Stereotypes drive division on immigration

Charles Jacobs

16 December 2018 | The Herald
One example of accepted wisdom is that Australians have very different views on immigration based on where they live.

This leads many of those in favour of a bigger immigration program to dismiss concerns over immigration as a fringe issue motivated in part by racism, and held mostly by people who live in poorer communities.

Yet many of those opposed to high levels of immigration use this fact to legitimise concerns over immigration, because they believe poorer communities are disproportionately affected by immigration.

However, both of these positions are based on incorrect facts.

Data from the 2016 Census suggests that a majority of immigrants actually live in postcodes where median income is above the Australian average.

What’s more, the increase in immigration in recent decades has been more concentrated in suburbs above median income.

Moreover, polling data released by the CIS last month shows there is a surprising degree of agreement between people in both wealthy and poor postcodes over the level of immigration and whether immigrants should learn English and engage in the economy and society.

The pervasiveness of these misconceptions make it important to understand more about Australians’ experiences of immigration.

Not least because our experiences with immigration are not the same.

Migrants in above median income postcodes tend to be well educated, work in professional jobs, and speak English very well.

They are also far more likely to be part of the newer wave of skilled visa migrants that have characterised our immigration policy in recent decades.

These migrants are typically well integrated into their communities and represent what might be viewed as the successful components of the nation’s immigration program.

By contrast, the typical migrant living in a poorer area is more conspicuously different.

Their ability to speak English will be notably poorer, they are significantly more likely to be unemployed or working in a low-paying job.

Many are out of the workforce altogether, with only 40% engaged in education, training or employment.

It is perhaps understandable to generalise from these facts that those in poorer postcodes would have a more negative view of high levels of immigration than those in wealthy ones.

Yet, while traditionally Australians have been broadly supportive of immigration, attitudes are turning in rich and poor postcodes alike.

CIS polling has found that people across that income divide have concerns over congestion and infrastructure backlogs.

The polling also found that, despite our different experiences, there is broad-based agreement about the need to focus on migrants’ ability to speak English and their integration into Australian society.

It may be that these issues are important to such disparate communities for different reasons.

Perhaps people in wealthy areas see the benefits of migrants integrating, while those in poorer areas see more of the downsides of not being able to speak English and participate in the economy.

It has become clear that many politicians on both sides of the debate are out of touch with people’s experiences and the expectations they have of our immigration program.

Politicians are currently selectively using both the positive and negative elements of Australia’s lived immigration experience, rather than their actual views, to shape their political agenda.

It is important for policy makers to put their narratives aside, and to take into account both the electorate’s sentiments towards — and different experiences of — immigration.

The failure to engage with concerns over immigration, and to dismiss them out of hand, has likely been one factor that has undermined public support for our immigration program.

Being originally from a regional town, I can attest to the need for migrants to fill jobs and drive new demand for products and services in areas that are in decline.

However, I am also aware of the stresses that an ever-expanding population is placing on cities like Sydney and Melbourne.

Our varied experience of immigration means that changes to policy will tend to affect those in certain postcodes more than others.

Finding a balance that sees the positives and negatives of our migrant project shared equally across the nation will be essential.

Charles Jacobs is an Adjunct Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies

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