Given the negligible net overseas migration (NOM) in the year leading up to March 2021, the conventional question of whether voters wanted more or less immigration became less relevant. However, this unique period provided an opportunity to gauge the Australian voting public's opinions on the level of immigration post-pandemic. Let's summarise the fourth TAPRI national survey conducted in late July 2021, focusing on voters' attitudes towards population growth and immigration.
A July 2021 summary of voting opinions is as relevant today as it was a few years ago.
The Context and Natural Experiment
Between March 2020 and July 2021, Australia experienced minimal net migration due to the pandemic. During this period, interest groups advocating for a return to pre-pandemic levels of immigration, approximately 240,000 per year, had ample opportunity to present their case. These groups, including influential business organisations, the property industry, and the overseas student sector, received strong support from the Coalition Government, which expressed its intention to restore NOM levels once the pandemic was under control. This situation set the stage for a natural experiment: would voters support a "Big Australia" policy after experiencing over a year without it? Have advocates successfully persuaded them that high rates of population growth are desirable?
Survey Results and Shifting Attitudes
The survey results revealed that advocates of a "Big Australia" policy did not convince most voters. Only 19% of respondents supported a return to NOM levels of around 240,000 per year, while the rest preferred significantly lower levels of immigration, including 28% who favoured nil net migration.
Notably, there has been a noticeable hardening of attitudes towards immigration. Before the pandemic, there was a relatively even split between voters wanting to maintain or increase current immigration levels and those favouring a decrease. However, as of July 2021, only a small minority wished to restore "Big Australia" levels, with the majority opposing it.
Reasons for Opposition and Alternative Solutions
Advocates of substantial immigration often argue that addressing labour shortages and stimulating economic growth is necessary. However, when respondents were presented with this proposition, only 26% supported it. Instead, a majority (61%) chose an alternative proposition: "We should deal with worker shortages by raising wages and improving skills training for locals." This shift in sentiment indicates that voters are not convinced that increased immigration is the sole solution to labour market challenges.
Furthermore, most voters do not support a return to previous levels of overseas student recruitment, suggesting a more comprehensive scepticism towards population growth.
Drivers of Opposition and the Impact of the Pandemic
The survey findings indicate that most voters do not believe Australia needs more people. Approximately 69% of respondents held this view, citing concerns such as congestion, overcrowding of hospitals and schools, environmental deterioration, and the high cost of housing as reasons for their stance.
It is worth noting that the hardening of voters' views may have been influenced by their fears surrounding the virus. Strong support was observed for keeping international borders closed to foreign travellers and for state governments' restrictions on interstate movement. These factors suggest that apprehension about further infections and disruptions to everyday life significantly shapes public opinion.
The TAPRI national survey conducted in July 2021 provides valuable insights into the changing attitudes of Australian voters towards immigration and population growth. The results demonstrate a notable shift from supporting a "Big Australia" policy, with a majority favouring lower immigration levels or nil net migration. Voters expressed concerns about the negative consequences of population growth and highlighted alternative strategies for addressing labour shortages. The pandemic has played a crucial role.