Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Australians get the benefits of migration, even the doubters

The latest Lowy Institute Poll captures the nuanced attitude of the public to a hotly contested political theme.

Openness to immigration is more closely tied to socio-demographic factors (Linda Xu/Unsplash)
Openness to immigration is more closely tied to socio-demographic factors (Linda Xu/Unsplash)

Australians are back to thinking about migration in a fashion similar to how the country approached the issue before the borders closed for the Covid pandemic. Attitudes might be split – some Australians see the immigration rate as too high, for others it is too low. But one of the intriguing insights from the 2024 Lowy Institute Poll is the relative consistency of opinion when looking across the last five years.

The percentage of people who believe immigration levels are too high has only increased by 1% since the 2019 poll, while the number of people who think immigration levels are just right has not changed. This steadiness may appear a surprising finding, especially this year, given that the field work for the poll took place in March, at a time of heavy news coverage of the government’s issues in the High Court with immigration detainees. But the result speaks to nuance in public attitudes.

Australia’s immigration program is a particularly complex system. The many different visa categories all come with various admission requirements. So the poll results suggest that the public is able to discern the difference between different forms of migration, in a manner that hadn’t previously been the case during the refugee and asylum seeker debates throughout the 2000s and early 2010s.

The data shows that Australians are split on whether immigration levels are too high (48%) or about right (40%), while only 10% believe current levels are too low. However, a closer look at the demographic breakdown of the data shows a different picture.

Openness to immigration is more closely tied to socio-demographic factors such as age. Only 33% of 18-29-year-olds consider immigration levels to be too high, compared with 59% of Australians over the age of 60. Similarly, 19% of 18-29-year-olds consider current levels of immigration to be too low compared with 5% of over-60s. This sentiment tracks with research that looks at young people as more open to immigration levels.

Despite divided attitudes towards immigration levels, there are some indicators that voters are more comfortable with some forms of immigration over others.

Similarly, higher levels of education in the Lowy Poll correlate with openness to immigration. 38% of those with a graduate degree believe that immigration levels are too high compared with 65% of those with an education up to year 11. This can likely be linked to factors primarily around ideas of increased mobility and the economic benefits of transnational migration.

Next year the result might be different, given that migration policy has become increasingly politicised in the lead-up to the next election. Labor has made a commitment to reduce net migration through their migration review. The Liberal party under Peter Dutton with its coalition partner the Nationals has also staked immigration policy as central to its pitch to voters. As long as migration levels are in the headlines and linked with key domestic issues such as the housing crisis, they are likely to remain salient. We know that increased and sustained media coverage on the issue of migration tends to exacerbate citizens' concerns about migration overall, and we are starting to see this already. And the sentiment reflected in the Lowy Institute Poll that immigration is too high is consistent in both urban (48%) and regional (47%) Australia, making it likely that immigration will be a hotly contested issue in the upcoming election, expected sometime before May next year.

The poll also shows that views on cultural diversity have remained overwhelmingly positive. Nine-in-ten Australian agree that cultural diversity has been positive. This is promising in a period in which some experts consider social cohesion in Australia to be in decline.

Despite divided attitudes towards immigration levels, there are some indicators that voters are more comfortable with some forms of immigration over others. More Australians than ever (71%) in the poll agree that free trade agreements (FTAs) are good for creating jobs in Australia. Often within these FTAs are provisions on international migration, specifically skilled migration. This requires governments to balance domestic policy pressures and international considerations around trade, investment, and diplomatic relations.

Another area where there is broad support for migration is with Pacific Islands. This was the first year Lowy had asked whether Australians would support a relaxation of visa requirements for Pacific Islanders to live, work and study in Australia, and 67% of Australians supported this proposition. Also notable is that openness towards Pacific Islanders remains relatively consistent across all demographic characteristics like age, geographical location, and political affiliation (with One Nation supporters being the only significant outlier).

This raises questions about the lens by which voters are looking at Pacific migration. It may be linked with openness to migration in the face of impending climate crisis – seen in another question where 68% of Australians would support making it easier for the citizens of climate-vulnerable Pacific Island countries to migrate to Australia. A labour lens may also be in mind, by which Pacific Islanders are seen to have played a key role in alleviating labour shortages in Australia. It may also be seen as preferable to what some have called “back-door” schemes for migration, such as working holiday visas, to fill labour shortages in horticultural and agricultural industries.

Australians see clear benefits that immigration brings, even as they remain divided about immigration levels. More research is needed to understand the specific hesitations and concerns they are expressing.

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