Discrimination in Australia

“Analysis by birthplace for arrivals between 2000 and 2010 finds that the highest proportion specifying racism and discrimination against immigrants as the first rank were the 24% of respondents born in India or Sri Lanka. With the three choices aggregated, racism and discrimination was chosen by 52% of respondents born in Indonesia and Malaysia, 50% New Zealand, and 48% India and Sri Lanka. The lowest proportions selecting racism and discrimination were respondents born in ‘other Europe’”

This is from the Scanlon Foundation ‘Recent Arrivals‘ report in 2013 (p.13).

Statistics like this make for sobering reading. For the all the fantastic ways Australia is ahead of other nations in terms of multiculturalism, social cohesion and race, there is still an underbelly where people feel set apart from society because of their skin colour, ethnicity and religion. Half of of all Indian migrants arriving from 2000 to 2010 experienced either racism or discrimination, impacting in various ways – some minor, some major – their ability to live and work in Australia.

In the context of the current debate on the Racial Discrimination Act, this type of evidence can be taken to support either side, propping up existing beliefs instead.

For opponents of section 18c, one might say the current set of laws are obviously not working. In fact, racism and discrimination is a way of life and only social and cultural attitudes can enforce attitudinal change, not legislation on speech. Why have laws which have a negative impact on the rights of speech if it isn’t addressing broad discrimination in the community?

Supporters of section 18c might point out these numbers could be even higher without the protections embedded in the Racial Discrimination Act. Further, some might argue the legislation does not go far enough if such a high proportion of recent migrants are experiencing discrimination.

There are other options as well. One could argue 18c has basically nothing to do with this type of broad social discrimination but it remains an important part of the framework to protect people. Another argument is there will always be a plurality of new migrants who experience racism in Australia, regardless of social and cultural norms and the best option is to minimise the number.

Keep these differing options in mind next time a bunch of statistics are thrown at a debate. Important statistics, but used by different people for different means. The prevailing beliefs of public figures taking part in the debate about 18c are the real drivers of policy change or maintaining the status quo.

Regardless of what one believes, I see these type of statistics are an important reminder. Discrimination and racism in Australia are not on the fringes on society. They are daily social phenomena impacting many people. I think change comes slowly and we are probably at a better place than we were a decade ago. We are definitely at a better place than we were three decades ago, particularly when we consider the scale and diversity of Australian immigration now, compared to in the past.

Granular social cohesion in Australia

On Monday, the Scanlon Foundation released new research undertaken by Andrew Markus into social cohesion for new migrant arrivals and, more importantly, for five local areas. This research has steadily gained greater attention in recent years. This is critical as there is a growing sense something is not quite right.

Of the five local areas examined, Logan in Queensland and Mirrabooka in Perth, are the two to closely examine. Both are growing suburbs in growing cities. One could easily characterise these suburbs as the frontier of migrant Australia. Logan has experienced a decade of strong immigration from New Zealand and the Pacific and in 2011, 15 per cent of the population were born in the Pacific. Mirrabooka is different and has been at the forefront of Asian migration in Australia. Over 15 per cent of the population was born in Asian countries, an unprecedented number to consider 10 years ago.

Before getting into the social cohesion research, some context is important. Logan is in the third percentile for socio-economic disadvantage while Mirrabooka is in the eleventh. These are relatively poor areas of Australia, showing stark difference to other parts of Brisbane and Perth. The unemployment rate for Logan is over 13 per cent while Mirrabooka is 7.4 per cent. For people aged 25-54 nationally, about 40 per cent of people have a degree. In these two areas, that percentage shrinks to 18 (Logan) and 32 (Mirrabooka). This disadvantage will manifest itself in any insight into social cohesion for local areas when compared to Australia as a whole.

In part because of this disadvantage, social cohesion is lower in these two suburbs than for Australia as a whole. According to the Scanlon-Monash social cohesion index, Logan has an 18 per cent variance from the national average while Mirrabooka is 6 per cent. Drilling down, we see where this variance comes from. Social justice and equity in Logan is a full 38 per cent below the national average, as well as 16 per cent below in relation to acceptance. In Mirrabooka, social justice and equity is 9 per cent below the national average and 12 per cent in terms of participation.

I’ve read the full set of these reports and nothing I have seen to date is as despondent as the negative sentiment around social justice in Logan. One in four people living there don’t believe hard work will result in a better life, compared to less than 15 per cent nationally. This is a worrying sign of a community which feels excluded. Logan also shows lower levels of trust and higher levels of experienced discrimination. To top it all off, 58 per cent of respondents say there is too much immigration, compared to 42 per cent nationally.

There are strong messages here to those who will listen, and not just about immigration and settlement patterns. This research highlights the growing dissatisfaction in parts of suburban Australia where equality of opportunity is slipping away. Logan is a story with a central point. Many of those Pacific and New Zealand born people who have arrived in the last decade have no recourse to Australian citizenship. They work hard – participation rates of New Zealand citizens in Australia are amongst the highest for any country of origin – yet they don’t get ahead.

Australia has a proud record of social integration and cohesion. Permanent settlement outcomes, combined with employment and language for new migrants, have ensured ethnic isolation disappears by the second generation. This is not something other countries can lay claim to, apart from perhaps Canada.

This research shows we are at a critical point in very specific local areas. Nationally, the picture remains rosy. Yet scratching beneath the surface, an emerging issue presents. When a quarter of a community doesn’t believe hard work will result in getting ahead, long term incentives which hold communities together fracture. There is a the real possibility this leads to inter-generational disadvantage, something Australia has thankfully been good at avoiding. This is a policy issue for government and it needs attention now. Further, we need to examine and reexamine a host of other areas to better understand this particular issue of social cohesion.

Disgusting. ALP to voters: Can you trust Habib?

It’s easy to get caught up in politics, especially at election time. A sense of hurry and importance changes how decisions are otherwise made.

However, this isn’t an excuse for racism. This is an official ALP endorsed campaign flyer targeting a Liberal candidate, Carolyn Habib, in the South Australian state election:

(Source: Adelaide Now)

This is sickening, but as an ALP member, I feel a great sense of shame.

As Tory Shepherd outlines here, it is clearly designed to appeal to underlying racist attitudes. It is disgusting – no ifs, no buts. This flies in the face of what the vast majority of people in the ALP believe in but more meaningfully, undermines their passion for stamping out this type of behaviour. Multiculturalism is meant to be led from the front by politicians, instead of being undermined by racist campaign methods.

I’m sending an email to the National Secretary to express my displeasure as an ALP member (albeit from a different state). You can do the same: National.secretary@cbr.alp.org.au 

(Note: I received a reply and of course this is a state issue. You can instead contact the State Secretary of the SA ALP here:  Reggie.Martin@sa.alp.org.au)

Attitudes to immigration: It’s not the economy stupid

Previously I wrote about the effect of migration on wages in Australia. However just because lots of skilled migrants help make poor people better off does not mean we should automatically allow more migration. The pointy-heads should only have so much sway.

An analysis of European social attitudes found concerns over “compositional amenities” (religion, language and culture) was more relevant by a factor of 3 to 5 compared to wages and taxes as to whether more or fewer immigrants should be allowed:

“Our empirical analysis leads to three main conclusions. First, we find that attitudes to immigration – expressed by the answer to a question of whether more or fewer immigrants from certain source countries should be permitted to enter, for example – reflect a combination of concerns over compositional amenities and the direct economic impacts of immigration on wages and taxes. Second, we find that the strength of the concerns that people express over the two channels are positively correlated. This means that studies that focus exclusively on one factor or the other capture a reasonable share of the variation in attitudes for or against increased immigration. Our third conclusion is that concerns over compositional amenities are substantially more important than concerns over the impacts on wages and taxes. Specifically, variation in concerns over compositional amenities explain 3-5 times more of the individual-specific variation in answers to the question of whether more or fewer immigrants should be permitted to enter than does variation in concerns over wages and taxes.”

I read this as financial self-interest being trumped by social self-interest. The overall trend shouldn’t be a surprise yet the magnitude does stand out.

I would be surprised if the magnitude of the findings were the same for Australia. A well established policy of multiculturalism has probably softened attitudes to social and cultural practices of ethnic communities. I also think we tend to view immigration more through the labour market than European attitudes, given different historical contexts.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss these non-monetary concerns in Australia. There is undoubtedly a small, disaffected minority who are left out of the conversation on migration amongst policy-makers. For advocates of greater migration, including both political parties, this raises important questions. Away from taxes, wages and contributions to growth, how can public advocacy engage with concerns about religion, language and culture?

While ignorant discussion can lead to frustration, Europe offers lessons in the prolonged silence from the political elite on the non-financial effects of large immigration flows. Across multiple European countries, a small minority has grown into a fully formed political movement. A genuine groundswell of support is threatening established institutions. This is almost always viewed as a negative by dominant political interests but once established, extremely hard to counter.

I’d love to see more politicians talking about language, religion and culture in relation to multiculturalism in a manner which befits Australian society. Populism is to be generally avoided, but even a little bit along the way can help sustain a more inclusive public discussion. While this is complicated, nuanced and the risk of backlash high, the long-term implications cannot be understated.

How difficult is it to learn English? Linguistic distance in Australia

I became interested in how immigration trends effect how migrants settle after I started working at the Department of Immigration. One thing which everyone has an opinion on, but rarely do you see any empirical evidence, is how and why people struggle to learn English. We know English language proficiency has a substantial impact on settlement. This is mainly through the ease of social engagement and earning ability in the labour market. The better English a migrant has, the more likely they will successful settle.

Recently economic researchers have been on the case about native languages. Everyone agrees age plays a strong role. The younger the better in terms of learning languages. An emerging candidate as another influential factor is “linguistic distance”. This is the range between a migrants native language and the language of the country they have migrated to.

This paper – The Costs of Babylon: Linguistic Distance in Applied Economics – establishes a framework to empirically measure linguistic distance. Ingo Isphording and Sebastian Otten create bilateral relationships for languages by using encyclopaedias, linguistic publications and factbooks to generate distance scores. From their abstract:

[T]he effect of linguistic distance in the language acquisition of immigrants is analysed using data from the 2000 US Census, the German Socio-Economic Panel, and the National Immigrant Survey of Spain. Across countries, linguistic distance is negatively correlated with reported language skills of immigrants.

Their research suggests there is something to linguistic distance. However lets take note. This is one index, in a relatively new field, attempting to quantify something very complex. Sometimes empiricism goes off the deep end and you end up arguing over figures that bear very little relation to the real world. Personally, I don’t think this is the case here and this seems like an area ripe for further research. With these caveats, I want to use the index to measure the average language distance of people migrating to Australia. As Australia’s immigration trends have shifted decisively away from Europe, whose languages are relatively closer to English than Asia, it is possible language distance has been increasing, making it harder for non-English speaking migrants to learn English.

From a public expenditure perspective, the government spends about $230m per year on English language provision, under the Adult English Migrant Program (AMEP) program. If it is getting harder to learn English, there are implications for this program.

Some care is needed to answer this question. Skilled migrants, regardless of where they come from, typically face language proficiency barriers to enter Australia. Therefore I am excluding them from the analysis as I assume they all speak English. This is not true in reality. About 15 per cent of the AMEP is made up of skilled migrants, typically spouses. I don’t have the unit data for AMEP enrolment so for ease of analysis, skilled migrants are excluded. I’m also going to assume humanitarian migrants have a much wide range of factors outside of linguistic distance which will impact their ability to learn English. For this quick and dirty examination, they are also going to be excluded from this analysis.

This leaves family migrants who are best suited to examine. Family migrants make up over 50 per cent of all AMEP participants and can act as a good general indicator. To find these family migrants and their language background, the Department of Immigration keeps historical migration records here. For this analysis, I used worksheet 3.3 – “Migration program outcome by stream and citizenship”. This allows me to exclude skilled and humanitarian migrants while also matching up family migrants from origin countries, giving a good proxy of the language they speak.

A few caveats. Because I’m assessing language distance, I have excluded those countries who speak English. The language distance index has 178 countries, meaning a very small minority of migrants were excluded as their language distance score is not unknown (2.2 per cent of migrants under the family stream from 1995-2012 were excluded). Finally, of course people who can already speak English will arrive from countries where English isn’t spoken. I’m only after a broad trend to assess my hunch, not a highly specific empirical data point, so I’m not too concerned about this. A more rigorous approach may include assumptions about how many people speak English from each country or use AMEP participant information to weight certain countries given the impact they have on expenditure. If 50 per cent of people from a European background spoke English but only 25 per cent from an Asian background did, this would skew any results.

To begin with, I merged the migration data with the linguistic data from the study:

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 8.46.09 PM

(Thanks to the authors who kindly sent me their full dataset)

“ldnd” is the linguistic score and the years go out to 2011-12. A total of 162 countries are included.  You can notice from this screenshot Austria (German) has a lower score than Argentina (Spanish). The lower the score, the closer the language is to English. The closest languages to English are Dutch, Norweign, Swedish, Danish and German. The most distant are Vietnamese, Somalian, Finnish, Turkish and Tamil.

Using the linguistic score and the number of arrivals by country of origin, I created a proportional average of the linguistic score for each year of the family migration stream:


(note: I’m not 100 per cent sure I’ve done this right given my limited statistics training but I’ve double checked my formulas and workings and as confident as I’m going to get)

This shows a steady increase in the linguistic difficultly for family migrants since the start of the 21st century. With a standard deviation of 0.37, the 2012 figure is about 1.5 standards above the mean for the 1996-2012 period. The main factor is the increase in Chinese and Vietnamese family migrants, who have a high linguistic distance score. In 2009-10, there were >10,000 Chinese family migrants, a three fold increase from 1997-98.

What we don’t know is what proportion of difficultly learning English can be attributed to linguistic distance. A previous working paper from Isphording shows a significant effect on literacy when age and linguistic distance are combined:

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 2.37.36 PM

Instead of putting a number on this factor, I’m just going to say it appears to be something policy-makers should be aware of.

What does this mean for the AMEP? Well thanks to increases in funding under both the Howard and ALP governments, total spending has increased over the last decade. In 2000, ~$93m was spent on the AMEP, resulting in $2,600 per migrant under the program. In 2012-13, $238m was spent, increasing per capita spending to a tick under $4,000. After accounting for inflation, that’s an increase of over $400 in real terms.

This is a good sign. The changing trends of family migration have changed the demographic make up of the AMEP program. The top three native languages in the program are Mandarin, Arabic and Vietnamese. These trends have increased the average distance between English and migrants native language, making it harder, on average, to learn English. However, if we assume additional dollars increase learning outcomes (a *major* assumption), the additional funding should be helping to either partially or full offset this increase in difficultly.

More research, particularly of the AMEP participant trends, would be required to better evaluate how linguistic distance affects English language literacy in Australia. Under the AMEP, the majority of the funding increase may have been to better help humanitarian entrants as opposed to family migrants. I’m unsure.

Language is getting harder for at least some migrants to Australia. I firmly believe settlement services such as English language classes are an integral part of why migration in Australia has been so different to other western democracies. Multiculturalism has thrived because people are well equipped within society, something underwritten by the English language ability of recent migrants. Hopefully when budgets are razored in the coming months, this is not forgotten by the Abbott government intent on saving dollars.

“It wasn’t very difficult…” Personal responsibility, immigration and english language

“Culture wars”. When Keith Windschuttle writes another tirade in Quadrant designed to rile up progressives, I cringe. I don’t mean to offend those who care about this stuff, but I certainly don’t. Endless point scoring and nit-picking from a range of mostly excellent writers who are seemingly obsessed with each other. Whats the point, I think, as I read another blog post about education curriculum? Save me from this endless cultural churn.

But… unfortunately for anyone who feels as I do, it ends up being important (caveat: sometimes). This was illustrated perfectly yesterday when Bianca Hall showcased Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells views on the English language and immigration. Senator Fierravanti-Wells is associated with the hard right faction of the NSW Liberals and herself from a migrant background.

Unlike the bombastic approaches of others on Australia Day, Fierravanti-Wells found a topic which I believe is broadly appealing to the general public. Of course migrants should speak English! Seriously, one shouldn’t disagree with this sentiment. English language improves employment prospects and assists new arrivals to settle in Australia perhaps more than any other factor.

Yet the language of the Senator is to be rejected:

”It wasn’t very difficult: within three months, we had all learnt English and we were all busy singing away with our Maltese teacher, who taught us,” she said.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells said Australia Day was an apt time to discuss the ”personal responsibility” of migrants to learn English.

Propagating the myth learning another language is easy, from the Parliamentary Secretary who has responsibility for integration of migrants, is damaging. Doubly so by using her personal experience as a primary school aged child as the baseline for migrant ability. Her array into the “culture wars” was a deliberate attempt to expand what is acceptable opinion by inferring migrants these days are just a little bit different from migrants back in her day.

Personal responsibility should count for something and I believe education results show it does. Migrants take personal responsibility, just like most other people.

This graph shows how Australian migrant children perform in schools, as measured by the PISA scores (an international test). Second-generation children perform better than native students at reading, while first-generation students score about the same level. Australia is such a massive outlier here, largely attributed to our large skilled migration program and successful integration programs.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 11.54.11 AM

The same holds true for maths, as measured by the birthplace of parents:

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 11.56.38 AM


(Source: OECD)

Here we have compelling evidence that migrant families, those implicitly disparaged by Senator Fierravanti-Wells, take “personal responsibility” for their children in terms of both reading and maths. It is hard to believe this would be achievable without parents and other adults within migrant communities taking the time and effort to learn what they consider a personally appropriate level of English.

It is undoubtedly true that learning English language is important for migrants living in Australia. However there no evidence at all that forcing migrants to speak English as their primary language from the day of their arrival will improve the settlement experience.

The Australian settlement experience for migrants is world-class. There are less than a handful of countries that can lay claim to engineering such a successful integration of mass migration and maintenance of social cohesion. Senator Fierravanti-Wells comments do not support or further this goal, instead they are nothing more than an attempt to hoodwink a relaxed public on Australia Day.

Social Cohesion – Australia and the World

The sixth Scanlon Foundation “Mapping Social Cohesion” report was released last week. A slew of articles were published (Julia Baird, David Marr and John Masanaukas with good coverage in the Herald Sun were amongst the better ones). The report is thoughtful and considered, as was the coverage.

The trend of social cohesion in Australia is undoubtedly one where generally positive attitudes are slowly changing, becoming more complex. The five measured domains – belonging, worth, social justice, participation and acceptance and rejection – were all below the 2007 benchmark level, meaning the Index of Social Cohesion recorded its lowest level to date. This informed all of the coverage, where the negative shift of social attitudes was emphasised. This is completely understandable and a very important concept for public discussion.

However I feel this is a small case of missing the forrest for the trees. Professor Markus says compared to international standards, “Australia remains highly cohesive”, where “life in Australia continues to satisfy the new arrivals”. Too often this is overlooked, where our success at building a cohesive society is diminished. A quick peek overseas should act as a good reminder.

Lets start with the share of migrants in Australia. In an oft-quoted figure, about 1 in 4 Australians are born overseas, and 1 in 2 having at least one parent born overseas. Perhaps this isn’t impressive anymore. It should be:

Migrants as a proportion of population

(Source: OECD)

Amongst rich, developed countries with sizeable populations, Australia is unique. While the U.S. is the traditional home of the immigrant dream, Australia is a much better reflection of that reality. This underscores social cohesion, as people mingle economically, socially and culturally. This is the core of multiculturalism in Australia and while the rest of the world struggle with what this means for society, we only struggle with what the word means. As the Scanlon Report says, multiculturalism is now accepted across society.

Next, the labour market:

Migrants and Natives: Unemployment

(Source: International Migration Outlook 2013, OECD)

This shows the difference in unemployment between migrants and domestic born populations for OECD countries. Australia is in the sweet spot, with basically no difference in unemployment between the two groups. Differences can appear, i.e. 6.7% of migrants were unemployed in 2009 compared to 5.3% of Australian-born, yet they tend to smooth out quickly. This is not the case for other developed countries. Migrants struggle in many labour markets, stifling integration into society and damaging social cohesion. This isn’t a perfect picture. Despite some recent convergence, participation rates, especially for women, tend to be lower for migrants than Australian-born.

These labour market results are one of the foundations of strong social cohesion in Australia. A job is important for a host of individual reasons but also for social integration. Having a job helps prevent geographic migrant clustering (“migrant ghettos”). It also prevents migrants acting as a fiscal drag. While you will occasionally read fluff pieces about migrants addicted to welfare or simply coming to Australia for the public benefits, it’s completely incorrect.

migrants and natives: fiscal contribution

This shows the different fiscal contribution of migrant and domestic households. Basically, how do migrants contribute to the budget? Those big blue lines on the left indicate countries where there is a substantial gap between migrants contribution and domestic contributions. Australia doesn’t have a blue line, either negative or positive, meaning migrant and Australian-born households have the same fiscal contribution.

These differences come back to the labour market, and are due to a range of factors, including Australia’s two decade plus journey towards prioritising skilled migration. Family migration and asylum seekers, which are much more prominent in Europe, tend to contribute less to government budgets than domestic-born households. This happens in Australia as well, but is offset by the large proportion of skilled migrants. I believe this has a strong impact on social cohesion, as people don’t associate migrants with the dole in Australia, preventing negative sentiment from escalating. Again, this doesn’t mean things are perfect. If migrant and Australian-born employment rates were equal, the budget would improve by ~0.5%, the fourth largest gain in the OECD.

I don’t mean to ignore the changing trends of Australian attitudes to social cohesion and immigration. There is a shift, and its negative since 2007. However, social cohesion in Australia relative to the rest of the world is unprecedented. Much like how the Australian economy has softened since the GFC, it remains the envy of the developed world. This is despite the vitriol of Hansonism, the fall out from the Tampa and the Cronulla riots. These negatives have failed to rapidly change social cohesion in Australia, which remains strong. This is important to recognise as it demonstrates what has worked in the past.

Andrew Markus recognises this. The Scanlon surveys are a vital insight into Australian society and hopefully his research this year fulfils one of its central objectives, the provision of an early warning against threats to social cohesion, and creating a public environment to “foster informed debate on the challenges necessarily accompanying the maintenance of a successful large scale immigration program”.

Note: the OECD’s annual International Migration Outlook is an excellent document, with useful accompanying country summaries, here is Australia (.xls)