Scanlon Foundation Research Institute presented the 2023 Mapping Social Cohesion Report at a special event on Tuesday 14 November 2023 at Alto Event Space, Melbourne.


Please note this transcript is automatically generated and may contain errors.

Anthea Hancocks: I’m very pleased to welcome Dr. James O’Donnell. James has recently been awarded with an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award in recognition of his work in social cohesion and in demography. So, we’re really pleased to see that he’s being recognised for the enormous work that we recognized in him. When we asked him to come on and take on this mantle from Professor Marcus, who’s here as well. Um, having been inundated with an absolutely extraordinary amount of data over the last month or so, and actually some of it very recently, he’s been able to provide us with an exceptional summary of the findings for 2023. So, thank you, James.

Dr. James O’Donnell: Thank you, Anthea. Thank you everyone. Thank you to Peter. Of course. And all of you for coming. It’s an exciting time to be here for my second launch of the Mapping Social Cohesion report. It is, though, a challenging time. It’s been a challenging 12 months or so. We’ve seen difficult debates in division, including over the voice referendum, global conflict, and tension, and to which we’re all connected through our diversity and the fact that we’re coming from all parts of the world and all sides of current debates and conflicts. And economic and financial concerns, including fears for the global economy and worries for our own household finances. This is put social cohesion under pressure, and in 2023 Australians are reporting a weaker sense of national pride and belonging. Increased financial stress and declining financial satisfaction, increased concern for economic inequality, weaker trust in government and people generally, increased pessimism for the future, and greater division on key challenges and issues. But we remain connected and engaged in our local communities. More than 80% of us have neighbours that help one another and get along well. Around 55% of us are actively engaged in social, community and civic groups. We continue to value multiculturalism, the relationship with First Nations Australians and the contributions of immigrants to Australian society, culture, and the economy. Nearly 90% of us agree that multiculturalism has been good for Australia. Almost 90% agree that the relationship with First Nations Australians is very important, and we’re committed to democracy and engaged in our political system.

In more than 90% of us still think democracy is a very or fairly good system of government in Australia. There are some of the key findings of this year’s Mapping Social Cohesion study. Running since 2007. Of course, it’s now become the preeminent and unparalleled source of information on social cohesion, not just in Australia but around the world. The centrepiece of the of the study is, of course, the annual survey. It’s been run every year since 2009, after an initial survey in 2007. And as in most years, the survey this year was run in July with more than 90 questions related to social cohesion and related attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours. In this year we had almost 7700 people. More than 7700 people complete a survey. So, we had 7500 people complete the full survey through the social research centres. Life in Australia panel. And then another 250 people were interviewed as part of a targeted programme to ensure that we’re representing as much of Australia’s diversity as we possibly can. Now, the Life in Australia panel, run by the Social Research Centre that’s mostly an online survey, but we do have 2 to 3% of people who are able to and do complete the survey by telephone. The 250 people is all in online survey now. Prior to 2018, it was entirely a telephone survey, and that transition from a telephone survey to an online survey impacted some of our results, but in ways we can measure and talk about.

And then to cap it off, we had 55 in-depth interviews with overseas born Australians in 2023 to examine, particularly their sense of belonging and identity in Australia and how that develops over time. So, all told, the mapping of Social Cohesion 2023 study is telling us more about Australia in all its rich diversity than ever before. As every year, mapping social cohesion is measured on five key domains. The first being the sense of belonging. So, the sense of national pride and belonging in Australia. And in the last couple of years, we’ve included more questions on the sense of neighbourhood belonging and personal connections. The sense of worth refers to the sense of happiness people feel, their personal well-being as well as their financial well-being. Social inclusion and justice refer to the sense of fairness in society or perceived fairness in society and economic opportunity in particular, as well as trust in government and institutions. Participation is our fourth domain, so traditionally this has been measured in terms of engagement in political activities and engagement in our democracy. In the last couple of years, we’ve complemented that with more information on how people engage in their communities and in social and civic groups. And a fifth domain, acceptance, and rejection, referring to acceptance and support for our differences in our diversity as well as the experience of discrimination.

Now we have questions to inform our understanding of all these five domains, and we add these all up to come up with an overall measure of social cohesion. So, this is our Scanlon Monash index of social cohesion. So, we started from our first survey in 2007. We started with a benchmark score of 100 and we’re tracking social cohesion against that benchmark over time. So, throughout the 20 tens, social cohesion averaged around about a score of 90 throughout this time is reasonably consistent. When we transitioned to the mostly online survey, we did see a fall in measured cohesion, as people were more likely to admit being financially dissatisfied, more likely to admit being unhappy, and less connected in some ways to Australian society. But we can measure and adjust for that effect. And when we do, we see that social cohesion increased during 2020, particularly during the Covid 19 pandemic, galvanising response to a collective effort to protect our health and wellbeing. But it’s been declining since in 2022. Last year I was up here saying that we’re back to a sort of pre-pandemic level of around about a score of 90, but this year it’s declined again and is now lower than it has been since, since it was first measured in 2007. So social cohesion is declining. In the last year, we’ve seen a three-point decline in the sense of belonging and a ten-point decline since the 20 tens, a three-point decline, also in the sense of worth.

So that was around happiness and financial well-being and a six-point decline over since the 20 tens, nine-point decline in social inclusion and justice. With a 13-point decline over the 20 tens, political participation has been stable. So, we’re still engaged in democracy and our political system. And we’ve seen a nine-point decline in acceptance. But there’s some nuance around these findings that I’m going to talk about. So overall, social cohesion has declined by five points over the last year and a similar amount since the 20 tens. Start to unpack why some of these declines have happened. Start with that sense of belonging and that decline in the sense of national belonging that we’ve been recording over time. So, in 2023, 48% of us say we have a great sense of belonging in Australia. So, this was the first time it had fallen below 50%. And so, since 2020, it’s declined by around about 15 percentage points. And after adjusting for that transition to the online survey, we estimate that this proportion has declined by about 22 percentage points since 2017, sorry, 2007, and by about 16 points since the 20 tens. We’re a little bit less trusting of other people and a bit more pessimistic. So, in 2023, 47% of us say that generally speaking, most people can be trusted. This is by far one of the most famous and widely used measures of social cohesion and social capital in the world today.

Usually, we’re really evenly split on this question. So, 50% say people can be trusted, 50% say you can’t be too careful. We did we did have a little bit of a high in 2020 when this proportion got up to 53%, but it’s been declining since. But it’s at least in line with historical averages. But in terms of pessimism, 41% of us now say that we’re pessimistic about Australia’s future, the highest since this was first measured or first asked about in the survey in 2018. And around a quarter of us, 26% are saying we think our own life in Australia will be worse in the next 3 or 4 years, again higher than it’s been in the series. Trust in government in 2023, 36% of people say that the federal government can be trusted all or most of the time. This decline quite sharply since the pandemic, when we did have a boost in trust in government, when 56% of people said this was true. But we’ve now sort of lost that that pandemic era trust in government. And we’re sort of back to where we were in 2019. And although we’re fairly distrusting generally, and of course, the 20 tens, only around about 30% of us thought the federal government could be trusted all or most of the time. And then that also affects a view on the wider political system and can breed a sense of distrust and cynicism in politics generally.

So, in 2023, 41% of us saying the system of government in Australia needs major change or should be replaced. This is similar to where it was sort of in that sort of late 20 tens, mid to late 20 tens, but it is quite a bit higher than it was in 2020. In 2023, 84% of people say that government leaders abuse their power. All or most, or at least some of the time. 30% think it’s all or some of most of the time. And again, this has been increasing over the last couple of years that we’ve asked this question. And 36% of us say that elections are fair only some of the time, at most 14% say that it’s a little or none of the time. So, there’s this reasonably similar to levels we’ve recorded over the last couple of years, but it is somewhat of a concern that more than 1 in 3 people are saying elections aren’t necessarily fair even most of the time. Now, it won’t be any surprise to anyone that economic and financial concerns are contributing to these trends. The first question asked on the Mapping Social Cohesion survey is what do people think is the most important issue facing Australia today? And this year, 48%, almost half of people said economic issues. Comfortably the highest proportion that’s ever been citing economic issues. 14% are also citing housing shortages and affordability.

So combined 62% are citing economic and housing issues as the number one problem facing Australia. By far the highest proportions of the citing either of both of these issues in the history of this question since 2011. This is seen in the personal and household experience of financial hardship. This year, around 2 in 5 people are saying that dissatisfied with their financial situation. Around 2% are saying the describe themselves as poor. 8% are describing themselves as struggling to pay the bills and 27% as just getting a loan. So altogether, 2 in 5 people are also saying that they’re just getting along at best. And this has increased from 31% in 2021. Around 1 in 10 people sometimes or often went without meals in the last 12 months. 12% could not pay the rent or mortgage, and 22% said they couldn’t pay for medicines or health. Renters and mortgages are equally likely to be experiencing hardship, reflecting some of the pressures in the housing market for both renters and mortgagees. So, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are most likely to be renting and mortgaging are equally likely to be experiencing hardship. So almost half of people 18 to 24, 25 to 34, 35 to 44 are saying they’re just getting along at best. Single parents, people living in group households, people living alone and most likely to be experiencing financial hardship. We recorded 2 in 3 single parents saying they’re just getting along at best.

And these same groups are also saying that the more likely to be unhappy and isolated from others. So, we’re also seeing two and three young adults in 63% of single parents saying they are feeling isolated from some, from others some of the time or often. And it’s not just about the hip pocket either. So, Australians are concerned about economic inequality more generally. This year, 63% of people agree that Australia is a land of economic opportunity, where in the long run, hard work brings a better life. Now that’s still a majority of people, but that has declined quite a bit in over the last ten years. In 2007, more than 80% of people agreed with the statement sort of really tapped into the Australian sense of the fair go. And so, it cut across social and political divides where people believed that despite their struggles and challenges, hard work ultimately brings a better life. So, the fact that that has declined by around about 20 percentage points, or almost 20 percentage points over the last ten years, is something of concern. 84% of people think the gap between those with high and low incomes is too large, and this has increased again since 2020 and since the 20 tens, and only around 2 in 5 people agree that people on low incomes receive enough support. So again, substantially down on past levels. And this is weighing down our social cohesion.

So, it weighs it down directly through that sense of social inclusion and justice in society, through our own sort of personal well-being and personal material well-being. But it also has by far the largest indirect effect of all our measures that we capture in the survey. So people experiencing severe financial hardship compared with those experiencing no hardship, a 42% less likely to feel a great sense of belonging in Australia, 58% less likely to say they trust the federal government all or most of the time, 50% less likely to say people generally can be trusted more than twice as likely to feel isolated from others, often, or sometimes more than twice as likely to believe their own life in Australia will be worse in 3 or 4 years, and also less likely to believe that migrant diversity makes Australia stronger. So, the experience of financial stress is a burden on all aspects of our social cohesion, from our connections to other people that trust our belonging, our trust in government and other people, and our recognition and support and tolerance of our diversity. Equally, people worried about inequality are much less likely to have a great sense of belonging in Australia, less likely to trust the federal government, much more likely to be pessimistic about Australia’s future. So, these issues combine both the personal and household experience of financial stress, and that perception of economic opportunity and fairness in society is weighing down our cohesion.

We’re also a little more divided on some of these key challenges and issues. Now, the survey, as I say, was run in July 2023, around about four months before the or three months before the Voice referendum. But in that time, and particularly between when we ran the survey in 2022 and 2023, so a big, big decline among coalition voters and support for the voice much larger than other voters and also declining concern for climate change. And we can see so we can see the sort of emerging, potentially emerging. I’m going to say that’s not necessarily a cause caused concern, but we can see potential emerging polarization on some of these key issues across a whole load of indicators, particularly looking at either side of the last federal election when the labour government came to power in May 2022. So, among coalition voters, trust and federal government declined by much more or declined by 4440 percentage points compared to an increase for labour voters. And that’s not necessarily so surprising. The more concerning part, perhaps, is that then that’s filtered, then to attitudes towards our political system and even our electoral system. So, the proportion of coalition voters, voters believing elections are fair, all or most of the time also declined by quite substantially over that two-year period. And the proportion that a pessimistic about Australia’s future also increased very substantially. So, as I say, it’s not necessarily a great cause for concern.

Yet we expect and hope that our attitudes and trust vary by our political preferences and voting patterns. And that’s a sign of a democracy that it’s representing the diversity of our opinions and ideas and values. But this kind of polarization also does feed into the global challenge and the challenge of polarization that has been such a major feature of many political and electoral systems around the world today. Australia’s done well so far, but I guess these sorts of trends warrant further monitoring. So, a challenging time. But there are reasons for optimism. Firstly, our relationship with First Nations Australians is still seen as very important. So, 86% of people this year agree that Australia’s relationship to its First Nations people is very important, and this includes the majority of people who disagreed with the voice at the time. When the survey was run in, in in July. So almost 80% of people who disagreed with the voice and 62% of people who strongly disagreed with the voice still think that that relationship is very important. Suddenly, large majorities of us believe we should be learning more about indigenous histories and cultures, including through the school curriculum, again, including the majority of people who disagreed and strongly disagreed with the voice. So, the referendum was a difficult and divisive debate, but there is a strong commitment to the relationship and a platform there to continue the process of reconciliation.

We also remain engaged in democracy. We run about 90 to 93% of us still think a democracy is a very good, a fairly good system of government. We do have around about 1 in 5 people, around about 20% of people, saying that a system with a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections would be a fairly a very good system. So that’s something to monitor. I will say, though, that that doesn’t necessarily mean that they prefer this kind of more authoritarian system to democracy. And in fact, if we look at how people are ranking things relative to one another, we estimate that around only around 4% of people say that this kind of authoritarian system would be, or they give it a higher rate than they do to a democracy. And we remain engaged. And so, our voter turnout for the last federal election and for the voice referendum was quite strong, particularly when you take into account that we have very high enrolment rates at the moment. So almost a large proportion of eligible voters are on the electoral roll. And so, when you when you take it as a proportion of eligible voters, it’s very high by reasonably high by historical standards for both the last election and the and the voice referendum. And we’re active in other ways. And this has been resilient over recent years. So, half of us are signing petitions.

More than a third of us are communicating with MPs joining protests and boycotts. 1 in 4 of us are talking about politics online. 13% of us are getting together to resolve problems locally. And so, this has been consistent and resilient over the last three years. And so, this is really important to our social cohesion. The notion that we’re engaged in our democracy, that we’re fighting for change. We’re we believe and we fight for what we believe in as long as long as we remember that we are connected through these difficult debates and challenges. This kind of engagement is really important for our cohesion and the belief and realizing change for the better. And we remain connected to us to our communities, particularly our local communities and our neighbourhoods. So, 83% of us agree that people in their local area are willing to help their neighbours. 82% agree their local area is a place where people from different national and ethnic backgrounds get along well together. 80% agree that they feel they belong in their neighbourhood. Now, this has always been the strength of Australia, at least as measured on the Map and Social Cohesion Survey, you know, across the 20 tens. Three quarters of us to 80% of us agreed that local areas were places where people from different backgrounds got along well together. It increased during the pandemic in 2020, got up to 84% come down to 82%, but that’s potentially just noise.

So, we’ve almost reached a higher plateau of connection within our neighbourhoods and. In. The information that we’re receiving is suggesting that those connections that we made, including during the pandemic, can have a lasting, positive legacy. The fact that in some cases, in many cases, we got to know our neighbours understood that, that we’re good people and we help each other, and we help each other in need. And we. And that’s not easily forgotten either. And we’re engaged. So, we’re around about 23% of us in 2023 said we’re involved in community support groups. So, this would include things like rotary lines, state emergency services, Saint Vincent de Paul, and the like. 42% of us were involved in social and religious groups, whether through church groups, synagogues, mosques, temples, as well as sports groups, ethnic and multicultural groups as well. 16% of us were involved in actively involved in civic or political groups. Things like professional associations, political parties, bodies, corporate and the like. So overall, around about 55% of us were actively involved in one of these community, social or civic groups. And this has been really consistent over the last couple of years. And perhaps even more common is the support we provide to each other in our communities. So, 55% of us saying we provided unhealthy, paid help to people outside our household just in the last four weeks. We continue to value and support multiculturalism. Almost 90% of us agree that multiculturalism has been good for Australia.

From 77% in 2018, almost 90% don’t think we should be rejecting migrants on the basis of race or ethnicity, up from 78% in 2018. 85% agree that Australians improve Australian society by bringing new ideas and cultures, up from 76% in 2018, and 71% of us agree we should do more to learn about the cultures and customs, the customs and heritage of different ethnic and cultural groups in Australia, up from 59% in 2018. So really strong symbolic support for multiculturalism and the contribution of migrants to Australian society and culture. And as I talked about last year, this the Mapping Social Cohesion survey is so rich in terms of its indicators of these sorts of attitudes. And all of them are pointing, have been pointing in a positive direction over the last year, and they’ve been resilient over the last year in the face of the other challenges that we’ve faced. And so, it’s a really powerful and important platform for managing our challenges ahead. But multiculturalism itself is still a work in progress. So, this year, 18% of people on the survey reported experiencing discrimination in the last 12 months based on their skin colour, ethnic origin, or religion. Almost 60% hold a negative attitude towards migrants born and select groups. Our select groups being India, China, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iraq and or Sudan. This is at least declined from around 66% in 2018, but still speaks to a level of a concerning level of prejudice in Australian society.

And 27% of us say we hold a negative attitude towards Muslims, 16% hold a negative attitude toward Christians. Negative attitudes towards Muslims at least have become less common. So, in 2019 this was at 4,040%. And 62% of people believe racism is a failure of very big problem in Australia, similar to levels over the last couple of years. This is the results in regard to those attitudes towards people of different faiths. So, 16% say they have a negative attitude toward Christians, 27% say they have a negative attitude towards Muslims. Neither seem to have negative attitudes towards Jews in around 1,011% towards Hindus and Sikhs. As I say, those attitudes towards negative attitudes towards Muslims has been declining, becoming less common in the last few years. In 20 1819, around 40% of people said they had a negative attitude towards Muslims. Today that’s around 27%, but it’s still 1 in 4 people. And in the challenges of the world today, in the three months and four months since the survey, that’s under pressure now. And it’s important that we manage that and think about how we can continue to get that lower. Now with a very big survey samples in 2023, we can say more about the experiences of different groups in Australian society. And so, this tells us about the reported experience of discrimination for different groups, in which we have a large enough sample size, which we can be confident that these results, you know, are reasonably representative of the experience of Australians generally.

So, between 40 and 50% of people from Chinese backgrounds, Indian backgrounds, African Middle East backgrounds are saying they experienced discrimination just in the last 12 months, along with 36% of people from Southeast Asian backgrounds. We’re at least equally almost equally likely to view racism as a problem in Australia these days. So regardless of our backgrounds, around about 60% of us believe racism is a problem. And the big change over the last couple of years is that Australian born population, and the fact that the Australian born population is more cognisant of the issue of racism in Australian. What we’re hearing from, from our interviews are 55 interviews that we conducted with people who’ve migrated to Australia over the years. Well, it’s a nuanced story. Few people think that Australia is a particularly racist country, but nevertheless, many of them, and to be honest, are confronting. A number still have experienced discrimination in a way that that has impacted their experience and life in Australia. Racism, of course, comes in many different forms. Not just discrimination, but, um, the abuse that was that was reported by some respondents, again, was confronting. But it wasn’t just the overt experience either. The subtle forms of discrimination, the subtle forms of othering, whether it be, you know, the markers that signify to others that that we’re different or come from a different background, that can make people feel different, whether it be accents, physical appearances, cultural and religious signifiers, and the like.

And people often reminded of that fact through the questions. And not all of them, well, some of them well-intended, but questions around continual questions around where do you come from? And the like. It’s not always an obvious and overt way in which people are made to feel different, but for the people themselves, it can be a bit of a reminder of the fact that they’re not quite Australian and don’t quite belong here. And so that experience of discrimination we can see from our survey results also impacts that sense of belonging in the development of a sense of identity in Australia and Australian life. And so, we can see that just as people from Chinese, Indian, African, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian backgrounds are more likely to experience discrimination. So, they’re also less likely to have a great sense of belonging in Australia. Now it’s not this is not just down to discrimination and racism. That sense of the development, of that sense of belonging and identity in Australia is complex. It’s dynamic. Time is a really important factor. Time to grow one’s social connections, the bonds, the emotional ties within Australia is really important. But we can still see that. Experience of discrimination and racism can interrupt those processes. The view from our interview participants sort of tended to back that up, you know, and P you know, those, um, the interviews at the start that Anthea brought up really kind of summarized the, the feeling very well and that people.

People really value aspects of Australian culture and lifestyle. Um, but it takes time. It takes time to build those connections, to build those. Um, those, as I say, those emotional ties, those practical ties, those social roots within, within one’s community. And it’s complex. And people can get caught in two worlds feeling neither, not quite Australian and not quite belonging to their country of birth. And some go back to their countries of birth and, and tell us that you know that the scene is different and ask where are you from? But then they come to Australia when they’re asked where they’re from here as well. Leaves them in a bit of a no man’s land. But for many people the important things in their life family, friendships, connections, religion. Really important ways in which they manage this potential conflict and develop those connections within Australia. Work and participation in communities is one is another important way in which people kind of develop that sense of identity. And so migrant Australians we know are highly engaged in our society and our economy and our survey results. You know, people from African backgrounds, Indian backgrounds, we’re all substantially more likely to be involved in social and community groups in Australia, while people from Indian backgrounds from, from.

Well, across all groups, contributing in other ways, too, through their work and through their study. And this was important. And this is reflected in their interviews as well. And people derive important meaning and identity from their work and from their engagement in their communities. And that was really important for people’s social well-being as well. And the fact that that, that that sense of importance and that value that they derived from their work and their community was really important for their connections and development of their esteem and their confidence and their identity. Now, the experiences generally can be uneven, though, and structural barriers in housing markets and jobs, markets and access to services can be challenging for some. Overall, migrant Australians come here with skills, experience, and a will to contribute to society and the economy, but they still face some barriers. And so, this is reflected a little bit in the survey. And in terms of the variation in the experience of things like financial well-being and personal well-being as well. So, our results suggested that people from Middle Eastern backgrounds, from African backgrounds, were both more likely to experience financial stress. They’re more likely to say they’re only just getting along at best, and also a little bit less likely to say that they’d been happy or very happy over the last 12 months. So, experiences of diverse people are resilient. Though migrant Australians, on average, report higher levels of cohesion across most indicators, including trust in people and in government.

But there are some challenges faced. This has come up in a came up in a few ways in terms of interviews. We talked about structural discrimination, the lack of representation in parts of Australian society, in the media and government. People talked a little bit about discrimination in the job market and how there is that conflict at times between a support for multiculturalism and the recognition of Australia as a multicultural country, and the fact that it doesn’t always the lived reality doesn’t always live up to those experiences. So that’s some tough stories. But I do want to emphasize that, you know, people do value Australian life and culture in much the same way as we head at the top, the opportunity to provide for families to come here, to build a good standard of living, the freedom, the culture. There’s a lot that we can and do offer migrants. People themselves tell us about the importance and the value they derive from good neighbours, good friends, and friendly strangers. Opportunity to contribute. Opportunities to engage. The opportunities to meet new people from all walks of life. Diversity itself is a really important value resource for helping people to feel more at home in this country, and that respect and that sort of welcome that most of us extend to people from, from all walks of life. So, to wrap up the challenges for Australian society today are many and varied.

Even in the 3 or 4 months since the survey, it’s been a very tumultuous time. We’ve had a tough referendum, a difficult and divisive debate globally with mired and conflict and tension. And perhaps overriding this is that concern for financial and economic pressures. All of these are placing strain on Australia’s social cohesion and particularly with that financial strain. And there’s concerns for economic and fairness. We’re seeing weaker sense of belonging, greater levels of pessimism, weaker levels of trust. But we have some really important assets to sort of manage. Manage the challenges ahead. Built up over years and decades and connected to our communities, were connected to each other. Were engaged in our political system, in our democracy, in our communities, in our society. We value the importance of our relationship with First Nations Australians, even if we don’t particularly agree on how that should play out in reality. So, all of these are important assets. And if through the divisions and debates, we remember that we are connected, and we strive and look for ways in which we can strengthen the social and economic well-being of our society while remembering we’re connected and continuing to grow and nurture those connections. With each other from all walks of life. I think we can imagine and work towards a stronger and more cohesive society in future. So, thank you.