This is the first in a two part series about Australian immigration in the 21st century
Two symbols of Australian suburban life – the Hills-Hoist and the lawnmower –were broadcast to the world at the Sydney Olympics. Both command attention in backyards across the country, most of which are more than big enough to play cricket in. At the dawn of the 21st century, a bemused global audience caught a glimpse of how we see ourselves. Above all, our space – an entire continent to ourselves – embodied an idyllic Australian lifestyle.
This is the heart of the our population debate. More people means less space. This sentiment fused with electoral politics makes for uncomfortable public policy and strange bedfellows.
The most recent iteration of this potent mix was seen in 2010. A new Prime Minister ran from her predecessor’s policy agenda and a future Prime Minister surveyed the political landscape and made the easy call. Divisive public opinion provided the foundation for ‘a great big new tax’ and ‘stop the boats’. Yet even in this period of heightened political division, bipartisanship in Canberra was far from extinct.
A ‘sustainable Australia’ was born.
Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott campaigned almost in tandem. Abbott called immigration ‘out of control’, Gillard created a Minister for Population and Sustainability and we were promised a Productivity and Sustainability Commission from a Coalition government, which was inevitably scrapped very quietly.
In the four years since, sustainability has been incorporated as a buzzword into the political lexicon, littered within endless talking points and speeches.
This bipartisanship shades the truth. A big Australia is here to stay. Whatever the word sustainable once meant, it must incorporate at least 36 million people by 2050. Sam Dastyari uses his own word to describe the 2010 debate: rhetoric.
“When Gillard redefined the issue from a big Australia to a sustainable Australia, it was actually more rhetoric than policy. It was rhetoric. Rather than embrace it and debate, we’ll redefine it into a less scary concept. There was obviously politics in that. Rhetoric not being matched by policy change was actually disingenuous but everyone is in on it. The Conservatives have got in and nothing at this point indicates anything serious in terms of the broader immigration framework but again, it’s almost as if there is this secret that everyone is in on.”
In his short time in Parliament, Dastyari has become the poster boy for a big Australia.
“It’s become this huge taboo in politics, talking about immigration, talking about population. This is the most significant challenge that is going to be facing us in the next 20-30 years”
This taboo doesn’t apply to Dastyari. A pivotal figure in the much-storied NSW Right faction of the ALP, his position in the Senate allows him a wide berth to explore the controversial. The fact he is Iranian-born is nearly lost in the whirlwind that trails him down the corridors of Parliament House. As his colleagues focus on the deterioration of manufacturing across the eastern seaboard or defend the union movement from another conservative advance, it is easy to dismiss his claims as hyperbolic.
Yet hyperbole it is not. Current rates of net migration are trending above historical levels, something demographic forecasters have had trouble with, making future projections almost impossible. In 2001, the Treasury in the first intergenerational report based its long-term net migration rate at 90,000 per year. A decade later in the third intergenerational report, this number had doubled to 180,000 per year, creating the magic 36m figure where public debate floundered on. As we await the next iteration of the intergenerational report, current net migration trends are hovering at about 240,000 per year. 36m is likely to become 38-40m.
Dastyari is right there is a secret about immigration policy. You’ll find very few politicians who will seriously discuss the issue. Unlike other economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, no politician has been able to explain to a sceptical public how and why a bipartisan consensus exists on the wholesale reform immigration policy has undertaken in the past two decades. This starts with a simple yet somewhat uncomfortable truth: with economic growth, comes immigration growth.
Historically, the federal government picked the number of immigrants to enter Australia every year. This was loosely based on the unemployment rate and strength of the economy. These migrants were provided permanent visas, as the vast majority settled in Australia, a concept in direct contrast to many European countries, where temporary migration was the norm.
Two major policy changes in the 1990s transformed Australia’s immigration framework.
These were the introduction and expansion of temporary visa programs such as 457, student and working holiday visas and the shift away from family reunion towards skilled migration. Bipartisan in nature, there has not been a set of policy changes in the past two decades designed specifically to limit migration in any way whatsoever.
Taken together, these reforms lay the foundation of a ‘demand-driven’ immigration system where demand from the labour market and universities largely determines the number of people who immigrate to Australia. Like interest and exchange rates, immigration has changed from a policy wholly determined by government to one where the market plays the dominant role.
This has not removed government agency from immigration policy. Governments establish boundaries through various program settings but cannot determine the exact number of immigrants who come to Australia each year. Economic growth, such as the much touted 23 years without a recession, will bring more people. This is why the past decade has seen such large increases in population projections.
I ask Bob Carr how he would see a lower rate of population growth. He calls for the government to lower the level of permanent visas in the annual budget process. But he doesn’t touch on the policy settings behind student, 457 or working holiday visas, all of which are increasingly doing the legwork on population growth. These are complex programs now interwoven in our labour market, higher education sector and foreign relationships, arising in the last two decades without the accompanying percolating public discussion akin to how we discuss home loans.
We do not understand immigration as a market driven institution but this is exactly what it is. By constantly relying on politicians to set a limit without acknowledging the policy transformation, we are poorer in our understanding.
Elsewhere in Parliament, particularly with the loss of Bob Carr, you find the very same support for immigration and a larger population. Andrew Laming, a Harvard-educated, beer-swilling, Liberal MP represents the electorate of Bowman, a suburban seat in Brisbane’s east.
“On population growth I regard myself of supporter of what we are currently doing. I’m very comfortable with the current growth and wouldn’t dream of any slower.”
From different sides of the political divide, Dastyari and Laming represent the dominant view in Canberra on population. This bipartisanship emerged as Australia’s period of economic sunshine began in the 1990s. Dastyari calls this “a secret political consensus” on immigration and population, a journey where the public have been left behind.
Those outside this consensus who advocate for a lower rate of immigration, such as former Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, agree with Dastyari’s central point – how difficult it is to talk about Australia’s population. Says Carr:
“Governments in Canberra have traditionally assumed they can ramp up immigration without any accountability and whenever it surfaces as an issue, I’m struck by the fact that Australian’s have made it pretty clear they don’t accept the simple arguments for a bigger Australia”.
I ask Dastyari if this is simply because no one talks about population or if there is something deeper, a wariness of what this conversation might unearth.
“No-one likes change. People are comfortable and change is an unknown. Historically there has been this sense of the Australian psyche which is wrong, that we are this lucky country with this amazing land of prosperity and peace and someone is going to come and take it away from us.”
Bob Carr on the other hand sees the delineation of federal and state jurisdictions as an important factor. He mentions the oft-cited call by federal governments for an infrastructure response to immigration as not being borne out historically.
“I’ve never seen a federal government – Liberal or Labor – make a serious commitment to the nations cities since the era of Whitlam. No subsequent prime minister has shown any commitment to the quality of urban life”.
These are sharp words for his own side, as the ALP oversaw six years of strong population growth from 2007-2013.
Peter Lewis is a director with Essential Media Communication and has tracked public opinion on population.
“Our leaders don’t want a debate about population, they know they can’t win on a ‘big Australia’. Instead they allow immigration to quietly increase while creating panics around specific groups. The slogan trumps the big issue.”
Lewis’ comments about an inability to win a ‘big Australia’ debate are concerning given Bob Carr is hardly inventing what is a genuine public concern about population.
Following the 2010 election campaign, 47 per cent thought there were too many migrants arriving. This tapered off to 42 per cent last year but remains in the top handful of issues raised by voters after the traditional staples of the economy, health and education.
This entrenched gulf between the public and the political class is dangerous. The result is tokenistic urban planning frameworks across capital cities, devoid of vision and detached from reality.
Exhibit A is Infrastructure Australia’s National Priority List. The largest ‘transforming our cities’ project – the Melbourne Metro – is classified as “only not ready to proceed due to a small number of outstanding issues” despite the fact Premier Napthine has likened the Metro plan for Swanston St akin to the Berlin Wall. There is a lack of transformative infrastructure projects simply awaiting approval.
This even extends to where we live. The Grattan Institute has found Australians have strongly divergent preferences about the housing we live in now as opposed to the housing we want to live in. Something is not quite right.
This is where the politics of population crashes up against a brutal reality about sustainability. Policy and discussion are kept in the backroom instead of the front page. Peter Lewis believes politicians have convinced themselves this debate is ‘unwinnable’ because of a reliance on focus groups.
“It’s not impossible. When people think this is simply a choice between development and no development they opt for the status quo. But when you tell them the population will grow, regardless of who is in power, they accept this and are prepared to engage in a debate about what sort of development we should have.”
We now have a sustainable in name, market driven by nature immigration policy that will push Australia’s population past 36m by 2050.
The 20th century lifestyle celebrated in the Olympics by our love for traditional quarter acre is already in the rear view mirror.
The question is not how many people but what does this mean for Australia? The social and economic impacts on Australia are lost in the debate over the headline figure.
(See Part Two here)