Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
Ever since the stunning 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the Trump election victory in the US, pundits have wondered if the same kind of political disruption and social polarisation could happen here.
Could an anti-immigration backlash fuel the kind of populist insurgencies that are displacing the political establishment in other countries?
The fear is that Australia, too, is coming apart along socio-economic and geographic lines. Wealthier ‘elites’ and ‘ordinary’ voters are assumed to share little common ground on issues such as the size of the immigration intake and its impact on urban congestion and house prices
However, our latest research — including polling about attitudes to immigration in the nation’s top 10% and bottom 10% of metropolitan postcodes based on income and education — found Australians are not starkly polarised on the topic; and are actually more similar than different in their attitudes to the issue.
Across postcodes, there was strong support — with very healthy majorities — for reducing immigration until infrastructure catches up with demand, implementing stricter English language and Australian values requirements to promote integration, and maintaining strong border protection policies.
The most significant finding — especially in light of the Prime Minister’s decision this week to cut Australia’s migrant intake by 30,000 places — is that there was broad agreement and majority support, regardless of postcodes, for relieving congestion and population pressures.
In the top postcodes, 65% of residents, and 77% in the bottom postcodes, agreed that immigration should be cut or paused until struggling transport, schools, and housing infrastructure catches up with demand.
The good news from our polling is Australia does not appear to be in imminent danger of experiencing toxic social polarisation and political disruption over immigration based on conflict in attitudes between elite and ordinary Australians.
However, the crucial implication for immigration policy is that policy makers need to respect and represent the concerns that are shared by the majority of metropolitan voters.
If the immigration program is to retain public support — and thus remain politically sustainable — governments must respond to public concerns about urban congestion and social cohesion; concerns that are shared by Australians at the top and the bottom of the pile.
The sad reality is that we live in an age of global Islamist terrorism from which Australia is not immune. Incidents such as the tragic attack in Melbourne’s Bourke St must surely influence the attitude Australians take to assessing the costs and benefits of immigration.
Political leaders routinely promote the economic benefits of a large immigration program. But to maintain public support for immigration, they also need to address how Australia can successfully integrate migrants into the community.
This is one of the key implications of the CIS’s polling of the attitudes to immigration of Australians who live in the top 10% of metropolitan postcodes by income and education and the bottom 10% of metropolitan postcodes.
The research revealed Australians are overwhelmingly more united than divided on immigration especially regarding the most contentious immigration-related questions: the size of the intake, social cohesion, and border protection.
Importantly, where we saw the greatest consensus was regarding integration. When asked if migrants should be required to have a minimum standard of English before being granted permanent residence 80% in the top postcodes and 86% in the bottom agreed.
Similarly, when asked if migrants should be required to attend a course on Australian values before being granted permanent residence 75% in the top and 82% in the bottom agreed. Our polling indicates a high level of public concern about the social cohesion of our communities.
These attitudes are consistent with the longstanding principles that have underpinned our immigration program: promoting immigration by those willing to support core Australia values such as rule of law, respect for the individual and parliamentary democracy.
However, what our polling indicates is that concerns about social cohesion have reached the point that most Australians want to see a more formal approach to promoting integration.
This strongly suggests that governments will need to address these concerns to ensure public support for immigration is maintained. And that simply talking up the economic benefits of immigration is not enough to guarantee public confidence in the program.
Although the full Ruddock report is yet to be released, some of its recommendations are already out of date — particularly on maintaining the exemption approach to preserving religious freedom. That is no longer tenable.
Earlier this month we saw the odd situation of the heads of some Anglican schools in Sydney arguing for the preservation of exemptions in antidiscrimination laws for religious schools and then shortly after calling for their removal.
The confused uproar that had occurred in between these two moments is evidence that the clumsy mechanism of exemptions have no future in preserving religious freedom in this nation. In an article seeking to clarify the situation the Archbishop of Sydney even went so far as to suggest that the churches hadn’t wanted such exemptions in the first place.
The whole issue arises because the freedom to select is an existential issue for religious communities. If a religious school or other institution cannot choose or preference staff who adhere to the beliefs and practices of that religion, then it will soon lose its religious character and reason to be. At present this freedom to select is preserved by various exemptions from discrimination laws like the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act.
But there are at least two major problems in such an approach.
First, the idea of an exemption from a law easily gives the impression that religious bodies are able to do what otherwise would be objectionable — that they have a special freedom to discriminate. Part of the reaction by the leaking of the recommendations of the Ruddock review was provoked by the discovery of the existence of freedoms to discriminate in the first place.
Second, in a time of increasing lack of trust in religious institutions, the broad nature of such exemptions given to such bodies means there is little confidence they will not be misused for bigotry and hatred.
As outlined in my paper A Test of Maturity: the liberal case for action on religious freedom, we need to take a mature approach to these issues.
The way forward is to remove the exemptions to discrimination law altogether; and replace them with a positive right for religious organisations to maintain their identity and ethos within a diverse Australian society.