply in Australia. Migrant voters are almost as likely as non-migrants to favour lower immigration.
We disagree with the claim that Australia is indeed an outlier. A Big Australia is vulnerable for the same reasons as high immigration was in the UK and the US. There is a large disaffected voter base in Australia, just as there is in these two countries. The difference is that there has been no open fissuring within Australian conservative leadership ranks such as occurred in the UK and the US. There, political dissidents from within conservative or right-leaning parties have mobilised voters’ concerns on immigration.
Most Australian commentators think no fissuring on this scale is likely in Australia. We argue that there have been similar stress lines here. They were an important part of the challenge to Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership in August 2018.
Turnbull led the progressive, Big-Australia wing within the Coalition. But he was challenged by the faction led by Peter Dutton which encompassed most of the Coalition politicians sceptical or hostile towards this agenda. Indeed, it would be surprising if there were no such tensions within the Coalition’s leadership ranks given the party’s embrace of a critical, nationalistic position in response to the Hawke/Keating diversity agenda in the 1990s.
Dutton, who was well known as a nationalist, got enough support (35 votes) to prompt Turnbull to resign. In the subsequent leadership ballot he was only narrowing defeated by Morrison, by 45 votes to 40.
What is less well known is that, while Minister for Immigration from December 2014 to December 2018, Dutton initiated a series of tough reforms. These encompassed more meticulous migrant selection and criteria for citizenship together with advocacy for an overall reduction in the permanent immigration program. The emergence of public debate on immigration levels at the time, and the strength of Dutton’s faction, helps explain why the Morrison government reduced the permanent immigration program from 190,000 to 160,000 at the time of the May 2019 budget.
The post-Covid situation
The immigration issue was already volatile when the pandemic hit. It has become more so as public concerns have mounted about job losses and migrant competition for available work, and about the risks to health if immigration should be revived. Australians have been asked to sacrifice their freedoms in order to quell the virus, and many have suffered severe personal and financial losses. The evidence currently available shows that they are hostile to any resuscitation of a Big Australia. Such a move would amount to telling voters that their sacrifices had counted for nothing.
In this more volatile situation voters’ concerns about a Big Australia are likely to be more readily mobilised, as they had been in the UK and the US.
This hypothesis has already been tested, from an unexpected quarter. It came from Kristina Keneally, Labor’s spokesperson for Immigration. In May 2020, she proposed lower immigration and an ‘Australia first’ hiring policy. This may have reflected recognition within Labor’s leadership that their parlous electoral situation required a search for a greater share of non-graduate voters.
There is no need to speculate on the response. Polling in the aftermath of Keneally’s proposal showed that a big majority supported this hiring policy. This was especially the case amongst Coalition voters, 75 per cent of whom agreed with the proposal.
Should pressure grow to revive a Big Australia, and with it public unease, it is unlikely that the Coalition would be united in support. This is why the Dutton faction is important. It would probably mobilise to oppose such a move, especially if Labor follows Keneally’s example and took a stand.
Most commentators do not appear to understand the situation. The assumption seems to be that a Big Australia will be rapidly revived. We question this assumption.