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Election 2016: New citizens less sceptical of Australian politics

Sat 21 May 2016

Article written by Jessica Minshall 

Less than half of new citizens are satisfied with Australian democracy, yet they are less critical of politics and politicians than other groups according to new research from the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.

Researchers at the University of Canberra's Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) are trying to understand why so few Australians trust politicians and the political process.

They say that despite satisfaction with Australian democracy being at an all time low, one group - new Australian citizens - are much more trusting of government institutions and politics.

They have found 49 per cent of new citizens who have been living in Australia since 2006 are satisfied with Australian democracy, compared with 39 per cent of established Australians.

The new research is drawn from a 2016 Ipsos poll that has been undertaken by IGPA in conjunction with the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.

The online survey into community attitudes on Australian democracy included a booster sample of 160 new Australian citizens in the 1244 respondents.

“I think the disengagement is at the federal level, the national level, but that doesn’t mean that people are completely disengaged.”

Professor Mark Evans is IGPA Director and lead researcher on the project. He told SBS that even though it is still less than half of new citizens who are satisfied with Australian democracy, this figure is "statistically significant".

“They have more trust in politicians than most Australians, so 35 per cent believe politicians can be trusted in contrast with 24 per cent," Professor Evans said.

On the question of how they would rate the honesty and integrity of Australian politicians, only 35 per cent of new citizens responded "low" or "very low", compared with 59 per cent of established Australians.

However, new citizens also expressed concerns about politics being run to benefit "big interests".

"They do worry about politicians being linked too much to either big business or trade unions. And obviously that’s a worry for them because they tend to come from countries that have suffered from cronyism in the past," he said.

The issues rated as most important to this group of new citizens were health and medicare, refugees andasylum seekers, and management of the economy.

Significantly, while the new citizens were broadly confident in the federal government's ability to address most key issues this did not extend to all issues. For example, 39 per cent did not have confidence in the federal government on the issue of "refugees and asylum seekers".

 

Distrust and dissatisfaction likely to increase

Professor Evans believes the higher level of trust in government among new Australian citizens is "very much an emotive response".

“It might well be, and we’re doing some research on this, that over time they become more cynical as they become more integrated," he said.

"But certainly in the first periods in Australia, they have very significant faith in the system of government because for many of them it’s taken them out of perilous situations."

Dr Christina Ho, a senior lecturer in social and political sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney, told SBS that over time, as migrants integrate, "the characteristics do become more like longer-term Australians".

"So that’s not a good sign in this particular case,” Dr Ho said.

"The quality of the political debate that we’re exposed to in Australia is pretty low. I don’t think that people feel that the political representatives we have are very authentic."

"If you think about groups that are really on the receiving end of a lot of abuse when it comes to terrorism, that’s Muslim and Arab Australians, there’s been an insane increase in distrust of governments."

Dr Ho said new migrants often have high expectations about Australian democracy, which is why they've uprooted their families to relocate here.

“Definitely in places where we’re getting a lot of migration, so from Asian countries for example, political systems are enormously corrupt...and I think people are migrating to Western countries like Australia to try to achieve a more transparent and modern way of governing and [to] try to escape exactly that kind of corruption."

Dr Ho points to how these expectations not always being met, as well as some migrant communities feeling unfairly targeted by government policies and rhetoric, to understand why there is still high level of distrust of politics among new Australian citizens.

"If you think about groups that are really on the receiving end of a lot of abuse when it comes to terrorism, so that's Muslim and Arab Australians, there has been an insane increase in distrust I think of governments because of this perception that they're targeted," she said.

"And I think that has bred a lot of distrust in mainstream politics and that has, I think, to some extent leaked out into other communities as well."

Uninterested in the election, not politics

Many new Australian migrants are engaged in politics outside of Canberra and this year's federal election, according to Dr Ho.

“I think the disengagement is at the federal level, the national level, but that doesn’t mean that people are completely disengaged,” she said.

"If you think about politics in a broader sense, they’re obviously engaged with their homelands. New immigrants to Australia are very much transnational or global in their focus, and also at the local level there’s a lot of engagement with migrant community organisations."

This is something Professor Fethi Mansouri, Director of the Alfred Deakin Research Insitute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, has been looking at in relation to young migrant Australians.

“Let’s reflect on what’s been said recently, some very, very unfortunate comments made in relation to refugees and I think a lot of people hear that." 

“They’re more perhaps aware of the politics of identity because they are much more active on social media. They do tend to have some transnational networking that's going on via the digital space."

Professor Mansouri said young migrant Australians are not only failing to be engaged by Australian politicians, but are likely being actively dissuaded through the current election campaign.

“Let’s reflect on what’s been said recently, some very, very unfortunate comments made in relation to refugees and I think a lot of people hear that and they don’t necessarily just attribute that to a particular cohort of currentasylum seekers or refugees, they reflect on their own parents," Professor Mansouri said.

"[It] is obviously something that doesn’t engage them, doesn’t excite them about the political process, which is why they do not necessarily engage as much as they should be (engaging) in my view."

 

 

This article was originally publised by SBS News Australia, written by Jessica Minshall. You can view it here.

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