Social cohesion under strain as equality, climate and inflation woes heighten Australians’ fears, research finds

Survey shows levels of national pride, belonging and a sense of social justice are lower now than before the Covid pandemic

We all remember the dark days early in the coronavirus pandemic. People died. Businesses were disrupted as the economy went into hibernation. Workers and school students stayed home to suppress the rate of new infections.

But Australians also rallied during the crisis. Social cohesion spiked. This fascinating development was captured during the peak of the pandemic by the Scanlon Foundation’s Social Cohesion reports – a research project that has mapped the mood of a multicultural nation since 2007.

But the zeitgeist has shifted in 2022.

The latest Scanlon survey, to be released Wednesday, suggests social cohesion in Australia is now at a tipping point.

Despite the fact that more Australians died from Covid in August 2022 than any month of the pandemic, anxiety about the biggest health crisis in a century has been replaced by the spectre of war in Ukraine, regional geopolitical instability, climate crisis and economic turbulence.

Inflation has roared back, increasing the price of food, power and petrol. Australians are worried about the rising cost of living and the risk of recession. This shift in priorities is significant because Scanlon notes financial wellbeing is the strongest predictor of social cohesion identified in the survey.

The 2022 survey shows levels of national pride, belonging and a sense of social justice in Australia are lower now than they were before the pandemic. Australia’s pandemic response boosted a sense of national belonging, but that’s now lower than at any point in the Mapping Social Cohesion series.

The new research notes social inclusion and justice in Australia increased strongly during the pandemic “probably reflecting a positive public response to government measures to protect health and financial wellbeing”. Fiscal support – like Jobkeeper and Jobseeker – was a leveller; people worried less about people trying to get by on very low incomes. But with that safety net gone, Australians are worried their country is becoming more economically unequal.

James O’Donnell, a demographer from the Australian National University led the research this year. He says Australia developed an effective policy template during the pandemic that stopped society from fracturing. “The data shows we did that very well during the pandemic, so people were less likely to be financially stressed, more likely to think that Australia was a fairly egalitarian place.”

But the current inflation shock is eroding people’s sense of security. The latest research shows two-in-five people cited economic issues as the most important problem facing Australia in 2022, and 75% of respondents are worried about a severe downturn in the global economy. This is the highest proportion of respondents citing economic issues as their most pressing problem since the question was first asked.

“We had our survey of almost 6,000 people, and interviews that we conducted in communities, and economic pressures were coming through loud and strongly as the biggest problem facing Australians, and that’s the biggest drag on social cohesion,” O’Donnell says.

“People who are saying they are financially struggling have much lower levels of belonging and a much lower sense of social justice and inclusion in Australia. There are real social and economic inequalities that drag down social cohesion in Australia and that becomes a threat to an overall sense of harmony and cooperation between people”.

Some of the positive bequests from pandemic times do linger. Trust in government remains higher than pre-pandemic levels (41% of respondents say the federal government can be trusted to do the right thing all or some of the time), although it’s off the peak recorded in 2020 (56%). Similarly, 49% of respondents say most people can be trusted, which is down from the peak in November 2020 (52%) but higher than 2018 (42%) and 2019 (43%).

Social trust and neighbourhood cohesion also remains high and resilient – perhaps because we got to know our neighbours and reconnected with our local communities when we worked from home.

Australians worry about more than the economy. People worry about climate change, about the fractious relationship between Australia and China and the risks that we could be drawn into a military conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

The latest survey notes these issues continue to polarise Australians, a phenomenon which has negative implications for social cohesion – although O’Donnell notes Australia has thus far managed to avoid the “political tribalism” imperilling democracies like the United States.

The survey indicates Australians continue to strongly support ethnic diversity and multiculturalism, in line with a long-term positive trend.

But people also continue to experience discrimination based on their skin colour, ethnic origin, or religion. Negative perceptions also persist in Australia about different groups, including Muslim Australians and non-European migrants. While 90% of respondents have positive views about migrants from Europe or the United Kingdom, this drops to 70% for Indian immigrants, and about 60% for arrivals from Ethiopia, Lebanon, China, Iraq and Sudan.

While the problems persist, the overall trend is positive. In 2020, 52% of respondents reported having positive feelings towards Chinese immigrants. In 2022, that increased to 61%. During that same timeframe, respondents with negative attitudes towards Muslims decreased from 40% in 2020 to 29%.

The research also assessed community attitudes to the voice to parliament given the proximity of a referendum to settle that question. Scanlon found close to 60% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the proposal. One in five respondents disagreed and the remaining cohort was neutral.

The survey found majority support for the voice across the states and territories, a baseline result that bodes well for the success of the referendum. Progressive voters, people under the age of 24, and women were the most likely to support the concept.

People born overseas were also supportive. But close to a third of respondents in that cohort neither agreed nor disagreed with the proposal, which Scanlon argues is suggestive of a high degree of uncertainty about the change.

The latest survey, conducted in July, is the 16th in the series. There were 5,757 respondents in the 2022 survey, which is the largest in the history of the survey, and the survey was supplemented by interviews in local government areas around Australia.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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