There isn't a 'silent majority' of racists in Australia

By Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner.

Tim's headline above is beyond dispute but he goes downhill from there.  I have written previously about the Scanlon Foundation and its reports and what I have said previously still seems to apply.

Peter Scanlon was the man behind stevedoring business Patrick Corporation but he now seems to be mainly in shares and Real Estate.

This year's report has made a big issue over question wording. They know, I know and all survey researchers know that the wording of a question can greatly influence the answers. And by dwelling on that fact they apparently hope to obscure the reality that they are themselves great sinners in that regard.

Just to take a simple example from their survey, one of their questions is: "Marriage equality for same sex couples".  They find that 66% of respondents say they support it.  But the question is ludicrously biased.  It is put in a way that argues for it.  Were the question a straightforward "Homosexual marriage" they would undoubtedly get a very different percentage of approval.  The Labor party certainly thinks so.  That is why they strenuously resist a vote on the question.  They know that a referendum on the question would be lost.

And the Scanlon questions about "refugees" are amusing too. One question asked for agreement with a statement seeking support for  resettling  ‘refugees  who  have  been  assessed  overseas  and  found  to  be  victims  of  persecution  and  in  need  of  help'. A real tear-jerker! Unsurprisingly, two thirds of respondents agreed with that. I would have liked to ask for responses to "Most so-called refugees are really just economic immigrants in search of a country with generous welfare payments".  I might have got two thirds agreement with that too.

So Tim is entitled to believe the Scanlon report but from my viewpoint as an experienced survey researcher it is basically rubbish. To believe their results you would have to show that they are similar to results that have been obtained by other researchers.  And they themselves admit that their results are often very different.  They say that the other researchers have bad research methods but I think it is more a case of Luke 6:42.

So when Tim says "An overwhelming majority of people (83 per cent) believe that multiculturalism is good for the country", we have to ask WHICH cultures do people see as beneficial? Muslim culture?  Probably not. Scanlon doesn't ask that question. They don't want to know.

Having said all that there were nonetheless two points which even Scanlon picked up, two points that other surveys have found:  Environmental issues are bottom of the barrel in importance for Australians and Australians are far more anti-Muslim than they are anti any other religion

These are challenging times for race relations. In the United States, just a fortnight after the election of Donald Trump, there are already numerous reports of hate attacks on the rise. A similar trend was reported earlier this year following the Brexit vote in Britain.

This is what happens when political debates normalise attacks on immigrants and foreigners. This is what happens when populist nationalism trumps the normal rules of liberal democracy.

Australia is not the US. Neither is it Europe. But we are not immune from racial anxiety and xenophobia. There remains a small minority of people in our society who are hostile towards cultural diversity and immigration. These are people who believe that an Australian national identity is under threat from cultural change.

It is important that we deal with such concerns, that we understand why people may feel that way. Yet, as the Scanlon Foundation's Mapping Social Cohesion report shows, we shouldn't overstate such cultural angst. Those who are uncomfortable about multiculturalism do not constitute some "silent majority". The political mainstream mustn't rush to conclude otherwise.

Here are some of the facts, according to the Scanlon Foundation. An overwhelming majority of people (83 per cent) believe that multiculturalism is good for the country. A clear majority of people (59 per cent) believed that current levels of immigration were either "about right' or 'too low".

Such results, consistent with the Scanlon Foundation's findings over the years, are the best indication we have of where Australian public opinion really lies. It is confirmation that Australia remains a successful and harmonious nation of immigration.

Of course, recent commentary has painted a different picture. For example, one Essential Media poll about Muslim immigration has been frequently cited to support the proposition that half of Australians want to ban Muslim immigration.

Such commentary has tended to ignore other evidence indicating far more robust support for a non-discriminatory immigration policy. In a previous survey, the Scanlon Foundation in fact found that three-quarters of the population supported immigration being conducted on non-discriminatory lines. This year, the Scanlon Foundation found that with respect to Australia taking in refugees from Syria, 69 per cent indicated that "there should be equal consideration to all religious and ethnic groups".

The lesson is this. Political debate must avoid jumping to conclusions based on single opinion polls – especially when polls need to be interpreted with care. The best polls are those that can show trends over time. On matters of social cohesion, the Scanlon Foundation's findings have been robust and reliable.

Which is why there are some findings in this year's survey that should give us pause. There has been an increase in the reported experience of discrimination, which rose from 15 per cent of respondents in 2015 to 20 per cent in 2016. This is the highest proportion recorded since the Scanlon Foundation surveys began in 2007. Those of a non-English speaking background reported the highest experience of discrimination (27 per cent).

There can be no complacency on prejudice and discrimination. It remains fundamentally important that our society sends an emphatic signal that racism is unacceptable.


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