Most Australians are clueless about immigration and population: survey

In the 2016 election year we will hear a lot more about one of Australia's hitherto practically unsung federal-state imbalances.

The much sung one, of course, is the fact that the Federal Government raises the bulk of the taxes, but the states are the ones with the responsibility for spending them – schools, hospitals, police, most roads and so on. It goes by the rather ugly name of vertical fiscal imbalance.

Entrepreneur Dick Smith supported Sustainable Population Australia.
Entrepreneur Dick Smith supported Sustainable Population Australia. Photo: James Brickwood

The unsung one is that the Federal Government is responsible for Australia's high immigration rate but it is the poor states that have to provide the services and infrastructure for the extra people. It could be called vertical population policy imbalance. But it might be easier just to call it dumb policy.

Australians seem to have some idea about vertical fiscal imbalance because the Premiers and Chief Ministers are forever whingeing about being starved of funds by the Feds. It is a convenient excuse for long hospital waiting lists and the like.

But Australians have very little idea about population. A survey published this week by the Australian Population Research Institute reveals just how ignorant they are about it.

The survey asked four basic questionswith multiple-choice answers. Only 2 per cent of respondents got all four questions right. That is about the same as random guessing, given 12 multiple-choice answers.


That suggests not just ignorance but the possession of misinformation, as if people have been victims of a slow-drip propaganda campaign.

The questions were: Is it True or False that without immigration, Australia's population would be shrinking? What is Australia's population? What portion of the immigration intake are refugees? And is it True or False that Australia has one of the highest population growth rates in the developed world?

The best result was the present level of population, with just over half of respondents getting it right. The worst (19 per cent) was the fact Australia has one of the highest population rates in the world. Only Israel and Luxembourg in the OECD have higher rates.

Overall, 12.6 per cent of respondents got all four questions wrong. Again, about the same as random guessing. The result can only be the result in some general pushing of misinformation – not just ignorance on its own. By the way, this is my conclusion, not that of the researchers.

If political leaders, business, the media and other providers of information and information were generally pushing the correct or no information – rather than an incorrect picture – you would expect a better than random result for all questions right and for no questions right. Instead, both are worse.

The survey backs up what a few people have long suspected: that the big end of town – a tiny, wealthy and powerful minority which gets benefit from high immigration - and the politicians they finance have pushed the case for high immigration, generally against the overall public interest.

They do this by stressing imaginary benefits – economic growth, cure for an ageing population, cure for a falling birth rate etc. And they underplay how aberrant high population growth is, the strain it puts on infrastructure and the provision of services, and the strain it puts on the environment.

Further, they are desperately worried that any difficulty with refugees might detract from what they say is general support for immigration. Former Prime Minister John Howard said as much. That is why he was so tough on refugees.

Well, it is about time some of these myths got busted. And it looks as if the next election campaign may go some way towards that.

For a start, last week's report revealed that politicians' assertions that there is widespread support for immigration in Australia are plainly wrong.

The survey found that 51 per cent of Australians do not want any population growth. And a further 38 per cent said they did not want Australia to grow beyond 30 million. Those 89 per cent are in effect saying they want governments to reduce or eliminate immigration – because, as the survey pointed out, even without immigration Australia's population would still grow.

The Australian Population Research Institute is an independent research institute. Its members are participating researchers, mainly academics. This survey was commissioned by Sustainable Population Australia, an independent, non-profit organisation.

In the meantime, the political party Sustainable Population Australia (about to change its name to Sustainable Australia) is getting more clout. Its candidate was supported by Dick Smith in the North Sydney by-election this month.

Money, of course, helps immensely in politics. The Palmer United Party, backed by millionaire miner Clive Palmer, won three Senate seats and a House of Representatives seat last election. Its support has since collapsed and two of its senators deserted the party and its policies have been incoherent.

You need more than money. You also need a convincing platform. So expect to hear a lot more about immigration and population at the next election. Money can buy media presence, either directly through advertisements, or indirectly through things like last week's research and paying people to present the message effectively.

One of those messages is likely to be that Premiers should stop asking the Feds for extra money, and ask them for fewer people instead.

Oddly enough support for population growth was stronger among university graduates and urban dwellers.

It was extraordinarily high in Canberra – the centre of political lobbying.

Overseas born were – as you would expect – more in favour. The research suggested that more recent arrivals did not have a past reference point of a less populated and less congested Australia.

Males were more in favour than females and tended to cite economic reasons more than females who, when in favour, cited cultural diversity and helping refugees more than males did.

The interesting question will be how the Greens and the National Party react. The Greens have not been very active for an environmental party on the sustainable-population front. The National Party has opposed (fairly weakly) mining on agricultural land, but has been virtually silent on the question of population expansion encroaching on agricultural land.

They may be forced to get into this debate come election time.

Clarifications: An earlier version of this story suggested Sustainable Population Australia is a non-aligned community organisation and not related to Sustainable Population Party, which is a political party and is about to change its name to Sustainable Australia.

Also, I failed to recognise that two of the survey questions in the survey had multiple answers. It means Australians are not hugely worse than random guesses, but only about on par with random selection – still showing there is a lot of misinformation about, but not as much as I had suggested.