Australians' Attitudes to Migration

By Birrell, Bob; Betts, Katharine | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Australians' Attitudes to Migration


Birrell, Bob, Betts, Katharine, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


SINCE the early 1970s, a majority of Australians have favoured a reduction in Australia's immigration programme or no increase. Through most of this period the largest group was those who wanted to see a reduction. The latest opinion poll on the question (September 2001) shows that 41 per cent think that the we are bringing in too many immigrants, 44 per cent think that the current numbers are about right and 10 per cent think that the numbers are too low. Figure 1 shows that the 41 per cent figure is low relative to earlier polls. It probably reflects a recognition that since coming into office the Coalition Government has tightened the intake. It may also reflect the relatively buoyant state of Australia's labour market.

There are a variety of factors shaping this negative orientation. They include doubts about the alleged economic benefits of immigration and, in some quarters, fears about the long-term environmental implications of population expansion. But overriding these concerns are some much deeper worries about how immigration is affecting Australia's social make-up and identity. It is these concerns which make immigration such a hot issue in Australian politics.

Figure 1 shows that Australians are less dissatisfied with immigration policy today than they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but that, unlike the mid-1960s, there is virtually no constituency for a larger intake. It is true that persons born overseas, particularly in non-Englishspeaking-backgrounds (NESB) are more favourably disposed towards high migration. But few seem prepared to vote for political parties seeking their support on the immigration issue. This is evident from the results of the November 2001 election. The Howard Government, as we all know, took a strong stand on border control. Ethnic and liberal humanitarian leaders alike cast this stance as akin to playing the race or anti-immigration card. If there were a constituency of NESB origin Australians uneasy about their status in Australia and, on this account, likely to interpret the tough border-control measures as a covert attack on them, one would expect them to vote accordingly.

The Unity Party offered itself as a political focus of these concerns in Melbourne and Sydney electorates with high migrant concentrations. It conspicuously failed, however, to attract voters, migrant or otherwise. It lost more than half its vote between the 1998 and 2001 elections, including in electorates such as Fowler and Reid in Sydney where migrants (including recent arrivals to Australia) make up a high proportion of voters. Though Labor won easily in these electorates, there was actually a substantial swing to the Coalition on a two-party-preferred basis. The only evidence of any support for open borders in the 2001 election was that registered by the Greens, but that support was on a small scale and occurred primarily in more middle-class electorates.

Why is this so? Australians are much like their counterparts in Western Europe. Since the early 1970s, not one Western European Government has kept a migration programme in place (whether on a temporary or permanent basis). None provide for family reunion except for spouses and dependent children. This is largely because of the social tensions stemming from the aftermath of the `guest worker' era of the 1950s and 1960s. Most Western European nations had taken large numbers of culturally distinct peoples during this era, including Turks in Germany, North African Muslims in France, and former colonials from India, Africa and the West Indies in Britain. In each instance, this prompted popular worries about the ways migrants were allegedly reshaping the social fabric of their society and about related national identity issues. The outcome was that this removed any prospect of an active immigration programme from the political agenda throughout Western Europe.

There are parallels and differences with Australia. …

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