Part 5 transcript

Phillip Adams:

Thank you, Marilyn Lake.  And finally, Andrew Markus.

Andrew Markus:

Thank you.  I’m approaching this issue of nationalism more as a social scientist and with a very practical bent.  I’ve always regarded nationalism as many faceted, always politically contested and with commonalities and differences across a population.  In the brief few minutes that I’ve got with you, I’m going to talk about Australian public opinion and particularly as it relates to immigration issues.

Immigration issues are central to a nation.  Immigration defines who’s in and who’s out, who’s part of the national entity.  First of all, asylum issues, and just walking around the campus I’ve seen some posters, you know, outraged at the response of the Rudd government to the way that the asylum issue was politicised.  Well on the one hand it makes sense to be outraged, but on the other hand we also need to understand the political market place.  What happens in the political market place when one segment of politics chooses to politicise an issue?  And when sections of the media decide that this asylum issue is the most significant issue in the country and is worthy of front page coverage day after day after day.  As if there was no other significant issue other than that in the country.

What do we know about how the public reacts to asylum issues?  Well, we know from international polling that attitudes to asylum seekers tend to be very negative.  Asylum issues are ones that cross the demographics.  Cross demographics of age group, education, in finding high levels of negativity.  In Australia in 2001, a highly politicised year, opinion polls indicated that fifty to sixty percent of the population favoured sending the boats back, whatever that might mean.  It actually doesn’t mean very much.  But that notion will get majority support.  Polls were conducted in Australia over the last month, some very badly worded, some asking very leading questions, but nonetheless reinforcing the notion that maybe three to one within the Australian public favour the notion of sending the back rather than giving asylum.  The most recent poll in the Australian asked “What’s the best thing to do with asylum seekers?” and by a majority of two to one the respondents favoured the Liberal approach, which was a very tough stance.

In exploring the issue of nationalism, I try to get a sense of the distribution of opinion within the Australian public.  Recently we’ve had much discussion about racism in Australian society, particularly in the context of attacks on overseas students.  People have asked is Australia a racist society, not a racist society.  To me it’s a nonsensical approach.  The essential issue is, what proportion of the Australian population is seriously intolerant, seriously bigoted.  And by looking at polls over a period of twenty to thirty years, because opinion does not change radically on such issues, we find that about ten percent of the Australian adult population is seriously intolerant.  A similar number is actively tolerant, and most people, eighty percent, are in the middle.  The proportion tending to intolerance, the ambivalent and the seriously intolerant, comes to about forty-five percent.  So we live in a country which is not unusual.  But we live in a country where there is the electoral basis for the politics of race, and here we’re talking about quite an unsophisticated approach to issues at the level of headlines, simplicities, but up to forty-five percent of the Australian electorate can be attracted to that form of politics, to that form of nationalism.  So politics being the art of the impossible, the Rudd government has to make decisions about which battles it will fight, meaning in which areas it will challenge, and in which areas it will essentially accept and downplay and go and take the easy route.

Now our present government has very clearly decided on the asylum issues, having attempted a reform, decided that that was not an issue that it could continue to lead or to fight.  Similarly, have you heard very much about multi-culturalism?  Nothing.  Next to nothing.  We have debates which are about numbers, population capacities, but not about fundamentals to do with say national character and the impact of immigration on national character.  This is the approach that this government has taken, cognisant of the reality of the electorate and what is marketable and what is very difficult. 

We can identify the segments of the population that are most open to pluralism, to diversity.  The people aged 18 to 34, employment status, most likely to be a student, education level, people with a bachelor degree or higher, financial status prosperous, occupation professional, country of birth, non English speaking background, likely to vote Green, which is a bit of a contradiction, because Greens on the one hand are environmentally very conscious, on the other hand, given their set of values, are most open to liberal immigration policies.  So we need to understand the segments of the population and how various presentations of nationalism, the marketing of nationalism, would appeal differentially in different sectors of the Australian population.

And this is a last point.  Understand that what we have with regard to the issues we’re talking about today, senses of national identity, issues that will not recede but will be with us and will continue to be with us, because the way that modern societies are developing, and as you’ve heard, the much greater opportunities for people to choose, people to determine their identities, people to determine their interactions.  And we all know the issue of population growth, the huge increase in population.  Of the last twelve months, the Australian population grew by 431,000 people.  431,000 people or 2.1 percent.  Of that about one third was natural increase and two thirds was a result of immigration.  Or people gaining temporary residence in Australia. 

So these issues which are now developing, and I just highlight two.  One of these issues is that increasingly we have people in this country who have long term visas but not permanent residence, not the rights to full equality.  That form of Australian nationalism that Marilyn talked about, the turn of the twentieth century, a land of equals.  You now have 1.4 million people in this country, 1.4 million, which is nearly ten percent of the adult population who only hold temporary visas and have not got the rights of full citizenship.  And the other issue is that the possibilities that people now have to embrace multiple identities, to withdraw in many respects from the mainstream of society, and to interact with nationalisms not found in Australia or not developed in Australia but may find their homes elsewhere.  So the capacity for people to choose to determine, to opt out, and the impact of this on the future of Australian society twenty or thirty years down the track.  Thank you.