Little Australia and the population ‘debate’

Bernard Keane has a good piece in this morning’s Crikey election special edition, reflecting on yesterday’s installment of the so-called population debate. Let’s remember that Julia Gillard linked the asylum seeker issue to infrastructure and sustainability issues in the first place. The logical question that she needs to face is what her policy will be on skilled immigration (and I wonder if several days running of media events on high school and vocational education trade skills stuff is an oblique answer) and whether her government intends to reduce immigration.

If it is the case that residents of Western Sydney and elsewhere are primarily concerned by a lack of infrastructure, it can’t all be plonked in there tomorrow. She’s said we need to pause and take a breath, and Tony Burke is leading a review.

But yesterday, on radio, she sought to deny any link, being confronted by a jingle that interspersed some of her remarks with very similar ones from John Howard.

On cue, the rather odious Scott Morrison popped up to attack this delinking. Keane wryly observes that we should “[b]ear in mind that the Coalition’s idea of a population debate includes graphics with red lines from Islamic countries invading Australia.” But the Coalition’s answer is also a review – by the renamed Productivity and Sustainability Commission.

So up popped Mark Latham on Sky News, calling Gillard’s policy “a “con job” and “fraud of the worst order” on the good citizens of western Sydney” and calling for an immigration cut. Incidentally, Latham has also been touting Kevin Rudd, another former Labor leader, as a loose cannon. The irony of that apparently escapes him.

So what do we have here?

Two things at least:

(a) The unravelling of policy made on the run, and made precisely to try to straddle the sorts of terms that will make people with very opposed views on why they don’t want higher immigration happy;

(b) The difference between a “debate” and a stoush which is driven by policy designed by focus group.

In truth, it’s not very enlightening.

Update: An interesting take from Peter Brent:

Qualitative research – where groups of swinging voters are gathered for drinks and nibblies and led in a discussion – is better, but even that is loaded with the researcher’s assumptions.

Something being a red hot issue doesn’t make it a vote-changer. But if the researcher believes it is, her findings will reflect this.

Prime Minister Julia “I choose my words very carefully” Gillard may insist otherwise, but everyone knows “sustainable population”, border protection and immigration are all tied together. That’s the whole idea of talking about them.

Having high levels of immigration is, like recent decades’ economic reforms such as deregulation, privatisation and lowering of tariffs, something both political parties agree on but the majority of voters don’t (at least at the time).

You might call it a technocratic consensus. It’s not a democratic one.

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Posted in federal election 2010, Howardia, immigration
17 comments on “Little Australia and the population ‘debate’
  1. Labor Outsider says:

    Very true Kim

    I’d also point out that if the Productivity Commission really was turned into the Productivity and Sustainability Commission, a large number of its staff would resign because the coalition’s agenda is anathema to them. If the PC looked at this issue dispassionately they would just as likely conclude that reducing immigration is a daft idea.

  2. kimberella says:

    Yes, LO, Keane made the point that the surgery proposed on the Productivity Commission is a very stupid idea.

  3. kimberella says:

    Update: An interesting take from Peter Brent:

    Qualitative research – where groups of swinging voters are gathered for drinks and nibblies and led in a discussion – is better, but even that is loaded with the researcher’s assumptions.

    Something being a red hot issue doesn’t make it a vote-changer. But if the researcher believes it is, her findings will reflect this.

    Prime Minister Julia “I choose my words very carefully” Gillard may insist otherwise, but everyone knows “sustainable population”, border protection and immigration are all tied together. That’s the whole idea of talking about them.

    Having high levels of immigration is, like recent decades’ economic reforms such as deregulation, privatisation and lowering of tariffs, something both political parties agree on but the majority of voters don’t (at least at the time).

    You might call it a technocratic consensus. It’s not a democratic one.

  4. anthony nolan says:

    Brent’s comment is good. It would be good if this election campaign actually generated a discussion on population outside of the usual technocratic and interest groups.

  5. Paul Norton says:

    George Orwell would have had a field day with the debasing of the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” in this election campaign.

    Some serious issues which have not yet been ventilated in this debate are that:

    * In all the advanced capitalist democracies, and many of the most important industrialising economies, fertility rates are below replacement levels, and the sort of social and economic policy mix which progressives support, whilst likely to avoid the kind of demographic collapse seen in southern Europe, Eastern Europe and Japan, is highly unlikely to cause fertility rates to rise above replacement levels.

    * Therefore, in the medium to long term (and in some cases in the immediate and short term) immigration will be the only means by which such nations including Australia will be able to achieve population growth.

    * However, it is predicted that the global population will plateau by the middle of this century, which is just 40 years away.

    * Therefore nations seeking to grow their national populations will, by 2050, be engaged in a zero-sum game. Australia will only be able to continue growing its population by demographic theft from other nations, and it can already be said that Australia is attempting to fill skills shortages by “brain theft” from other nations (including developing nations which are arguably in even greater need of the skilled people they have raised and educated).

    * Further, nations with fertility rates below replacement level will only be able to achieve continuing population growth if other societies produce a surplus of people by maintaining fertility rates above replacement levels, which all the evidence shows will only be the case if those nations remain stifled in their economic, social and democratic development, and backward in their gender relations.

    * Therefore, even if we make heroic, arm-waving assumptions about our capacity to overcome ecological constraints to continuing population growth, in the long run it can only be sustained in Australia through the persistence in many other nations of conditions which we should deplore, and through a practice of “brain theft” which would be likely to exacerbate those conditions.

    * The alternative is to start thinking about ways to make the transition to a situation of population stability in a socially acceptable way and on terms which retain and enhance the dynamism of Australian society.

  6. Sam says:

    ” the sort of social and economic policy mix which progressives support … is highly unlikely to cause fertility rates to rise above replacement levels …T Therefore, in the medium to long term … immigration will be the only means by which such nations including Australia will be able to achieve population growth.”

    Paul, what makes you think that we’re going get progressive social and economic policy over next 40 years? I hope we do, but we might get Abbott/Pell policy instead.

    Even if we do get this progressive policy, immigration is “demographic theft” on a tiny scale. Three thousand migrants per year from a world of 6 billion people is small potatoes.

    “ways to make the transition to a situation of population stability in a socially acceptable way and on terms which retain and enhance the dynamism of Australian society.”

    What does this mean? If one of your students served up this vagueness in an essay you’d fail them (I hope).

  7. Paul Norton says:

    If one of your students served up this vagueness in an essay you’d fail them (I hope).

    Yes, but if I wrote a 3000 word comment which went into the detail and depth I’d expect in an essay Kim would put me in mod (I hope).

  8. christine longman says:

    Probably not a brilliant idea to slip in ‘rather odious’ into your articles, if you want to be taken seriously – not a party political comment, just the idea that the argument is important, not the writer.

  9. kimberella says:

    @christine, this is a blog and therefore a vehicle for the expression of opinion, as well as for argument.

  10. adrian says:

    Peter Hartcher in the SMH is not very impressed: “No numbers, no substance, no solutions – just populist platitudes”

    It’s a broad-spectrum placebo that she can pop into your mouth if you open it to ask a question about asylum seekers or immigration or housing or congestion. This allows her to sound concerned, sympathetic, but avoid anything hard, like a real policy.

    So suck on that.

    He’s right, but it’s par for the course in this most hollow of election campaigns. I suppose it’s ironic that at a time when when we face such enormous challenges we have the most vacuous election ever, with both candidates seemingly unwilling to come to grips with the most basic of issues.

    Sometimes I wish we didn’t have compulsory voting. Perhaps if they had to actively encourage people to vote the electorate wouldn’t be treated with such utter contempt by both parties.

  11. Sam says:

    Paul, fair enough 🙂

    But seriously, what does it mean?

    “socially acceptable” can mean anything.

    “retain and enhance the dynamism of Australian society” I take to mean migrants have added hugely to our culture and without them we’ll become homogenised and bland. So on the one hand we shouldn’t have migrants, but on the other hand we should.

    It’s a non issue anyway, IMO. There’s plenty of ecological and other capacity for a larger population in Australia, provided the larger population is in places that are currently underpopulated, which means anywhere but Sydney, Melbourne and SE Queensland.

  12. Paul Norton says:

    Paul, what makes you think that we’re going get progressive social and economic policy over next 40 years? I hope we do, but we might get Abbott/Pell policy instead.

    If we get Abbott/Pell policy we’ll go the way of places like the nations of southern Europe and, more recently, Eastern Europe where the interaction of socially conservative public policies and attitudes, the dynamics of capitalism and the aspirations and needs of women of childbearing ages has seen the birth rate collapse.

    Even if we do get this progressive policy, immigration is “demographic theft” on a tiny scale. Three thousand migrants per year from a world of 6 billion people is small potatoes.

    Three thousand? Is that what you meant to write?

    My general point remains that in a context of global population stability, it is logically impossible for some nations to have population growth without other nations having population decline, and that it is therefore more equitable and socially sustainable (as well as ecologically sustainable) for societies to find ways of qualitatively developing which are not dependent on quantitatively or physically expanding.

  13. Sam says:

    Three hundred thousand. It’s still small potatoes.

  14. Paul Norton says:

    It’s a non issue anyway, IMO. There’s plenty of ecological and other capacity for a larger population in Australia, provided the larger population is in places that are currently underpopulated, which means anywhere but Sydney, Melbourne and SE Queensland.

    And also provided that our patterns of production, consumption and resource use are radically different from what they currently are and what have been throughout the period of non-Aboriginal settlement. Iff we put our patterns of production, consumption and resource use onto an ecologically sustainable footing with something like the population we currently have or will have within the next decade or so, we can then consider how many more people could be accommodated sustainably, and I am open to the possibility that this would not necessarily be a small number. The trouble is we’re currently nowhere near that point.

    There is also a problem with getting people to settle and stay settled away from Sydney, Melbourne and SEQ

  15. Maybe Gillard is a Bob Carr style true believer on this? the most pragmatic pollies all have bees in their bonnet about something

  16. Salient Green says:

    I was sure that Gillard’s “sustainable Australia” would be exposed as fraudulent greenwash as soon as she or Tony Burke was asked what they understood by the term “sustainable” but to my knowledge not one journalist has had the wit to ask this question.

    I was surprised when it became unravelled via the ‘immigration’ route but shouldn’t have been knowing the way the media are so keen to keep boat people at the centre of debate.

  17. Spana says:

    If the government is serious about this issue there are a few simple steps which we could take.
    1. All new migrants should be settled outside capital cities, except in certain circumstances (family reunion) and given provisional citizenship. After five years in a regional area they can apply for full citizenship and are free to move.

    2. Accept a larger number of refugees from places like the camps on the Thai Burma border whilst seriously cutting the skilled migrant intake. We should not be stealing doctors and nurses from their world countries because we are too lazy to train our own.

    3. Invest massive amounts into higher education programs in areas of skill shortages and give serious tax breaks to attract workers to regional areas in need of workers.

    4. Implement serious family friendly policies (shorter work hours, flexibility, tax breaks etc) to encourage people to have children. Sections of the left may be uncomfortable with this but the reality is that those who choose to reproduce are the ones whose children will be providing for those who do not have kids. We should recognise this and reward families by making it easier.

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