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Social cohesion survey records all-time low

The Scanlon Institute’s sobering 2023 report on social cohesion landed last week. It caused a temporary ripple in the media before being pushed under the surface by Canberra’s hysterical reaction to the High Court’s ruling on the legality of the continued detention of refugees.

Australians should be concerned about what the report told us. ‘Social cohesion’ measures the ‘harmony and connectedness’ of society, the levels of trust we have in government and in each other, and the strength of our sense of belonging. These are among the things that make us a functioning nation.

The Scanlon report found that while social cohesion in Australia had peaked during the pandemic, it is now at an historic low, at a whopping 34 percentage points lower than in July 2020. Trust in government has fallen from 56 per cent in 2020 to 36 per cent in 2023, and the proportion of Australians who are satisfied with our forms of government is now sitting at 12 per cent!

Financial stress is highlighted as among the many factors contributing to this, although, as the report’s author, James O’Donnell, points out, ‘social division and inequality remain powerful threats to social cohesion’.

The report paints a clear picture of how many Australians assess the state of the nation at present. What is missing from this picture, however, is probably the most disturbing and intractable factor of all.

Those elements of our society which are most capable of generating trust in government and a sense of national belonging also happen to be those most responsible for the splintering of the nation.

Tell someone who cares

These results are no surprise. Australia has become afflicted with a political culture that is fundamentally and deliberately divisive. The incitement of social and cultural division has become one of the key components of the political toolbox. Rather than compete on policy, all sides of politics will readily choose the easy route — the generation of doubt, anxiety, fear, and resentment, through any means possible. Reaching those who might vote for you seems now to require the demonizing of those who won’t.

The Coalition, it has to be said, has demonstrated the most wholehearted commitment to fomenting division as it pivots from one culture war to another, with little interest in the consequences for a social field littered with the collateral damage. However, while the Labor Party may still talk as if they care about this stuff, their actions would suggest otherwise. Frozen in the headlights of the Murdoch media, haunted by the ghosts of the 2019 election, and stymied by Dutton’s unremitting aggression, Labor in power can’t muster the courage to take even the most uncontroversial action to directly address inequality and disadvantage: increasing Jobseeker to a liveable level.

It is not hard to see what has caused the nation to splinter. Selective definitions of national belonging have become political weapons, used as a means of questioning the membership of whichever group happens to be most useful target. Think of the many categories of persons whose legitimacy as Australian citizens has been challenged in recent years. The potential list is long and it would include the almost completely imaginary figure of the ‘dole-bludger’, allegedly Communist-aligned Chinese-Australians, ‘queue-jumping’ asylum seekers, Peter Dutton’s confected ‘African gangs’, and the ‘inner-city elites’ responsible for ‘wokeism’ and ‘cancel culture’.

Bizarrely, within the contemporary politics of Australia as we experience it now, social cohesion has been offered up as something to be achieved by exclusion, not by inclusion.

Forces of fragmentation

There is more than just the behaviour of our politicians involved here. More, too, than the avalanche of anti-social content cascading through social media.

Shamefully, much of Australia’s mainstream media has been happy to play along. Too often, they have been prepared to act as simple conduits for misinformation, disinformation, and stuff that politicians just made up. Opportunists among them have sought to build their brand by stoking animosity between warring tribes. This may not be due to their political alignments (although there are those, too), but rather to their commercial dependence upon an audience most easily attracted by anger, fear, anxiety and resentment.

There is a view within the media industries that this audience now presents the only viable commercial option. Our last surviving prime time commercial television current affairs program, A Current Affair, reflects this view in its long running production line of standard story categories focused on those social groups adjudged most likely to raise the blood pressure of its ageing audience.

And then, of course, there is the Murdoch media, now as much a site of serial vendettas and culture war activism as of responsible journalism.

When forces as powerful and as pervasive as these fail to see any advantage in pursuing the goals of social cohesion, and rather see profit in undermining them, it is little wonder that these goals are not achieved.

The Scanlon report does the accounting which tells us the cost of all this. What it doesn’t (or can’t) tell us is the degree to which Australia’s contemporary political and media culture is responsible for placing us in this position.

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