Australians are less tolerant, less open and more nervous about the world than 10 years ago - but not as much as our politics might suggest. That's the take-home message from the Scanlon Foundation's long-running social cohesion study,?which for the past decade has tracked our feelings about immigration, multiculturalism and Australian society.
Over the years, our sense of belonging, worth and social justice have all taken a hit. From a benchmark of 100 points in 2007, the social cohesion index now sits at 88 - an equal record low since the survey began. But on many measures, Australia's commitment to multiculturalism and immigration remains upbeat against the odds.?
"The simple message would be yes, we're much worse than 2007," says Andrew Markus, the report's lead author and a professor at Monash University. "I think it's the contrary message – considering?what's happened over the 10 years and so on, we're?actually?surprisingly resilient in terms of our attitudes. Downward trend, but not by a huge margin."
The decline in social cohesion was spurred largely by a growing rejection of difference and sense of pessimism about the future. In 2007,?just 11 per cent of Australians felt their life would get worse over the coming few years - in 2017, that figure was 19 per cent. The number of people who strongly disagree with the idea that immigration makes Australia stronger increased from 8 per cent to 13 per cent.?
In the past year alone, the number of people who say immigrants need to change their behaviour rose by five percentage points, while fewer people think Australians should do more to learn about immigrants' customs. In 2017,?20 per cent of people?said they had experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity or religion in the past 12 months, compared to 9 per cent back in 2007.
On the hot-button question of Islam, the proportion of Australians who feel negatively about Muslims is stable at 25 per cent - when asked by a telephone interviewer. But when people complete the survey online by themselves, that figure increases to 41.4 per cent. Positivity toward Muslims was highest in Melbourne (34 per cent) and lowest in Brisbane (24 per cent).
But other indicators tell a different story. The number of people who think immigration is "too high" is consistent at just over a third, while 40 per cent say it's about right. Another 16 per cent of Australians say our current intake - 190,000 people per year - is too low. For reference, we're significantly more enthused about immigration than Britain, where 60 per cent think it is too high, but less enamoured than Canada, where it is just 23?per cent.
A huge majority (75 per cent) still agree Australia is "a land of economic opportunity where in the long run, hard work brings a better life". Financial satisfaction remains high, as does people's sense of individual happiness and worth. But fewer people feel an acute sense of belonging in Australia, with those saying they belong "to a great extent" declining to 67 per cent from 77 per cent.
The figures lead Professor Markus to conclude we are "much more at risk" of a political upset along the lines of Donald Trump or Brexit. The recent resurgence of One Nation is "not a surprise", he says, given the rising disaffection with politics. But does that mean more of us are motivated by race and immigration?
"No," says Professor Markus. "You've got an element in our society, and it's probably growing, but it's growing at the rate of three, four, five per cent, rather than 30 or 40 per cent."
The robustness revealed by Scanlon's annual?survey of 1500 Australians?is notable?given our changing?canvas over the past decade. The?overseas-born population has grown 37 per cent, with the number of those from China rising 109 per cent, India 176 per cent and the Philippines 74 per cent.?
Overall, the percentage of the Australian population that is overseas-born crept up?from 25 per cent to 28 per cent. But in?the same period, the number of Sydney council areas with majority overseas-born residents?rose from one in eight to one in five. In Melbourne, it went from one in 30 to one in nine.
"What that is saying to me is that there's increasing concentration of the overseas-born population," Professor Markus says. "You've got immigrant communities that are not being integrated in the way that they were in the past. We've got a number of risk factors there that are much more significant than they were in 2007."
Having just smashed through the world record for uninterrupted economic growth, Australia is long overdue for a recession or the type of shock that could see hate and anti-politics boil over.
"We've got less money in the bank in terms of the?capital?we have to deal with a crisis," says Professor Markus. "In terms of?resilience?and robustness, and risk factors, they're there in neon lights. If you have a system which?is rudderless,?which?doesn't have strong leadership ...?I do believe that we're much more at risk.?Australia coped quite well with the global financial crisis?- could it cope again if there were another similar event?"