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Stopping the boats as a part of our national identity


'Australian Attitudes towards National Identity: Citizenship, Immigration and Tradition' Searching for our identity as Australians is more than just an ivory tower exercise. Quantitative research may never provide fully satisfactory answers, but it does make a serious contribution to such searching.

Recently I joined a panel to discuss the latest in a series of ANU Polls, which seek to extend our understanding of Australian society. This one was about 'Australian Attitudes towards National Identity: Citizenship, Immigration and Tradition'.

At one level we Australians are pretty happy with ourselves; perhaps that is why we are also quite traditional and resistant to change. But there is also evidence of some disquiet with aspects of our society and of tensions in attitudes towards ‘big-ticket’ items, like immigration and the republic.

When asked what it means to be ‘Australian’ 92 per cent, higher than before, responded that it included speaking the English language, while 44 per cent, lower than previously, thought it meant being born in Australia. While I was surprised that the latter figure was so high at least the fact that it is going down is encouraging evidence that Australia is becoming a more inclusive society.

The responses related to 'Pride in Australia' were also intriguing. We are not generally 'my country right or wrong' proud, but we do come across as a nation proud of lots of things about our country; especially proud of scientific and technological achievements (90 per cent), which is perhaps surprising, and equally of our sporting achievements (90 per cent), which is to be expected. We are also proud of our armed forces (88 per cent), which in the year of the centenary of Gallipoli rings true.

But beyond that our pride diminishes. Only 82 per cent are proud of the way our democracy works, a high figure perhaps, but in comparison to the other figures above not so high. In answer to an associated question 35 per cent of us are dissatisfied with the way our country is heading.  

A relatively low 73 per cent are proud of our social security system, and an even lower 67 per cent are proud of the extent of our fair and equal treatment of groups in society. There figures contain insights and warning signs for governments, political parties and the whole community.

So far as attitudes towards immigration and monarchy/republic are concerned we are torn. It is reassuring, in a highly contested field, that 42 per cent of us, the largest group, think that the number of immigrants being received into Australia is about right, and 26 per cent believe the number should be increased. High numbers also believe that immigrants improve Australian society (86 per cent) and are generally good for our economy (83 per cent).

But Australians overwhelmingly, 65 per cent in total, believe that stronger measures should be taken to 'exclude illegal immigrants'. The framing of this question can certainly be challenged, but the authors of the official report on the poll comment that 'support for Australia’s border protection policies of recent years is both widespread and resilient'.

Republican sentiment in Australia remains surprisingly resilient too given the pro-royal context of the past decade or so since the failed 1999 referendum. Support for a republic has fallen more than ten points since 1998. But a majority of Australians (54 per cent) still believe that Australia should become a republic with an Australian head of state and only 29 per cent approve of the Prime Minister’s decision to reintroduce knights and dames to official Australian honours. In the current mix of royal tours by princes and duchesses and royal babies such relatively unwavering republican beliefs fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

If there is a common thread to our attitudes to two such seemingly different subjects like immigration and monarchy/republic then maybe it is our perception of our external environment. In a threatening world attachment to tradition becomes more attractive. Welcoming new people to our country and welcoming constitutional change demands a willingness to be bold. As a nation it appears that we tentatively want to move in that direction, but we also are not yet quite ready to go forward either with confidence or too quickly.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, nationalism, opinion polls, politics



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Existing comments

If you ask stupid questions about people who do not exist in our law then you get a stupid answer, I am sick to death of pollsters and focus groups peddling lies and hate about refugees.

Marilyn | 06 May 2015  

"65 per cent in total, believe that stronger measures should be taken to 'exclude illegal immigrants'" tells us quite a lot. Strong measures of course if it is illegal. But it is the same politicians who coined it as illegal to seek refuge who want to maintain the fear, the terror, so that they can do what they wish to pretend to protect us. No wonder as John suggests that we are fearful generally and wanting to conserve rather than move forward.

Michael D. Breen | 06 May 2015  

"But Australians overwhelmingly, 65 per cent in total, believe that stronger measures should be taken to 'exclude illegal immigrants'" tells us that the demonisation of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat has succeeded. It follows that, if we treat these people even more harshly, the majority of Australians will still approve. What have we learnt from Germany of the 1930s?

Ian Fraser | 12 May 2015  

"Citizenship, Immigration and Tradition'." 1. Citizenship: 'Our' tradition is that we kow-tow to an unelected British monarch who is privileged by right of birth to receive our grateful kow-towing regardless of any personal qualities or lack thereof. 2. Immigration: Those who established our traditions were immigrants who arrived by boat with no legal right or title to do so. Currently anyone who aspires to imitate them is demonised and subjected to deprivation of rights and to prolonged incarceration for choosing their particular life-style. 3.Tradition: This means conforming to 'our' choice of lifestyle. Any other tradition is dismissed as arbitrarily choosing a life-style incompatible with ours, and so of no value.

Robert Liddy | 18 May 2015  

Looks like we've been conned. Nobody has "stopped the boats". They are still on the move, they just aren't coming here. Someone else's problem. Nothing to do with us and nothing for us to worry about. Problem solved, go back to sleep.

Brett | 18 May 2015  

Thank goodness the first three commentators today were not in the Lindt Café in Sydney a couple of months ago. Had they been, however, I wonder if their comments today would be as blindly emotional as they are. I have no difficulty in seeing the horror experienced by those dear children and their families being executed in Northern Iraq by the barbarian Islamic State for no reason other than being Christian and would have no argument with anyone wishing to risk his all to save them. But in adopting Marilyn's emotional words, "I am sick to death of people falsely and deliberately claiming to be refugees and their focus groups peddling lies to gain entry to the benefits of this country.

john frawley | 18 May 2015  

I'd be happy to see stronger measures taken to exclude illegal immigrants, and I suppose I'd have said so if I'd been polled. However, I don't want stronger measures taken against asylum seekers, however they reach our shores. For them, I want more compassion, more humane treatment, and equal access to the 'legal' path to a successful visa application. It's about the language we use - and I do agree with Ian Fraser. The demonization campaign has succeeded magnificently, and it's largely by weaselly use of the language.

Joan Seymour | 18 May 2015  

Surely the question regarding illegal immigrants is misleading. If I answer that question my answer will probably be yes. We had the same problem with the referendum on a republic. That's often the problem with surveys, the questions are often skewed because different people have different definitions of the words used. It's unfortunate and sometimes deliberate.

Margaret McDonald | 18 May 2015  

This is a most interesting piece, and timely, appearing a day after our Prime Minister endorsed Malaysia's and other countries' driving boatloads of desperate people away from their coasts. Mr Abbott unrepentantly promotes 'stopping the boats' as good policy, with utter disregard for human life. From the survey results cited here, it appears that the Government's lack of compassion is approved by a significant proportion of the public. That support is the result of the incessant labelling of the situation as simply criminal: evil 'people smugglers' enticing people onto dangerous boats; but this is a gross distortion. 'Smugglers' exist because people are fleeing unspeakable conditions. What is happening to Rohingyas, for example, is well-documented cruelty; they and other desperate people flee because they are prepared to risk all to escape the oppression and danger they are living with. That Australia is not only ignoring their plight, but championing the harsh responses of others is a cause for shame, for many of us. Surely we are better than this?

Myrna | 18 May 2015  

Our esteemed prime minister was probably catering to the 65 percent of Australians who think he should be harder on refugees when he encouraged other countries in the region to turn boats back. Maybe the idea is to let a couple of thousand Rohingyas die of thirst in their boats. That should teach the rest of them to be happy with being non-citizens with no rights in their own country. It should make the good rulers of Myanmar happy too.

Gavan | 18 May 2015  

I find the results interesting, but generally disappointing. I agree with previous comments about the incorrect language 'illegal immigrant' when referring to legal asylum seekers. In these volatile times, people are a bit fearful of losing the comforts they are so lucky to have in this country. But a lot of this fear is fuelled by media. I don't think we Australians are very different to many other countries. But we are very fortunate and sometimes a little selfish and insular.

Cate | 18 May 2015  

What is most disconcerting about Professor Warhurst's findings is the bit about the exclusion of "illegal migrants". It is astounding that the notion that asylum seekers are "illegal" has seeped into the Australian psyche. Legality, or otherwise, does not occur in the annals of UNHCR when it comes to people fleeing from persecution and eventual deaths. In the early sixties, due to my ethnicity, I found myself technically stateless. I was a foreign student whose identity has been erased by the government of the country where I came from. And yet, though it was at the height of White Australia policy, this country gave me eventual refuge. I like to remember the compassion that I was offered when speaking of the kind of country Australia is. Not the one where 65% believe to "exclude illegal (sic) migrants".

Alex Njoo | 18 May 2015  

I am appalled at the callousness of our government. They have stopped the boats coming here and now the rest of the world is copying us.When I was a child we were always being warned by the priests, brothers and nuns to keep away from bad companions. Australia has become a bad companion.

Graham English | 18 May 2015  

Yes Marilyn: those pesky opinion polls are a wretched nuisance aren’t they? Especially when they show how little support there is for your pro-asylum-seekers views. Damned inconvenient! Clearly those “pollsters and focus groups peddling lies and hate” have completely distorted the true feelings of Australians who really oppose Abbott’s turning back the boats measures. Either that or Australians are just a bunch of selfish racist xenophobes who care nothing for those escaping oppression and persecution. I mean they’ve been brainwashed by all those right-wing shock jocks, the evil Murdoch press, and that odious Tony Abbott and his minions with their horrid dog whistle politics haven’t they? But then maybe not. Just maybe most Australians have enough sense to see that turning the boats back has probably saved hundreds of lives by now, bearing in mind that 1200 people had drowned trying to get to Australia from 2008-13, including hundreds of children (some unaccompanied). Since Abbott stopped the boats the drownings have stopped. Maybe too most Australians have long realized that most of these so-called asylum seekers were simply queue-jumping economic migrants taking the places of genuine refugees and fugitives from persecution. But asylum-seeker operatives stubbornly refuse to face such facts. To acknowledge them would be to admit to their responsibility for backing a disastrous policy – one that has not only killed 1200 people, cost Australia $12 billion but has denied refuge to up to 50,000 truly needy people in Middle East refugee camps. Who’d ever want to take the blame for such a mess!!! .Better to remain in a state of denial I suppose.

Dennis | 20 May 2015  

Makes me angry how we get bogged down in our elitist and irrelevant nit-pcking about labelling asylum seeker, refugees, or economic migrants. If you'd met any of these people, especially Africans, you'd realise the economic conditions and government corruption makes political/economic one and the same. A case in point - the US would accept relatively well-off Cuban boat arrivals as refugees (because they're fleeing communism) but send back dirt poor, malnourished Haitian boat people.

AURELIUS | 20 May 2015  

Ah, Dennis Anonymous really believes that turning the boats equates to saving lives at sea. How can one argue with that kind of logic. Did the killing of 2 Australian drug smugglers equate to winning the war on drugs? Not the same, I hear you say, Dennis? In the words of a song, where do we begin with people like you Dennis Anonymous. ?

Alex Njoo | 20 May 2015  

Yes Alex where do we begin? The obdurate .refusal of people such as yourself to accept the catastrophic consequences of pro asylum-seeker policies you so passionately support is truly difficult to understand. And what’s with the “Dennis Anonymous” tag you apply to me? What are you trying to imply?

Dennis | 22 May 2015  

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