Mapping
Social Cohesion 2021

> Launching the Australian Cohesion Index> Incorporating the Scanlon-Monash Index

For more than a decade, the Scanlon Foundation and Scanlon Foundation Research Institute have been conducting and leading research on social cohesion in Australia via the Mapping Social Cohesion Research series.

Watch the Social Cohesion Report

2021 marks our fifteenth survey, and the third during the pandemic.

This year’s national survey, administered through the Social Research Centre’s probability-based Life in Australia PanelTM, tells us the story of a country making its way through a crisis.

It helps us understand how Australia is responding to the pandemic. What it means for our cohesion. And, what it means for our future.

Our long running surveys tell the story of Australia over time. This year, it tells us even more. It reveals the character of our country as we live through a prolonged crisis.

This year, additional products are added to our research program. The Australian Cohesion Index, developed with funding from the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs, combines attitudinal data from the survey with objective indicators for the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other sources. Combining these data-sets brings more depth and context to the picture of social cohesion in Australia.

Rounding out 2021’s expanded program, we have commissioned a qualitative research project, included as part of the report, to capture in-depth interviews with people from local government areas across Australia with high immigrant and refugee populations, recording the lived experiences of their communities and connection.

Last year’s Mapping Social Cohesion findings indicated that, during the first eight months of the COVID-19 crisis, Australia had experienced increased social cohesion, as people responded to a common threat through mutual support.

Now, almost a year on, and with COVID-19 still very much a part of our lives, has that trend continued, halted, or reversed?

Mapping Social Cohesion 2021

Mapping Social Cohesion 2021 Survey

Our fifteenth report on our annual national survey

The Australian Cohesion Index

The new expanded Index on cohesion in Australia

Life in the pandemic

Data and qualitative research on the impact of the pandemic on communities

chapter 1

The state of cohesion

In the 2021 survey, the pandemic remains the number one issue facing Australia named by respondents. This represents a resurgence: after being named the most important issue by 63% of respondents in July 2020, this number dropped to 32% in November 2020. In July 2021, it jumped up to 59%.

What do you think is the most important problem facing Australia today?

But what does this mean for the national mood?

With a clear majority focused on one issue, what does it mean for the state of cohesion in Australia?

An answer lies in the Scanlon-Monash Index (SMI), which aggregates responses to 18 questions. It measures attitudes within the five domains with conceptualise social cohesion: belonging, worth, social justice, political participation and acceptance of diversity.

^ denotes LinA survey mode

In 2021, the SMI is marginally lower than in the 2020 surveys. However, in four of the five domains, the SMI was higher in 2021 than in 2019.

Growing concerns

The major shift in opinion recorded in the 2021 survey relates to the government’s ability to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Approval of the federal government’s response to the pandemic has fallen from a very high 85% in 2020 to 52%, although still a majority.

How well is the federal government responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

In your opinion, how well is your state government responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Response: ‘very well’ or ‘fairly well’, percentage

State by state

In 2021, positive assessment of government was higher at state than the federal level.

Positive assessment was highest in Western Australia (94%) and South Australia (88%), only marginally lower than in 2020.

In Victoria, positive assessment was at 71% (compared to 56% in July 2020 and 78% in November 2020).

The largest fall in the assessment of state governments was in Queensland at 76% (92% in July 2020) and New South Wales at 59% (81% in 2020).

Trust in government

While in 2021 trust in government is lower than in 2020, it is still substantially higher than recorded in surveys between 2010 and 2019.

How often do you think the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing for the Australian people?

^ denotes LinA survey mode

Variations by political alignment

A key predictor of trust in government is a person’s support or opposition to the party in power.

A relatively low proportion indicate trust in government among those intending to vote One Nation (20%), Greens (22%), and Labor (31%).

This is in contrast with a substantial majority of those intending to vote Liberal/National (73%).

chapter 2

Australia’s mood: of trust and optimism

A number of questions provide insight into the national mood, which was found to be positive over the three surveys conducted in 2020-21. Many Australians say they are optimistic about the country’s future and demonstrate a willingness to trust other people.

It has been argued that trust is the key variable for predicting the level of social cohesion in a society.

Most people can be trusted

Comparison of the 2021 findings with combined data for the 2018-19 survey and the July 2020 survey was undertaken by six demographic and two attitudinal variables. The finding is that trust in 2021 is consistently higher than in 2019.

Who’s most trusting?

The highest-level of agreement that ‘most people can be trusted’ is among those who indicate their financial situation is ‘prosperous’ or ‘very comfortable’ (67%), and those with a post-graduate qualification (66%)

Lowest-level of agreement is among One Nation supporters (33%), those whose self-described financial situation is ‘struggling to pay bills’ or ‘poor’ (29%) and whose highest level of education is up to Year 11 (39%).

71%

said they were optimistic about Australia’s future, up from 70% in 2020 and 63% in 2019.

86%

said people in their local area are willing to help their neighbours, the same number as 2020 and up from 81% in 2019.

Happiness and Satisfaction

2020 and 2021 saw a significant increase in financial satisfaction.

Sense of worth

chapter 3

Experience (and perception) of discrimination

A substantial number of Australians still face discrimination.

In past Scanlon Foundation surveys, the highest level of discrimination was reported by Australians of non-English speaking background. This worrying finding remains a feature in 2021.

Have you experienced discrimination in the last twelve months because of your skin colour, ethnic origin or religion? Response: ‘yes’

There is one significant aspect of the finding that seems to challenge the positive indication of the national mood.

In your opinion, how big a problem is racism in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Despite no increase in reported discrimination between July 2020 and the 2021 report, 60% of people said they consider racism a ‘fairly big problem’ or ‘very big problem’, up from 39% in 2020. An increase of 20 percentage points in response to a general question of this nature is almost unprecedented in the Scanlon Foundation surveys.

Minority opinions

What of minority opinion, has there been a shift during the pandemic? A significant increase in stress and anxiety has been reported by some national surveys.

The Scanlon Foundation survey has not registered this shift, but it has found that minorities with negative outlook comprise 15%-30% of the population, depending on question wording. While the majority indicated that they were optimistic about the future, 29% were ‘pessimistic’ or ‘very pessimistic’. This was, however, a lower proportion than in 2019, when 36% indicated pessimism.

chapter 4

Openness to the world

With borders closed due to the pandemic, how do Australians feel about reopening to the world? In terms of trade, migration and multiculturalism – has the pandemic made us closed off, or ready to re-engage?

Globalisation

Thinking about the growing economic ties between Australia and other countries, sometimes referred to as globalisation, do you think this is very good, fairly good, fairly bad or very bad for Australia?

Australia’s openness to the world was considered in a question first included in the 2018 survey. Respondents are asked if ‘growing economic ties between Australia and other countries, sometimes referred to as globalisation’, is good or bad for the country.

The number of people agreeing globalisation has been good for Australia is 76%, more than three quarters.

Who disagrees?

A relatively high proportion (although minority) of the view that growing economic ties are bad for Australia is found among...

42%

One Nation supporters

31%

Those whose financial situation is indicated to be ‘struggling to pay bills’ or ‘poor’

30%

Those whose financial situation is ‘just getting along’

29%

Those whose highest level of education is at the trade or apprentice level

In your opinion, should Australia trade more with the rest of the world, trade about the same, or trade less?

Migration

Openness to the world extends beyond trade. Agreement with the proposition that ‘immigrants are generally good for Australia’s economy’ has jumped significantly, with only 14% disagreeing with the sentiment.

The impact of immigration, selected questions

People also continue to see the value of multiculturalism – with an overwhelming majority thinking it has been good for Australia.

Multiculturalism has been good for Australia

^ denotes LinA survey mode

It is unusual to find such a high level of positive response – above 80% – to any question that deals with a government policy that has been the subject of controversy; for example, in July 2021, 67% viewed the immigration intake of recent years as ‘about right’ or ‘too low’.

Values to immigrants are improving

84%

Agree that immigrants improve Australian society by bringing new ideas and cultures

86%

Agree that immigrants are generally good for the economy

75%

Disagree that immigrants take jobs away

Rejection of racist perspectives was also indicated by questions concerning Indigenous Australians.

No less than 90%, among the highest level obtained for any question across the survey, indicated agreement with the proposition that ‘The relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the wider Australian community is very important for Australia as a nation’. Agreement with inclusion in the school curriculum of ‘Indigenous histories and cultures’ was almost at the same exceptional level, 88%.

Strong negative opinions

Evidence on the balance of opinion is provided by the tracking of strong negative responses, indicated by those who are most likely proponents of racist and xenophobic views. The findings suggest this is a shrinking (not increasing) sector of the population: fewer respondents indicated strong negative views than in the years preceding the pandemic.

3% ‘strongly disagreed’ with the view that ‘multiculturalism has been good for Australia’, compared to 7% in 2019.

5% indicated strong agreement in 2021 with the notion of ‘rejection purely on the basis of religion’ in the selection of immigrants, compared to 11% in 2019.

10% in 2021 indicated a ‘very negative’ view of Muslims, compared to 17% in 2019.

chapter 5

How has Australia fared in a time of crisis?

An additional component of this year’s report are interviews that were conducted to ensure it reflects lived experiences in a time of crisis and the experiences of groups not necessarily well represented in the national survey.

66 interviews
All mainland states
Focused on 10 LGAs with high cultural and religious diversity

The interviews indicate social cohesion has not been broken by the pandemic. There was no evidence of widespread tensions in communities, of conflict or the ongoing targeting of members of certain cultural communities.

A number of further positives were highlighted. There was a general feeling that communities would emerge stronger from the pandemic, not weaker. Interviewees expressed a sense of hope about the future and acknowledged their communities’ resilience. For some, the pandemic helped foster a sense of unity, beyond perceived difference.

conclusion

Cohesion perseveres

The 2020 and 2021 Scanlon Foundation surveys have found evidence of a strong, cohesive and resilient society, although not without qualification.

Despite the level of economic dislocation, the surprising finding is that more positive responses have been obtained for a number of questions on personal financial circumstances than in the previous two years.

Unexpectedly, the Scanlon-Monash Index moved in a positive direction, both in July and November 2020, and while it was lower in 2021 at 88, it was still 4.3 index points higher than the pre-pandemic level.

The key to the positive findings appears to be the high (although declining) level of support for government; the high level of trust in fellow citizens; the level of economic satisfaction; and optimism for the future.

Neither the 2020 nor the 2021 survey obtained indication of heightened support for raising barriers and closing Australia to the world. A substantial majority of survey respondents continue to endorse open trade, immigration and multicultural policies. Almost all Australians endorse the general statement that an immigrant is just as likely to make a good citizen as an Australian-born person.