Australians’ concern about climate change has seen a marked increase amidst a backdrop of mostly stable attitudes on immigration and democracy, according to the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s 2019 Mapping Social Cohesion Report. 

Released on Tuesday, the report is produced by Monash University researchers and uses a survey with some 90 questions to gauge a nuanced understanding of shifts in public opinion on social cohesion and population issues.

Now in its twelfth year, the report is the largest and longest-running research series of its kind, with a sample of more than 3,500 respondents in 2019, reached online and via telephone interviews. 

Report author Professor Andrew Markus said this year’s survey results found evidence of a large measure of stability, but also some concerning trends.

“In line with previous surveys, ninety per cent of respondents in 2019 reported a ‘great’ or ‘moderate’ sense of belonging in Australia, 84% indicated they have been ‘very happy’ or ‘happy’ over the last year, and 62% were ‘very optimistic’ or ‘optimistic’ about Australia’s future,” Markus said.

Concern over the quality of government as the most important issue facing Australia was at its lowest level (6%) since the question was first asked in 2011, and the proportion who believe Australian democracy ‘works fine’ or ‘needs minor change’ (58%) was consistent with previous years.

Concern about climate change, on the other hand, recorded a major spike in 2019.

“When asked about the most important issue facing Australia, in the context of 15 different issues, 19% of people – twice as many as last year – nominated climate change. This represents the equal largest increase in a year for any issue since the surveys began,” Markus said.

Concern about the environment was most pronounced in young adults – 43% of 18-24-year-olds nominated it as the most important issue – and lowest amongst those aged 35-44 (12%) and 75+ (8%).

Immigration was a major political issue in 2018, but in line with the findings of two other recent surveys, the 2019 Mapping Social Cohesion results picked up a slight lowering in concern about the current immigration intake, with 41% of people feeling the intake was ‘too high’ (compared to 43% in 2018).

“Consistent with previous years, there is majority agreement that accepting migrants from different countries makes Australia stronger, and more than 80% of respondents agree that multiculturalism has been good for Australia,” Markus said.

“The area where there is concern, however, is on the impact of immigration on quality of life.” 

Negativity around these issues is more pronounced in self-completed online surveys than it is in telephone interviews. In the self-completed survey, a substantial majority of respondents were concerned about the impact of immigration on ‘overcrowding in cities’ (70%), ‘house prices’ (60%), government failure to ‘manage population growth’ (57%) and immigration’s impact on ‘the environment’ (58%).

There also continues to be a relatively high proportion of respondents who have negative attitude towards Muslims. Respondents were asked for their attitudes towards four faith groups. In the self-completed online survey, 6% were negative towards Buddhists, 10% towards Hindus, 14% towards Christians, and a much higher 40% towards Muslims.

Over the course of the surveys, respondents have been asked if they have experienced discrimination in the last twelve months because of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion; 42% of Muslims report experience of discrimination, 38% Hindu, 24% Buddhist, and 15% or less of the major Christian faith groups. 

Though 2019 findings point to a largely positive outlook, close analysis of Scanlon survey responses over the last decade provide a long-term perspective and draw attention to potentially important shifts in opinion.

“While questions on sense of belonging and happiness have consistently obtained positive responses since the Scanlon surveys began, there has been a significant decline in the proportion with strongly held positive views. 

“For example, the proportion who feel a sense of belonging to a ‘great extent’ has dropped from 74% in 2007 to 63% in 2019, and the number of people identifying as ‘very happy’ has dropped from 34% in 2007 to 23% in 2019. In 2007, 24% indicated that they expected their lives to be ‘much improved’ over the next three or four years, in 2019 a lower 17%. 

New questions examining attitudes on globalisation and international affairs also uncovered emerging issues to be monitored over the coming years.

“From a list of four countries, respondents selected China by a large margin as Australia’s most important economic partner today, and the expectation was of increasing Chinese influence ten years from now. However, just 28% agreed that they had confidence in China doing the right thing regarding Australia’s economic interests,” Professor Markus said. 

The 2019 Mapping Social Cohesion Report is available at scanloninstitute.org.au/research/surveys/ from Tuesday 26 November.