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?
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.