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Signs of social cohesion under siege – Scanlon Report

16 November 20230 comments

Australia’s cost-of-living crisis, uncertainty about the economy and growing concerns about global conflicts are eating away at Australia’s much-valued high levels of social cohesion, a new research report has found.

The latest iteration of the Mapping Social Cohesion Report, from the Scanlon Institute, has put the report’s Index of Social Cohesion at its lowest level since the survey began in 2007.

But research shows support for multiculturalism and immigration remains string despite a challenging economic outlook.

Large majorities of people say multiculturalism has been good for Australia (89 per cent) and a similar percentage (86 per cent) say migrants are generally good for the economy, the report says.

But it also found significant numbers of people experiencing prejudice and discrimination in everyday life.

“Eighteen per cent of Australians said they had been discriminated against in the last 12 months based on their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion. This rises to 28 per cent for people born overseas and 39 per cent for people from non-English speaking backgrounds,” the report said.

“Compared with migrants from European backgrounds, those from Asian, African and south-central American backgrounds were all significantly more likely to experience discrimination,” it said.

The survey found that racism is still a perceived problem in Australia with 13 per cent of overseas-born Australians saying that racism is a very big problem and 59 per cent saying it is either a very big or fairly big problem.

These numbers are equally high among the Australian-born population, with 15 per cent saying it is a very big problem and 62 per cent saying it is at least a fairly big problem

The research also found that many migrants, especially from Middle-Easter and African backgrounds, struggled economically, found it difficult to find work and felt they were not represented. 

The index is effectively a barometer of social wellbeing, measuring belonging, worth, participation, acceptance and rejection, social inclusion and justice – based on a survey of 7,500 people.

The index measure dropped by four points over the past year, plumbing the lowest result on record.

And since November 2020, a peak point of recorded social cohesion recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic – the index has dropped 13 points.

But the report’s author, Australian National University demographer James O’Donnell, says the latest finding do have some reassuring parts, especially connections within neighbourhoods.

“We are still connected on many levels, within our neighbourhoods and local communities, with support for multiculturalism and support for the Indigenous relationship,” he said.

“But things like the war in the Middle East start to fray those connections. A sense of neighbourhood and community connections help people navigate difficult times but the Israel-Hamas war could “drive a wedge between specific groups.

“The war probably could not have come at a worse time, coming off the back of cost-of-living pressures, it can start to eat away at those connections.

“We are also seeing from the survey the impact of cost-of-living pressures and the economy impacting in so many ways in terms of a sense of belonging, a sense of trust, of social inclusion and participation in communities,” Mr O’Donnell said.

He said the voice to parliament referendum has been an impetus to polarisation, and also that current geopolitical conflict and tension is also a “risk to Australia’s harmony” because we are “connected to all sides of current conflicts through our migrant and ancestral diversity, as well as the diversity of our values and ideas”.

The report says continued financial pressure is the factor weighing heavily on social cohesion.

The findings show Australians are preoccupied mainly with their stretched household budgets, housing affordability and the state of the economy, with 87 per cent of survey respondents are also worried about the risks of a severe downturn in the global economy.

Eighty-four per cent of respondents said the gap between rich and poor was too great.

Rising economic pressure has coincided with declining trust in government. Trust in government bounced back during the pandemic with 56 per cent of survey participants saying in November 2020 the federal government could be trusted to do the right thing for people all or most of the time. Only 36 per cent said that in 2023.

While institutional trust has crashed from pandemic highs, current levels remain higher than during the previous decade of frequent leadership changes in Canberra, during which the average was 29 per cent.

“The rising cost of living has also drawn our attention to economic inequalities and opportunities in Australia. As a result, our sense of social inclusion and justice has declined substantially and is the most significant factor dragging down our overall social cohesion,” the report said.

“The decline is being driven by growing concern for economic inequality and fairness. Traditionally, Australians have felt a strong sense of national pride and belief in the degree of fairness, opportunity and the ‘fair go’ on offer.

“Between 2007 and 2013, more than 80 per cent of people on the Mapping Social Cohesion survey agreed that ‘Australia is a land of economic opportunity where in the long run, hard work brings a better life’.

“Relatively small differences were recorded during this time between younger and older Australians, conservative and progressive voters, Australian and overseas-born people and those from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Belief in the fair go, however, appears to be declining. We estimate that overall agreement that Australia is a land of economic opportunity has declined by 16 percentage points since 2013. In 2023, 63 per cent of agreed that Australia is a land of economic opportunity, still a majority of people, but a substantial decline from recent years,” the report said.

Read the full report: Mapping Social Cohesion 2023 | Scanlon institute