Reporting Australia’s social cohesion

Today the Scanlon Foundation, at Melbourne’s Monash University, released its annual research report on social cohesion in Australia. The report is formed from the findings of the sixth Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion National Survey, conducted in July 2013.

Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, was discussing the findings on ABC 774 Melbourne morning radio.

Following a year of long election campaigns, incredible profile given to refugees (both positive and negative; to different degrees), I find this report especially interesting.  

Here is the good news for Australia, or ‘big ticks’, as the Commissioner said:

  • The vast majority of Australians feel a connection to their country, with 92 per cent saying they feel they belong to Australian society.
  • There are strong levels of support for multiculturalism: 84 per cent think multiculturalism has been a good thing for Australia.

These are very positive findings, and for me, they resonate personally. And the report itself states that by Australian and International standards, Australia is highly cohesive. So why do the media and commentators — here and abroad — bang on about Australia being racist, if people like people coming to Australia from all around the world, and people feel like they fit in when they get here?

Well, the not so great news is that 19 per cent of recently arrived immigrants report having experienced racial discrimination in the past 12 months, which is up from an average of 10-15 per cent on previous years; and the change is considered statistically significant. The Commissioner said that this is reported at higher rates amongst people from Asian countries, which shows there is still some very targeted work to do. An analysis of country of birth shows highest experience of discrimination was by respondents born in Malaysia (45 per cent), India and Sri Lanka (42 per cent), Singapore (41 per cent), Indonesia (39 per cent), and China and Hong Kong (39 per cent). Let me state the obvious: these are groups of people who ‘look different’ and likely easier targets (by recognition) for idiots.

The report also found:

  • Less than one in five survey respondents agreed that asylum seekers arriving by boat should not be eligible for permanent settlement; an increase in negative view since 2011 (completely unsurprising given how this has been politicised in recent times).
  • Recent arrivals were asked what they most liked about life in Australia and were presented with a list of ten attributes. Three attributes proved to be most popular: lifestyle/ way or life (24 per cent); standard of living (17 per cent); and freedom, peace, democracy (14 per cent). However, a notable finding is that we Australians often like think of ourselves as kind, caring and friendly, but this (grouped) attribute was ranked last by immigrants.

It was pointed out in the radio discussion between host Jon Faine and the Commissioner, that while racism is prevalent in Australian society, we haven’t (yet) started a movement like what the UK has with UKIP, or Greece has with the Golden Dawn party. Arguably the One Nation party in Australia did have momentum in 1998 with 9 per cent of the national electoral votes. However, compared to the 17 per cent UKIP polled earlier this year, its nine seats in the EU Parliament, and three in the House of Lords; and Greece’s Golden Dawn receiving 6.92 per cent of the vote in June 2012, translating to 18 seats in the 300 member parliament, I agree with Faine and the Commissioner that we aren’t ‘there’ yet. This isn’t to say that racist people don’t vote with, or sign up for membership of, major Australian parties; or that the major parties have installed controversial policies pull voters away from One Nation but that is another discussion.

While it is disappointing, upsetting even, to know that one in five have experienced discrimination, the great thing about these reports is that it keeps the discussion going, the awareness raised, and helps identify where we can be better. I’d be interested to know if anyone has a similar longitudinal study on Indigenous Australians.

You can read more about the report at the foundation’s website. If you only have time for the four-and-a-half-page executive summary, I encourage it.

*Cover photograph by me at the Turkish Pazar, Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne, March 2011

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