The politics of foreigners, fear and envy
In March 1997 the late Irving Saulwick and I were commissioned by what was then called the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to explore the underlying drivers of voter attitudes towards immigration, refugees and multiculturalism.
Just six months earlier, on 10 September 1996, Pauline Hanson had made her maiden speech as the Member for Oxley in the House of Representatives. In that speech she had said that Aboriginal people received more benefits than non-Aboriginal people, that Australia was in danger of being ‘swamped by Asians’, and that these immigrants ‘have their own culture and religion, form ghettoes and do not assimilate’.
Hanson had made similar statements during the federal election campaign that year and as a result had been disendorsed by the Liberal Party, whose candidate she was. Nonetheless, she was elected to this long-time Labor seat centred on the mining town of Ipswich, 40 kilometres south-west of Brisbane, and sat as an independent. This was the context in which the department commissioned the research.
Fast-forward 18 years. The Melbourne Social Equity Institute at the University of Melbourne commissioned research into voter attitudes towards asylum seekers and the policies of off-shore detention prosecuted by Labor and Liberal–National Coalition governments in Australia through the prime ministerships of John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Rudd again and Tony Abbott. I was asked to design and conduct the research, and write the report.
The research design broadly followed the contours of the 1997 study: ten focus groups in metropolitan, regional and remote locations in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. The other demographic variables used were age and socioeconomic status, similar to those used in 1997. Paradoxically, the similarities and the differences between the two studies were stark.
The most significant difference concerned a shift in the primary basis of resistance to new arrivals. In previous large episodes of resistance to new arrivals—after the Second World War, after Vietnam—the dominant driver was racism. In the late 1990s, when Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party was at the height of its powers, the concern was about the ‘Asianisation’ of Australia. Today the single most important driver of resistance to asylum seekers is religious prejudice, something entirely absent from previous episodes. It is expressed as concern about the ‘Islamisation’ of Australia.
There are two aspects to this phenomenon, and they feed into each other. The first is a view that Islam is an intolerant religion. In this view, Muslims demand that the rest of society tolerate Islam but are not willing to show equal tolerance to non-Muslims. At the most extreme end of this line of argument is a conviction that Muslims wish to introduce sharia into Australia.
In some people’s view, the process has already started. It is frequently stated that people can no longer send Christmas cards (instead sending ‘happy holiday’ cards) and that schools and shopping centres are not putting on Nativity plays or playing Christmas carols because Muslims find such things offensive. Respondents cannot point to firsthand or even second-hand experience of these oppressions, yet are unshakably convinced they happen.
The second aspect is that Islam is seen as inseparable from the threat of terrorism. The combination of these two aspects produces a potent fear about what Australia might be opening itself up to if it did not take stringent measures to screen asylum seekers. The Lindt Café siege in Sydney was frequently cited as an instance of this threat being realised. The fact that the siege gunman had been in Australia for a decade or more only reinforced this concern: Australia might never know what it is getting, and no matter how much time passes, the threat remains. Implicit in all this is the assumption that asylum seekers are all or mainly Muslims. This leads to a syllogistic association in which asylum seekers are equated with Muslims, Muslims with terrorism and therefore asylum seekers with terrorism.
The role played by racism as a driver of negative attitudes towards asylum seekers is difficult to pin down. To begin with, there is very little knowledge about where asylum seekers come from and hence what race they are. ‘The Middle East’ is commonly cited as a major source, but there is next to no appreciation of the fact that the Middle East contains people of many ethnicities, faiths and Islamic denominations.
When pressed, respondents are able to quote Afghanistan as a further source, and it too is associated with violent Islam. Sri Lanka is also mentioned, but asylum seekers from there are resisted for a different reason, being seen as economic migrants, which some voters see as dishonest exploitation of the asylum process. The evidence suggests that to the extent resistance to asylum seekers is driven by racism, it is racial prejudice of a generalised kind directed at people who are different from ‘us’, and is clearly secondary to religious prejudice as a driver of resistance.
Whereas racial prejudice, particularly against Asians, has been a constant element in Australian life from the time of the gold rush, and was embedded through the White Australia policy, religious prejudice has generally been confined to Catholic–Protestant sectarianism and isolated outbreaks of anti-Semitism. So Australia is now redefining the ‘other’—the person who is different from us—primarily on religious and not racial grounds. This is a historically significant shift.
The similarities in the findings of the two studies are also significant for what they tell us about the constants in Australian voters’ attitudes to immigration. The 1997 study was conducted in a period of profound and, for many, unsettling economic change. The adoption by the Hawke and Keating governments of free-trade and deregulatory economic policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s had begun to have effects that were being felt keenly by those whose material wellbeing had been adversely affected. The people feeling this most acutely were blue-collar workers who, through lack of education and economic resources, were the least well equipped to cope with the changes brought about by those economic reforms.
The Howard government had continued with these policies, and so those blue-collar workers had no faith that the factors undermining their material wellbeing were going to change. They saw manufacturing jobs going offshore, making them fearful for their own employment and anxious about the prospects for their children. They saw foreign investors—the Japanese were most often singled out—buying real estate assets in Australia, and suspected them of driving up house prices, making it less likely that young people could share the Australian dream of home ownership. They felt exposed to the winds of globalisation and ill-equipped to deal with them.
Above all they felt disenfranchised. Nobody had asked them what they thought about these changes before they were implemented. No politician had gone to the polls espousing policies that these voters could interpret as undermining their employment prospects and the chance of improving their material stake in society. They felt betrayed and they were angry.
So when Pauline Hanson offered them a scapegoat in the form of Asian immigrants, they took it. It was by definition a racist response, but the underlying drivers were more complex, being grounded in that sense of disenfranchisement and material insecurity.
The 2015 study was also undertaken against a backdrop of community insecurity, not only about economic prospects as the world struggles to recover from the 2008 financial crisis but also about physical security. By the time this research was being done, Tony Abbott had had nearly two years as prime minister, during which he had primed these fears on multiple occasions, including a statement shortly before the research fieldwork was carried out that Islamic State were ‘coming after us’. Add to this the objective realities of terrorist attacks in Paris and Sydney, and it can be seen that voters had reasonable grounds for any sense of insecurity.
This is a big factor in the reluctant acceptance by the broad middle of Australian voter opinion of the offshore detention system on Manus Island and Nauru. The broad middle of the voting population do not like this system because they see it as inhumane, but they do want Australia to have secure borders, strict control of immigration, credible screening of asylum applicants, and protection from the risk of terrorism. They are also relieved that, so far as they know, the deaths at sea seem to have stopped.
They accept the present system because they can’t think of anything better. However, if offered something more humane that also delivered the protections and benefits of the present system, the indications are that they would accept it willingly. It follows that voter support for present policies, while broad, is provisional. It is conditional on there being nothing better.
That is the view from the broad middle. At the extremes, however, there are diametrically opposed positions. At one extreme are those who are opposed to offering asylum to anyone, who regard asylum seekers as mainly economic migrants or ‘queue jumpers’ or ‘illegals’ and therefore unworthy of acceptance into Australia.
At the other extreme are those who regard the whole system of boat turn-backs and offshore detention as an abrogation of Australia’s treaty obligations, an abandonment of the values they believe underpin the Australian way of life and a source of national shame. They want the offshore processing system abolished, applicants screened onshore and then released into the community while their applications for asylum are fully investigated. Insecurities in one form or another, then, are one constant in Australian voters’ attitudes to immigration.
Another is an unshakeable conviction that new arrivals are given preferential treatment by the government at the expense of taxpayers generally and of people already in Australia who deserve priority consideration. The 1997 report stated:
There is a view that Asian migrants in particular are given special and substantial payments to help them settle. These things are resented, particularly by battling taxpayers who believe that they are carrying the financial burden of this policy. Their misunderstanding and lack of understanding could be and probably are breeding grounds for prejudice and resentment.
The 2015 report stated:
A third factor [in resistance to new arrivals] is a belief that asylum-seekers get preferential treatment for services such as public housing and welfare, receive government handouts, and over the long term are likely to be a drain on the Australian taxpayer. This factor is most prevalent among people who are themselves struggling, and is to be found primarily among blue-collar workers and in western Sydney, where material pressures are acute.
People who depend on government assistance or who live among people who do are deeply suspicious that asylum seekers get preferential treatment from the authorities. In this suspicious frame of mind, they are eager to accept as true anecdotes of very uncertain provenance that reinforce their suspicions. Therefore, it is accepted as true that asylum seekers are given a lump sum of $10,000, new Nike shoes and a government house to ‘welcome’ them to Australia, or that they demand—and are given—flat-screen television sets.
In 1997 it was asserted with absolute conviction that each new arrival was given $10,000 cash and, in reference to Aboriginal people, that the government gave them Toyota Landcruisers. These beliefs are evidence of the existence of downward envy among those already feeling they were being denied a fair stake in Australian society. It is not surprising that people who struggle from day to day to make ends meet in a society where many people seem better off than they are look for causes of their difficulties and find them in the actions of others. Scapegoating, so obviously a part of Hanson’s appeal to voters in 1996 was in evidence too in 2015.
A further constant that lies behind Australians’ attitudes to immigration is a somewhat self-conscious ambiguity about whether Australia is or is not a racist society. When this was raised during the 1997 study, most respondents asserted that they were not racist. A few did so with a mixture of self-understanding and wry humour. Some said that there was a little bit of racism in everyone. Some said that they thought Australians generally were racist and did not differentiate themselves from that generalisation.
In the 2015 study, a wide spectrum of respondents questioned whether today’s Australia is as racially tolerant as Australians like to think it is. A few saw it as a generational issue, with older people seen as less tolerant than younger people, and others as a geographic issue, with people living in country towns and rural areas seen as being much less tolerant of difference than were people living in the big cities. Some celebrated instances of tolerance that they had witnessed and approved of. It reinforced their belief that Australia remains committed to diversity and multiculturalism, and was illustrated by the availability of halal meat pies or exposure to Indonesian language and culture in schools, or provision made for Muslims to pray and to adhere to their religious requirements in other ways.
But this last was contested territory. Discussions tended to open with disapproving references. More often than not, this disapproval was reinforced by remarks from other participants; rather less often, these references provoked a response that argued in favour of tolerance, and sought to look more deeply into the case. One respondent stated that as an instance of Australia’s tolerance, the local municipal swimming pool had set aside a fixed time of the week during which Muslim women could swim without being observed by men, and that the council had spent money installing blinds in order to preserve the women’s privacy. This was related in a tone suggesting disapproval. Another respondent familiar with the pool said in reply that the Muslim community had contributed to the cost of the blinds by conducting fundraisers.
Many respondents detected an element of hypocrisy in Australians’ approach to tolerance of difference. This view was summed up by a young white-collar man in Melbourne who said, ‘We try very hard to be tolerant, to seem tolerant, but not necessarily tolerant all the way through.’
Another constant was the requirement that new arrivals assimilate. By this Australians generally mean that newcomers must respect and adhere to Australian law, must learn English, conform to Australian social mores, leave old enmities behind and appreciate the gifts Australia holds out. This has been a cornerstone of Australian attitudes to immigration for decades and remains so today. Respondents to the 1997 study accepted people from non-English-speaking backgrounds, but the acceptance was qualified. The more they were like ‘us’, or became like ‘us’, spoke like ‘us’ and behaved like ‘us’, the more readily they were accepted.
The corollary of this attitude of ‘learning to be like us’ was that many people were critical of migrants who lived in geographically close communities. While they recognised that there was a natural tendency for people from the same background and with the same language to wish to be together, many were impatient with it. They saw it as inhibiting integration, and as creating culturally closed, as well as geographically closed, communities. Because they had come to accept that all people were potentially equal in Australia, they wanted the integration process to proceed apace.
The respondents to the 2015 study were no different. What was different, however, was the existence of real doubt that asylum seekers want to assimilate. Because of the association of asylum seekers with Muslims and because of a suspicion that Muslims have ambitions to become the dominant cultural and religious force in Australian society, many respondents saw resistance to assimilation among asylum seekers as a real and serious risk to the cohesiveness of Australian society and to the maintenance of its underlying character. All these threads concerning assimilation may be summed up in the words of one respondent in 2015: ‘We have to change the way we are to accommodate them.’
At the same time there was widespread acknowledgement that previous waves of immigrants had successfully assimilated, even though there was initial prejudice against them from within the Australian community. The postwar intake of refugees and immigrants from Europe is now celebrated as having provided the foundations of a multicultural society of which people are proud, and descendants of those immigrants are able to smile when they recall being labelled as ‘wogs’ at school.
The wave of immigrants from Asia and especially from Vietnam is seen as having enriched Australia not only with a broader cultural mix but also with people who are making a real contribution to Australian life. These earlier waves of arrivals are seen as having taken place under firm government control, and there is a concern that the current refugee crisis is so large as to threaten the capacity of the government to maintain control. However, it might also be observed that the anxieties and uncertainties that attended the arrival of earlier waves of immigrants have become resolved with time, whereas the anxieties and uncertainties about asylum seekers are alive and unresolved.
This hypothesis is supported by the fact that virtually all respondents in this study expressed pride in Australia’s capacity successfully to absorb newcomers from different cultures. It is seen as a defining national characteristic, reflecting adaptability, tolerance, willingness to take people on their merits, to live and let live, to get on as mates. This pride in, and recognition of, past successes has not engendered a belief that the same will happen with asylum seekers—at least not yet.
Among many respondents there is support for the idea of assisting the assimilation process and at the same time reducing the wrongs associated with offshore detention by bringing in carefully screened asylum seekers and settling them in small groups in regional centres where they can be taught English, introduced to the Australian way of life, be kept an eye on, and be given opportunities to contribute to society by working on farms or otherwise helping out. There is a caveat though: the screening must be sufficiently rigorous to minimise risks to security and public safety.
There is a perception that in these ways the material risks—that asylum seekers will be a drain on the country’s resources and put pressure on capital-city employment and housing markets—could be reduced. Such an approach is also seen as reminiscent of how postwar immigrants were introduced to Australia by being assigned to large projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
In summary, then, this comparative analysis of the 1997 and 2015 studies shows that there are many constants in Australian voters’ attitudes to new arrivals and that these have prevailed for decades. One is the requirement that new arrivals assimilate. Another is that once Australians are satisfied that this condition has been satisfied, they are content to see new arrivals celebrate their own culture in the form of customs, religious worship, festivals, dress and food, so long as none of this violates the covenant of assimilation.
A third constant is anxiety that new arrivals will take more than they give, and that this will be at the expense of the taxpayer and battler. This anxiety tends to be found in those parts of Australian society where material circumstances are difficult—among the less educated, the less economically secure and those less certain that they are holding onto their rightful place in Australian society.
A fourth is self-conscious ambivalence about whether Australia is or is not a racially tolerant society. This never seems to be resolved. However, Australians seem to have reached an accommodation with themselves about it, and this accommodation is to be found in the nexus between assimilation and multiculturalism described above. This then becomes the basis of the pride Australians express in the diversity of ethnicities that has become a defining characteristic of national life.
The new factor in this matrix of attitudes is Islam. Muslims have been part of the Australian community since the arrival of Afghan cameleers in the nineteenth century. They were crucial to the opening up of the interior by helping to build the overland telegraph and the transcontinental railway, and are part of the romance and mythology associated with that era.
However, since the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, Islam’s profile in the West has become much larger and in the minds of a broad spectrum of Australian voters has become baleful because they associate it with terrorism. In addition, a suspicion has developed in the public mind that Islam is a proselytising religion that will discourage Muslims from adhering to the covenant of assimilation. More than this, they suspect Islam will seek to assert itself as the dominant religion, with consequences for established Australian culture and the rule of law.
This suspicion is further fuelled by the perception that Muslims make up a large and rapidly growing proportion of the Australian population. In this regard, Australians have been shown in survey research to overestimate the proportion of Muslims in the population by a factor of nine: about 18 per cent against the real 2.2 per cent.
These perceptions, suspicions and fears present a challenge not only to Muslims but also to those in the community who wish to advocate for a more generous attitude to asylum seekers and for the preservation of the multicultural ideal. Meeting this challenge will require a higher standard of leadership both in national politics and in the Muslim community itself than has generally been on display so far.