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Immigration, population growth and voters: who cares, and why? - Article by Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell

Previous research has shown a wide split between elite and non-elite opinion on topics such as cultural diversity, globalisation and immigration. Media professionals and most politicians share these elite views, but large swathes of the electorate do not. The current findings of the survey conducted late in 2018 by The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) on attitudes to immigration and population growth confirm this. They show that the split between elite and non-elite opinion is mirrored in the divisions between voters who are university graduates and voters who are not. This is logical as most elites are now recruited from the graduate class. The gap is wide. Overall 50% of voters want a reduction in immigration. But this proportion rises to 60% of non-graduates while only 33% of graduates agree. (The October/November 2018 TAPRI survey Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell.)

Overall 72% of voters say Australia does not need more people, a proportion that rises to 80% of non-graduates and falls to only 59% of graduates (Figures 1 and 2).

But these findings nonetheless present a puzzle. Given elite domination of cultural and political institutions, why haven’t the non-graduate majority fallen into line on population growth and immigration?

To answer this question we need to look more deeply into the second major finding of the TAPRI survey: the central relationship between attitudes to the cultural consequences of high immigration and a desire for the rate of growth to be slowed right down. (See pp. 19-34.)

We now know that most Australian voters are unhappy with the heavy growth that immigration policies impose upon them. Survey data and numerous complaints about congestion and unaffordable housing attest to this. The TAPRI survey asks whether there is anything more to their disquiet than practical and economic problems.

In 2016 commentators were taken aback by two unexpected and, seemingly, unrelated events: the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. Analysts scrambled for explanations and initially settled on the idea of voters who had been ‘left behind’, people economically pinched by the evaporation of manufacturing jobs in the heat of globalisation. These ‘left behinds’ had sought relief from their common misfortune by choosing the populist side in each of these two elections.

From this perspective the two events were related after all: economic pressures could explain them both. But now there has been time for more research and opinions have become more nuanced.

A number of analysts have found that it is not always the most destitute who have swung to the populist side. On the contrary, in both countries they are often people of middling means who are not as distressed by low wages and job losses as much as they are by the high immigration of ethnically diverse people and the cultural changes that they bring with them.

The divide is not so much between the well-to-do and the poor and unemployed. Rather it is between the graduate class, immersed in a cosmopolitan world view, and non-graduates attached to the ethos of their national home. Immigrants can share this attachment. Indeed it may have been the pull of the national culture which encouraged them to migrate in the first place. Because of this some of the new populists may be immigrants themselves.

That was the Executive Summary. You can download the entire report (88 pages) here:

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