Surprising findings on social cohesion

By: Emeritus Professor Andrew Markus   |   Author of Mapping Social Cohesion – The Scanlon Foundation Surveys 2020   |

In 2020, in the context of the dislocation of Australian society by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scanlon Foundation conducted two national surveys, its thirteenth and fourteenth since 2007, providing insight into the resilience of Australian society during a major crisis.

The surveys, employing large probability samples (3,090 respondents in July, 2,793 in November) are sufficiently large to provide insight not only into opinion at the national level, but also into segments of the population differentiated by age, educational attainment, financial status and political alignment.

Societies faced with crisis may for a time experience increased cohesion, as people respond to a common threat through mutual support. But the international surveying organisation IPSOS reported in October that ‘our COVID-19 tracking surveys have suggested that social cohesion has started to fray as the pandemic has evolved.’

Such fraying in Australia may be indicated by the relatively high level of negative opinion towards some national and religious minorities.

Credit: Grace Petrou Photography

A majority of Asia-born Australians, 59%, viewed racism in Australia as ‘a very big problem’ or ‘a fairly big problem,’ compared with 36% born in Australia.

55% of respondents born in an Asian country indicated concern ‘about discrimination experienced by your friends and/or members of your local community?’, compared with 30% born in Australia.

But when identical question wording allows for comparison of 2020 results with those of earlier years no substantial negative trend is evident.  For example, a relatively high 39% of Asian-born respondents indicated experience of discrimination in 2020, much higher than the 14% indicated by Australia-born, but close to the average of 41% for Asia-born in 2018-19.

Alongside these concerning findings, much of the survey finds an unexpectedly positive mood. In a result that seems counter-intuitive, both in July and November the Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion moved in a positive direction.

With regard to financial circumstances, 65% of respondents in 2020 indicated that they were ‘living reasonably comfortably,’ ‘very comfortably,’ or were ‘prosperous,’ compared with 61% in 2019.

The key to the positive findings appears to be the level of trust in government, the widely held view that effective leadership is being provided in the time of crisis, including financial support to those who have lost their jobs and those whose businesses have been impacted.

Thus 85% of respondents positively view the response of the federal government to the pandemic and positive views of some state governments are even higher.

With regard to government-imposed lockdowns, which were a matter of public controversy and remain so in some countries, in July over 90% of respondents in the five mainland states indicated that they were ‘definitely’ or ‘probably required’.

Asked for response to the statement that ‘people on low incomes receive enough financial support from the government,’ 54% indicated agreement, substantially higher than 40% in 2019.

These positive findings on Australian governments mirror those of national – and some international – organisations, including the Lowy Institute, Essential Report, Newspoll, Australian Unity, the Pew Research Centre, and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation.

A consistent finding of the Scanlon Foundation surveys is the strong level of endorsement of the ideal of an open society, characterised by global trade, high levels of immigration and  multiculturalism – and rejection of overt discrimination on the basis of race or religion in immigrant selection.  This pattern is again evident in 2020.

In response to a question that asked if ‘growing economic ties between Australia and other countries’ is good or bad, a substantial majority, 72%, considered that it was ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good,’ only marginally lower than 75% in 2019.

Asked to reflect on ‘the number of immigrants accepted into Australia in recent years, 62% of respondents indicated that it had been ‘about right’ or ‘too low.’

A new question in 2020 asked if ‘someone who was born outside of Australia is just as likely to be a good citizen as someone born in Australia;’ 90% indicated agreement.

In response to the statement that ‘multiculturalism has been good for Australia,’ 84% agreed, higher than 80% in 2019.

Nearly nine months after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life across the world, a large majority of Australians remained optimistic for the future. Although not without qualification, the substantially positive attitudes identified in the survey provide evidence of a strong, cohesive and resilient society.

In the context of the cut and thrust of politics, with much of the national media focused on the negative, and the polarised discourse of online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, there can be a loss of focus on the fundamentals of a society: on what policies are supported by a substantial majority of the population, on what governments get right, and what in the reckoning of a post-pandemic world need to be evaluated in positive terms alongside failures and inadequacies.

Emeritus Professor Andrew Markus is the author of Mapping Social Cohesion – The Scanlon Foundation Surveys 2020

Read the report here

Feb. 09, 2021

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