Tony Abbott’s recent attempt to drive a wedge within his side of politics (while the Prime Minister was overseas!) should normally be treated with the straight bat it deserves. But what if on this occasion he is right? What if he is right that an excessively large migrant intake is in fact harmful: socially harmful, environmentally harmful and in the long term harmful economically?
Let’s start with two positives. Unquestionably the great success of Australia’s migration policy over the last two or three decades has been its genuinely multi-cultural flavour. Migrants are drawn from almost all parts of the world ensuring that no single ethnic cohort dominates to cause racial or ethnic power struggles. The demonising of any single group (South Sudanese, Lebanese, Vietnamese) quickly loses steam. The foundation of the programme’s success has been the multi dimension of multi-culturalism. Secondly, despite the shocking and unresolved treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, significant numbers of refugees have flourished in their new home, adding much to the life of all Australians.
Now to critique of the immigration quantum. Almost all political decisions have first an economic or self-interest rationale. Environmental, demographic, social, or moral factors lag well behind. For example, the Tasmanian government’s support for the gaming industry is an obvious case in point. The damage done to the less well off through poker machines is well documented, as is the fact that Tasmanian gaming profits end up with a family resident in NSW: but Tasmanian government gains ensure the industry continues to flourish.
So, what lies behind support for a big Australia? Scott Morrison gives a clear answer. It is economic. Australia is unable to maintain its unbroken run of 25 years economic growth without it. So, what is wrong with that? What is wrong with it lies in the ever-increasing groan that wages have remained static. The connection? Australia’s economic growth is somewhat of a cardboard house, it is quantitative rather than qualitative. The size of the economy is directly related to the size of the population. Standards of living do not increase without quantitative growth. The jobs record of the government has all to do with immigration, not productivity; unless or until there is a quantitative improvement in the economy wages will not increase. If the government can genuinely lay claim for jobs growth, look no further than the immigration policy.
But the problem does not end there. Dependence upon a big Australia is dependence upon a never-ending cycle of public infrastructure deficit that never really catches up. More roads, more airports, more public transport, more hospitals, more schools, mostly based around the nation’s state capitals. The deficit in each of these areas is a headline on almost a daily basis somewhere in Australia. Living in NSW I am most familiar with Sydney which has already reached a point of gridlock. Similarly, although immigration is biased towards a younger generation, thus helping to correct the burgeoning percentage of the population over 65, these newcomers will also grow old and their bubble will also need to be ameliorated with an ever-increasing flow of younger people sometime in the future. The current baby boomer bubble in Australia is directly related to post war migration.
To meet the challenge of infrastructure deficit the NSW government privatised its ‘poles and wires’. This has provided the state with a windfall enabling the construction of a massive motorway system linking the major parts of the city with each other and the airport. But there is a connection with escalating electricity prices. Conveying electricity from the point of generation to the place of consumption via poles and wires comprises a little under half of the total cost to the consumer, considerably more than the cost of generation itself. Thus, selling poles and wires to profit motivated private companies, to pay for the infrastructure necessary for a burgeoning population, has indirectly added to the cost of living of those already here. And so, the unaddressed cycle continues. Large immigration is an economic fix with very large strings attached.
While the immigration programme is touted as an economic positive, no such argument is put, indeed could be put, to argue an environmental positive. While Australia is a very large land mass, it does not follow that we can support an infinitely expanding human population. All land owners worth their salt know that every acre has a limited or maximal carrying capacity. Even with the population we now carry some aspects of Australia’s environment are facing disastrous consequences, none more so than the Murray Darling River system. The Murray Darling Plan which requires the sign-off of all eastern states and South Australia appears almost in tatters. One can only assume that as the population in each state increases then the pressures to draw water from the system for irrigation or human consumption will only increase. Economic considerations almost always override environmental ones. Water authorities on all states appear to bend over backwards to facilitate excessive use of water by irrigators. The rise and rise of Cubbie Station is just one example of a prevailing whole. The human foot print on the planet increases in weight year on year. Mitigation is implemented reluctantly and generally only occurs when the situation we have created is intolerable. Pictures of rubbish washing ashore on Bali’s Kuta Beach is in microcosm a picture of humans having well exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth.
Finally, let me say a few words about this from a Christian perspective. The biblical mandate is to live in such a manner that future generations will call on our name in blessing, because the manner of our living enhanced theirs. For the period covered in biblical history this meant having numerous children “fill the earth and subdue it”, for natural disaster and human sickness and disease meant human population needed replenishment to survive. Fast forward to today and we know an endless increase in global population, increases, not decreases, threats to human flourishing in succeeding generations on countless levels. If we are genuinely concerned about the flourishing of future generations we should be implementing policies that stabilise population, not increasing it.
So where to in the future? I agree with Abbott, perhaps for different reasons, but agree nevertheless, that the rate of immigration should be drastically reduced. For compassionate reasons the intake of asylum seekers or refugees should be maintained, indeed increased. Overall, we must find a way of flourishing sustainably on this continent with the population we have, rather than depending on the arrival of others to do for us what we should be able to do for ourselves. If we can engender a sustainable Australia, economically, environmentally and socially, we will then be in a good position to act generously and compassionately to those in the world for whom this dream is impossible.