The Ins and Outs of Immigration as an Election Issue

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.
- Australian Prime Minister John Howard


While the topic of immigration is far from new in electoral politics, I decided to take a look at immigration because it’s received significantly more attention as of late.

The first major time immigration presented itself as an election issue was during the 2001 Australian general election. Then Prime Minister John Howard refused to allow refugees from Afghanistan to seek entry into Australia after being rescued at sea. His quote (above) helped galvanize the support his Liberal Party needed to form a winning coalition allowing him to form the next government.

While immigration may have been discussed at the dinner table or in pubs, it was a relatively novel public policy issue to be discussed during an election.

The same can’t be said for today, however.

Immigration became a serious topic of discussion during:

  • The 2015 Canadian election over controversial Bill C-24 as well as how Canada should respond to refugees fleeing violence as the Alan Kurdi story swept headlines globally.  

  • The 2016 Brexit referendum where many of those who chose to leave the European Union did so as a result of their views and anxieties towards immigration.

  • The 2016 US Presidential election when then candidate Donald Trump kicked off and conducted his campaign with a laser-like focus on illegal immigration.

The Canadian Election Study started asking questions about immigration during the 1988 election.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

Over time we see Canadians have become increasingly less hostile to the idea of admitting more immigrants into the country. The largest uptick in support can be seen between the 2011 and 2015 elections. It’s interesting to note that Canadians over time have become increasingly indifferent on the idea of admitting more immigrants to Canada.

When we look deeper into the data we can see some of the major demographics that fueled attitudes towards how many immigrants Canada should admit.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

We see that generally those on the left-of-centre side of the political spectrum, those with higher levels of education and Canadians on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts were more likely to believe that Canada should admit more immigrants while those in households earning <$30k/year, those with lower levels of education and Alberta were more likely to believe that Canada should admit fewer immigrants.

While immigration was among a number of major policy issues being discussed during the 2015 election, it wasn’t king. More Canadians than not were paying little attention to the issue than those who were paying attention to it.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

Despite the relatively lower levels of attention paid to the topic in 2015, we can see an increased level of attention paid towards immigration in 2015 than in 2011.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

We see from the above that immigration was paid attention to in greater detail in 2015 than in the 2011. There is a ~10% swing from 2011 and 2015 with respect to the amount of interest Canadians paid to the issue.

That having been said, some demographics view the issue with greater intensity than others.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

Generally, we see those with lower household incomes, those who are older and those with higher education tend to pay more attention to immigration.

When we look at how respondents felt about government spending on immigrants and minorities we see respondents believed in increased, we see a similar uptick in support for increased government spending. The six point reduction among those who say that the government should spend about the same as now means that the population has more staunch beliefs than they once did about what the direction government should take.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

Similar to the amount of attention paid to the issue, we see an overall increased level of support for government spending but deeper analysis shows that select demographics are driving this change more than others.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

We see from the above that those on the left-of-centre side of the political divide, those who would most likely be categorized as upper-middle class and those with higher levels of education are more likely to believe that the government to spend more on immigration.

Attitudes towards immigration can be measured any number of ways, above we see that we could measure views towards the topic with respect to the amount that Canada should admit and how much attention we pay towards the subject. However, we could also measure the perceptions immigration might have on the economy.

It is believed that Donald Trump was able to tap into the economic anxieties immigration posed to fly-over America. The threat that an immigrant could take your job significantly increased the probability of someone casting their ballots for Trump.

Canada is far from immune from economic anxiety, however.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

We see that Canadians overall do not believe that immigrants take jobs away from other Canadians, however, an interesting shift took place between 2008 and 2011 when Canadians were less likely to disagree with the statement that “immigrants take jobs away from other Canadians”. The intensity of opposition to the statement decreased while support for the statement increased slightly.

While intensity of support for the statement decreased in 2015, we can see from the graph below who was most likely to agree with the statement.

Source: Canadian Election Study

Source: Canadian Election Study

We see that those who said they voted Conservative, those in households that earn <$60k/year, those in Atlantic Canada and Alberta as well as those with lower levels of education were more likely to agree with the statement.

Okay, we have a better understanding of how people feel towards immigration, so what?

The above information can be seen as both a threat and opportunity to those who campaign and communicate on immigration issues. Those who advocate for increased immigration should feel empowered to know that Canadians are more open to the idea of allowing more immigrants than in the past. However, those who campaign against immigration, like Maxime Bernier, may also feel empowered to know that a significantly large number of Canadians are on the fence about immigration and are arguably open to messaging that supports reducing the number of immigrants Canada lets in each year.

In any election you can either grow the tent or turnout the base.

Immigration advocates who want to grow the tent and wish to educate and inform people about the positive impacts of immigration need to extent their communications efforts to those who have lower levels of education and income as well as into right-of-centre feedback loops. As a researcher, I have found that those with higher levels of education and income are more likely to turnout to vote, while those with lower levels of education and income are more likely to stay home.

You can only get so far on the issue with the educated and affluent. Significant movement of the dial on immigration can take place if the coalition is extended to include less affluent and those with lower levels of education.

On the flipside, those who oppose increased immigration could use the intensity of support to motivate those who generally never vote(d) to get involved and speak their minds. A significant plurality of infrequent voters could potentially swing the discussion in a different direction and those who focus on the issue of immigration should take note of this the way Trump or Nigel Farage did in 2016.

Adrian Macaulay