What is the likely effect of the citizenship test on public opinion?

The Australian political class is convinced that Australians are racists and John Howard uses that racism to political advantage. With the citizenship test announced yesterday, Malcolm Fraser pondered:

Why have a new citizenship test for migrants and a flurry of talk about values reared their heads at this point? Is it about creating fear in the minds of many Australians? Is this the politics of race? Is the government using code to say that Moslems are different and that they don???t fit in?

Richard Farmer referred to the ‘transparent nature of Howard’s appeal to prejudice’. Peter van Vliet of the Ethnic Affairs Council warned that:

Now, as the 2007 election approaches we have a new race card, this time focusing on the enemy within.

But perhaps this has things the wrong way around. Howard does know that the Australian community is uneasy about some migrant groups. Already back in the 1980s, Muslims did worst in a social distance survey. The long list of PR disasters since isn’t going to have improved Islam’s image. But Howard is also a strong believer in social cohesion and that most Australians are not racists. As my article in the previous link shows, while many Australians will admit to ‘prejudices’, public opinion research also suggests that most Australians are not closed to any particular group, provided that they try to ‘fit in’. On this logic, greater confidence that people are meeting ‘fitting in’ criteria could increase acceptance of migrant groups, and a citizenship test is one way to demonstrate that migrants have made a reasonable attempt to fit in.

There is a possible parallel phenomenon in changing opinion on migration. For a long period of time, most Australians had believed that we should take fewer migrants. In 1996, when John Howard came to power, 62% of respondents to the Australian Election Survey thought that too many migrants were coming to Australia. By 2004, that figure had more than halved to 30% – despite the annual intake being nearly 40,000 people higher.

Part of this was due to the decline in unemployment, but the perception that Liberals were more careful about who they let in than Labor possibly helped as well. The book Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report tracks changes in opinion about immigrants. Between 1996 and 2003, the proportion of people agreeing that ‘immigrants are generally good for Australia’s economy’ increased 20 percentage points to 69%. The proportion agreeing that ‘immigrants increase crime rates’ declined from 51% to 34%.

The strong support for the citizenship test and overwhelming support for English I reported on yesterday suggests that if the government acted on these public preferences it is more likely to increase than decrease acceptance of migrants currently regarded as not ‘fitting in’. On this theory, Fraser and the others have things backwards. Indeed, they are part of the problem, feeding paranoia among ethnic and religious minorities by arguing that policies that could protect them are instead attempts to fuel suspicion.

8 Responses to “What is the likely effect of the citizenship test on public opinion?

  • 1
    David Rubie
    December 14th, 2006 08:37

    “Howard does know that the Australian community is uneasy about some migrant groups.”

    That’s all that needs to be said. Keep tying the knot in the dog whistle string Andrew.

  • 2
    humanb
    December 14th, 2006 08:53

    “The strong support for the citizenship test and overwhelming support for English I reported on yesterday suggests that if the government acted on these public preferences it is more likely to increase than decrease acceptance of migrants currently regarded as not

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    December 14th, 2006 08:58

    David – Given that we know this uneasiness exists, what do you suggest we do about it?

  • 4
    David Rubie
    December 14th, 2006 11:50

    Andrew Norton wrote:
    “David – Given that we know this uneasiness exists, what do you suggest we do about it?”

    We do what we did before the race card was re-introduced to mainstream politics: we make sure that people know it’s unacceptable behaviour and we stop rewarding their uninformed opinions by egging them on with stupid initiatives like citizenship tests, or Tampa beatups, or the “pacific solution”.

    Exactly what is the test supposed to achieve other than alleviating the fears of the ignorant? There’s a much easier and far less divisive way of doing that – making sure that muslims are portrayed as people first and problems second. We need some politicians of character who will stop pandering to fear in the cause of being re-elected.

    We also need commentators like you, Andrew, to wake up to yourselves and realise that the cause of re-electing the Liberal party does not justify the “any means necessary” doctrine. Howard is not the second coming of Jesus – he has failed to deliver Liberal party policy, he has failed to deliver economically liberal policies, he has failed to deliver socially conservative policies. Despite having the astonishing mandate of a senate majority, his second-go-round at running the country has been distinguished only by the things he didn’t touch (thankfully), or by the abject failures of his ministers to competently do their jobs. It is time that the tired government he runs was shipped to Nauru for a few years in the room of mirrors.

    I have no idea why this short-sightedness exists in australian society that we must bash every new set of migrants with the same old sticks (being Asian in the seventies and eighties, being Italian or Serbian or whatever before that). It persists, though, and the only cure seems to be waiting out 15 years or so while the kids filter through the public schooling system and emerge with broad accents. In short, we need to ignore that small percentage of the population that is uneasy. Stuff ‘em. The problem exists with them, not the rest of us.

    We ignore the calls for industry protection on the basis of stupidity, racism should be the same. Make sure that idiots like Pauline Hanson get maximum exposure so their idiot rantings can be exposed for the baseless paranoia they are.

    We need to start working shoulder-to-shoulder with muslims and seeing them in shopping malls doing ordinary things, ignoring the constant calls from radio shock-jocks, hyperbole driven television news and headline driven newspapers. The kids will drag the parents into Australian society, not a token citizenship test. The kids always drop the silly religious garbage of their parents once they get here and Islam will be no different, if we given them the same chance that the greeks, italians, serbians and asians got.

    I wonder how the aboriginal population would fare on these tests, given the last 10 years of indifference.

  • 5
    observa
    December 14th, 2006 19:30

    What race are Moslems?

  • 6
    Bannerman
    December 14th, 2006 19:32

    Of course, Andrew, you’re a born-in-country Australian, aren’t you. You don’t need to take any test to see of you fit in, as it were. You already presume that you do. Sweet, isn’t it?

  • 7
    Club Troppo » Friday’s Missing Link
    December 15th, 2006 13:38

    [...] What is the likely effect of the citizenship test on public opinion? – Andrew Norton argues ingeniously that Howard’s citizenship test might (counter-intuitvely) increase support for the current very large migration program.

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