Dissatisfaction with immigration grows.

Author:Betts, Katharine
Position:Statistical table


Over the last 18 years attitudes to immigration in Australia have changed dramatically. In 1993 67 per cent of the electorate thought the intake too high while in the early years of this century this proportion halved to around a third. Now dissatisfaction is rising again. This article describes what has happened, analyses the social bases for both opposition and support, and outlines the recent policy changes which are taking immigration to record levels.


Immigration was deeply unpopular in the early 1990s. Figure 1 is based on responses to the post-election Australian Election Studies (AES) from 1990 to 2007. It relies on the question: 'The number of immigrants allowed into Australia at the present time has. ... with response categories: gone much too far, gone too far, about right, not gone far enough, not gone nearly far enough. This has been asked regularly since 1990.


Comparison with a different question, 'Do you think the number of immigrants allowed into Australia nowadays should be reduced or increased?', asked since 1996, shows that the reduce/increase question tends to elicit more definite answers; fewer respondents choose the neutral middle option or skip the question altogether. (1) This may be because the wording is clearer. The gone too far/not gone far enough question is also asked as part of a bank of questions about trends that may or may not have gone too far, such as: the right to show nudity and sex in films and magazines, controls on firearms, support for the fight against terrorism and so on. Consequently some respondents may not focus clearly on the immigration question, or may simply overlook it. In contrast the reduce/increase question is set out clearly as a stand-alone question.

Nevertheless the gone too far/not gone far enough question is useful because of the longer time series it presents. Figure I shows that in the early 1990s two thirds of the electorate thought the current intake had either gone too far or much too far, while by 2001 this proportion had dropped to 34 per cent.

In 1990 the economy was in recession; not only was GDP shrinking, unemployment was high and bank interest rates on housing loans had reached 17 per cent. (2) Net overseas migration had averaged more than 130,000 a year for the previous five years (1985-86 to 1989-1990), (3) and the then Labor Government (led first by Bob Hawke and then by Paul Keating) was enthusiastically committed to multiculturalism. Leaders of ethnic groups were courted by politicians and new immigrants had easy access to welfare and to labour-market benefits. In such a setting some voters could have believed that immigration was bringing in competitors for scarce jobs, and (as the FitzGerald Report suggested) that its key purpose was to appease ethnic lobbyists and increase ethnic diversity. (4)

While GDP increased from 1992-93, (5) thus bringing the recession to a technical end, unemployment remained at over 10 per cent, only falling to around eight per cent in 1995. (6) With the election of the Liberal/National Party Coalition Government led by John Howard in March 1996, the economy continued to improve. Interest rates, which were 10.5 per cent at the time of the 1996 election, began to fall, as did unemployment. As far as the politics of immigration were concerned the term multicultural ism almost disappeared from political rhetoric and far reaching changes to the immigration program limited family reunion and restricted new migrants' access to welfare and labour market benefits. (7)

The Howard Government also initially reduced the overall size of the program. The reduction was not extensive (see Figure 2 below) but it was widely criticised by the growth lobby, and by some opinion makers; consequently voters may have thought the cuts larger and more long lasting than they actually were. An impression that the Government was determined to be firm on immigration was reinforced by its tough action on border control. (8) Many voters may have come to believe that the program was not only small, well targeted and operating in the national interest, but that it was also under close control.


All of these changes may have muted voters' concerns about immigration. An additional factor was anxiety about the ageing of the population. The 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked respondents what was the most important issue facing Australia. It gave them a list of 18 issues and 14.2 per cent chose 'An ageing population' as their top issue, a score only bested by 'Heath care and hospitals' (15.2 per cent) and 'Taxes too high on ordinary Australians' (14.5 per cent). People who worried about ageing were more supportive of immigration than the electorate as a whole, suggesting that some voters believe the myth that high immigration is an effective anti-ageing remedy, (9) This too may have softened attitudes to immigration. As Figure 1 shows, by the late 1990s, opposition had fallen substantially. (10)

The reduce/increase immigration question has now been asked in all of the AES voters' studies since 1996 (except the 1999 referendum study). It was also asked in the separate questionnaires sent to election candidates in 1996, 2001 and 2004 (there was no candidates study in 1998, and no immigration question for candidates in 2007). It was also asked in the 2003 and 2005 Australian Surveys of Social Attitudes (AuSSA). It is now so widely used mat the present analysis will focus on it, rather than on the not gone far enough/gone too far question. Table 1 shows changes in responses to the reduce/increase question among voters between 1996 and 2007.

Table 1: Attitudes to immigration, 1996 to 2007, per cent Number of [section]19% [section]1998 [section]2001 * 2003 immigrants should be: Increased a 8 13 25 24 lot or a little Remain about 28 38 37 33 the same as it is Reduced a 63 47 36 37 little or a lot Missing/can't 1 2 2 7 choose Total 100 100 100 100 Total N 1797 1897 2010 4270 Number of immigrants should be: [section]2004 * 2005 [section]2007 Increased a lot or a little 23 23 15 Remain about the same as it is 40 33 38 Reduced a little or a lot 34 39 46 Missing/can't choose 2 6 2 Total 100 100 100 Total N 1769 3902 1873 Sources: [section] AES, * AuSSA, sec appendix for details. Notes: The question was: 'Do you think the number of immigrants allowed into Australia nowadays should be reduced or increased?' Response categories: increased a lot, increased a little, remain about the same as it is, reduced a little, reduced a lot. Can't choose was a further option, offered only by AuSSA; n=250(5.9 per cent) in 2003 and 192 (4.9 per cent) in 2005. (It seems to reduce the percentage choosing the 'about the same' category more than it reduces the other categories. The difference between 2003 and 2004 in the category 'Increased a lot or a little' is very small: 23.7 per cent in 2003 and 23. 3 per cent in 2004, a difference of 0.4 per cent. Table 1 confirms the picture provided by Figure 1; 2004 was the year when dissatisfaction with immigration was at its lowest level. But by 2007 this dissatisfaction had increased by 12 percentage points to 46 per cent of the electorate and active support for an increase had fallen by eight percentage points to 15 per cent of the electorate. (11) Previous research has shown that people standing for election to the federal parliament tend to be much more in favour of immigration than the electorate as a whole. (12) This is particularly true of Labor candidates; in 2004, 24 per cent of Labor voters wanted in increase in immigration compared to 72 per cent of Labor candidates. Unfortunately the absence of an immigration question on the 2007 candidates' survey means that this part of the story cannot be brought up-to-date.


The 2007 AES data were collected just after the 24 November election (won by the Labor...

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