Why is opinion on migration changing?

The Age yesterday reported claims that comments former Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews made last year about the reasons for slowing the African refugee intake led to more hostility towards Africans:

following Mr Andrews’ comments the NSW Immigration Department [sic] received reports of racial harassment directed at the African community.

“On 14 November 2007, the (deleted) reported that anecdotal evidence suggested an increase in racial harassment directed at Africans in the Parramatta area,” the department-in-confidence community update says.

As is usually the case with these claims, there is no real evidence here of either cause or effect. My own view is that politicians have little influence on subjects people can make up their own minds about. But what politicians say, and reactions to their comments (usually very heated where ethnicity is concerned), do alter the salience of particular issues. It is possible, though not very likely, that greater public discussion of the problems of African migrants had negative consequences for them.

But we can say that there is little sign in survey evidence that particular issues to do with African migrants, relating to gangs and crime, have had any influence on overall public opinion.

The Australian Election Survey asks whether respondents believe that immigrants increase the crime rate. Those agreeing with this proposition increased slightly from 41% in 2004 to 43% in 2007 (though ‘strongly agree’ was down from 16% to 12%). But this could just be statistical noise. It was 47% in each of 1998 and 2001 and 52% in 1996. So the overall trend is down.

Two other questions on the impact of migrants had the same pattern – on whether they are good for the economy and whether they take jobs away from other Australians – of similar results to 2004 and more pro-migration since the 1990s. The proposition that ‘immigrants make Australia more open to ideas and cultures’ has consistently received about 75% endorsement.

But one result has changed. The 1996 to 2004 trend of fewer people saying that the migrant intake should be reduced has ended, increasing from 35% to 46%. It doesn’t obviously have anything to do with crime, the economy or jobs. So what’s happened?

Without survey evidence, any theories are just speculation. But I would guess that housing affordability and availability might be something to do with it. Migration is one reason why demand for housing is running ahead of supply. An obvious way to ease this pressure would be to take fewer migrants.

6 thoughts on “Why is opinion on migration changing?

  1. I’ll guess you’re right on this last one.

    Incidentally, at least from figures from the AIC (admittedly quite old), migrants create less crime than Australian born citizens overall, so people who think they increase crime are most probably wrong excluding weird arguments to do with long term trust etc. . Perhaps the interesting things is that there are pretty healthy cross-cultural differences between groups and that there are groups that are comparatively poorer than the Australian norm that don’t or didn’t create a lot of crime (e.g., Greeks, Sri Lankans), and groups similar to Australians (e.g., Kiwis) that create more. If we got away from being politically correct and people were worried about crime, it would be possible to select groups that create less problem in some circumstances (e.g., refugees from Sri Lanka).


  2. One thing that’s happened between 1996 and 2004 has been a very large growth in the migration intake and an even bigger growth in temporary migration (which usually hasn’t been counted as ‘real’ migration because the migrants aren’t settling here – at least not initially – although I doubt most people would really distinguish between the two categories when answering the questions that you’ve detailed).

    So perhaps from a simple numbers point of view, more people are likely to feel migration should be reduced when its at very high levels.

    However, it might also be that the growing public controversy over temporary skilled workers could have fed into this possible shift in attitude. Some in the union movement have strongly attacked this type of migration intake, and it was a subtheme in some of the attacks on Workchoices being about driving down wages and conditions.

    Other factors may also have played role. Housing affordability might be one, as you suggest, although I wouldn’t be surprised if things like water shortages and traffic congestion were a bigger factor. Possibly its an accumulation of all of these things. I’ve also seen a growing number of people using climate change as a reason to criticise migration – personally I think this is one of the weakest arguments to use from an environmental viewpoint, but climate change is the biggest green issue at the moment, so I guess it works best from that perspective.


  3. An even more likely, but far less interesting, answer is that people just don’t hold internally consistent points of view.


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