Originally published at Kurt Johnson’s blog.
This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Liberals’ plan for Australia’s future population. Morrison and Alan Tudge, Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population, fronted up to the cameras with a plan to reduce Australia’s immigration intake by 30,000, from 186,000 in 2018-2019 down to 160,000.
Before Tudge trudged through the stats, Morrison said that this reduction would ease congestion in the major cities. The image conjured up was of immigrants stepping onto the tarmac and straight into a hire car to just drive around in circles getting in everybody’s way. When streamed on Facebook the comments were a suitably apoplectic accompaniment to the stream of angry faces: “What about infrastructure?” “Not one mention of climate change”. Over to Tudge who confirmed, with graphs and all, that while immigration was making us all rich (comment “Great I have more money now”), it was taking everyone longer to get to their jobs. Left unsaid was how reducing population intake - meaning more people coming in but at a slower rate - could somehow mean less cars.
Scott Morrison tried to act relaxed but when his head tilted at a particular angle you could see the look of cold terror in his eyes. Here was a man pulling out all the stops to make his last stand. The diversion tactic of STOP THE BOATS wasn’t working this election and now the Liberals had to slaughter the sacred cow of Big Australia by reducing legal migration - a policy started by John Howard - rendering any LNP Good Old Boy misty-eyed with nostalgia for the good old days.
The population growth debate has historically been so toxic that before this week most ministers blue, red or green have left it well alone. The most recent high-profile case was Dick Smith’s long running campaign to reduce population size (he even wrote a book on the subject in 2011 - Dick Smith’s Population Crisis). But Smith suffered a credibility catastrophe in 2016 when he supported Pauline Hanson’s Immigration Policy. Although Smith clarified that he did not support Hanson’s stance on Islam, the damage had already been done. In 2019 there is very little nuance beneath the headline, ‘Dick Smith Supports Pauline Hanson on Immigration’.
In many Australian minds, Smith was the benevolent, circuit-tinkering, eccentric OzeMite maker; the sort of old man who would accost you outside your house and tell you why that lemon tree is not growing as well as it should. After Hanson’s toxic touch Smith was transformed for many Australians into a crank and closet racist.
I have read Dick Smith’s Population Crisis. He is not a racist or Islamophobic. In fact he advocates increasing our refugee intake. He questions our ability to sustain our current standard of living, our environment and our obligations to reduce carbon emissions with our current immigration levels. It is a reasoned treatise with deeply relevant environmental concerns. He concludes that Australia is the lucky country but the idea of Big Australia (> 40 million) is at odds with our environmental capacity. We are eating into the principal when we should be living off the interest and this will come at a substantial cost to future generations who, because of us, will have a drastically lower standard of living than we do.
The ‘future generations’ argument is identical to that advocating action on climate change. Yet the debate on immigration is much more politically complicated. For so long it has been used as a racist dog-whistle, and no portion of the argument has remained uncontaminated. Jobs, quality of life, foreign investment and now paradoxically climate change and environmental conservation are being used on the far-right as excuses to reduce immigration.
This is why Dick Smith supporting Pauline Hanson is so problematic - it takes all his valid arguments and taints them by association with the poster lady for Australian racism. It’s a horrific play and one that has done more to undermine the case for an informed debate on immigration than the conspiratorial silence between Labor and Liberals.
Morrison’s announcement this week also the damages the case for a debate on what population size Australia can sustain. Again the cliches come thick and fast - a PM holding on by the skin of his teeth is grasping at straws. He’s damaged goods and everything he touches turns to shit.
Despite this, his timing is impeccable and you have to trust his political instincts, if not his motives, character, intentions, morals, etc. House prices, low infrastructure spending and rising underemployment all dovetail neatly and cynically into discussions of population growth. Life is tough cos of all them immigrants teeming in the city streets. They’re why you’re late; why you don’t get that pay rise; why living costs are so high. It’s a lazy argument but one that resonates because it associates the hardships of day-to-day life with a single root cause.
It also sails clear over the fact that in the last decade Australia has become a net importer of food, that our Murray-Darling river system is dying, that we are clearing land at the historically high rate of 5000 sq km a year, that our carbon output per capita is the second highest in the world (behind Saudi Arabia). All these structural issues are exacerbated by increased population and will barely be alleviated by a measly 26,000 fewer new Australians each year.
Once again an urgently needed debate on an environmental issue is obscured by political opportunism and poor media coverage. The danger is, when, as here, an issue overlaps with immigration, political opportunism and media neglect it has the potential to develop into a populist xenophobic shitstorm. In 2019 we’ve all seen where that leads. To avoid such an outcome a conversation on population growth must occur on the back of an unequivocal condemnation of racism. But it still must occur. Perhaps this politically dangerous nuance has become the biggest barrier to a meaningful discussion on what has become an environmental imperative.