The politics of the current population debate are not hard to read.
The Coalition is returning to an old playbook, tapping into concerns about an increasing number of asylum seekers arriving by boat and linking that to the overall issue of immigration. That in turn links into people’s fears about rocketing house prices, water shortages and a fluctuating job market in recent troubled times and bingo – a scare campaign is born. One underlined nicely by Treasury’s recent Intergenerational Report shows Australia heading towards a population of 36 million people by 2050. A scary number that nicely wraps around a lot of current scary pressures. And a scary number that the Opposition then promises to cut.
In reply the Prime Minister, in an effort to calm people’s fears, returns to a favourite playbook of his, putting in place a process for dealing with our population future which the Coalition dismissively describes as coming up “with a plan for a plan”. By appointing Tony Burke as Australia’s first Population Minister the Prime Minister is responding to people’s concerns, he’s acting, but let’s be honest, he’s not in any hurry and Minister Burke is instructed to come up with the basis of population policy in 12 months time. That’s after the election.
A scare campaign countered by a delaying tactic. Both disguised as responsible policy.
That’s the bald politics of it, now how about some facts.
Let’s take the easy one first.
Asylum seekers arriving by boat are NOT a threat to our population levels and have no place in this debate. Australia takes around 13,500 refugees every year, a number that is capped, so boat arrivals granted refugee status end up as part of that 13,500, reducing the number taken from what’s called ‘the orderly refugee migration program’.
So if our level of population is the issue, and the immigration numbers within that, you can safely leave asylum seekers out of it.
So why are Tony Abbott and his immigration shadow, Scott Morison, linking the two? Well it does feed into Tony Abbott’s consistent criticism of Kevin Rudd’s performance. If you can’t manage our borders how can you manage the bigger issue of our immigration levels?
But critics believe there’s some dog whistling going on too? One senior Liberal described it to me as a “clear and deliberate message that is wrong and dangerous”. He and others on both sides of politics also concede privately that the issue of asylum seekers is once again a big issue across many electorates.
There’s plenty of Australians who don’t like the idea of people rocking up on boats from faraway places, nor do they much like the idea of high immigration; an ironic yet historic truth about this country of immigrants, many of us are frightened by the idea of being “overrun”.
I was speaking to one cabbie recently who told me Kevin Rudd had lost his vote because he couldn’t stop the boats coming as he promised and asylum seekers were now being brought to the mainland. He then admitted he himself was an asylum seeker granted refugee status after, wait for it, arriving on a leaky boat.
It’s a complex issue for any government to manage and that’s what Tony Abbott is counting on.
Time for some more facts.
The Opposition says it will cut immigration numbers in order to keep our population levels at a manageable level, reducing the immigration intake down from 300,000 per year under Labor now to around 180,000 per year or below.
The shadow minister says 300,000 is “out of control” and getting immigration to a sustainable level will obviously mean cuts right across the program, though he doesn’t say where.
It’s true immigration numbers did shoot up under Labor but most of the increase was in the temporary visa categories of foreign students and temporary workers brought in under the 457 visa scheme. In both categories the surge began under the Howard government.
At the end of the last financial year of the Howard government, the net migration intake was at 230,000 per year.
Demographer Peter McDonald says immigration levels are about to plummet to around 180,000 per year and that the Government and the Opposition both know it. That’s because the Rudd Government has closed the loophole in the overseas student program which basically saw international colleges spring up around the country offering cooking and hairdressing courses, but in reality they were little more than backdoor visa factories.
Earlier this year the Rudd Government changed the skilled migration entry conditions and cut the link between studying here and gaining a visa, and in response overseas student applications have dropped by 17 per cent.
The Government also slashed the number of 457 visas, used by business to fill immediate skill shortages. The category had swelled during the boom times at the end of the Howard years and in the early days of the Rudd Government, but the demand for workers during the global financial crisis fell.
Peter McDonald says we will see a lift-off in the 457 visa category again soon because it’s the only way to sustain the latest resources boom and give mining companies access to the labour force they need.
In contrast, he says our overseas education industry will shrink steeply, not just because of the changes made by the Rudd Government but also because of fierce international competition in this profitable education market.
The high Australian dollar makes us less competitive. Add to that the pressure universities in the United Kingdom and the United States are under, due to shrinking endowments for American universities as a result of the GFC and substantial cuts to British university budgets, and you can bet they will be actively in the hunt for more foreign students to boost their coffers.
Overseas students are a money spinner, in this country bringing in $17 billion per year and creating tens of thousands of jobs.
Another fact worth noting in this debate over immigration and population levels is the number of New Zealanders moving here. There’s currently over 500,000 Kiwis living in this country, that’s 100,000 more than there were just 5 years ago, and the bulk of the new arrivals are choosing to live in Queensland, adding to the considerable population pressure building up in parts of that state.
Yes, the thought of 36 million Australians is overwhelming if you’re stuck in traffic in Sydney, trying to find a house to buy, let alone afford, in south-east Queensland, or worried about reliable drinking water supplies in Adelaide.
That’s why we do need a population policy.
What we don’t need is a scare campaign around immigration to kick it off.
A population policy is about a lot more than immigration. It’s about our national infrastructure, our roads and hospitals and suburbs and public transport. It’s about housing supply and an affordable housing market. It’s about jobs.
Its about the environment and sustainability. Former Australian of the year Tim Flannery says this continent should only support a population of less than 16 million. In 1994 the Keating government had a committee for long-term strategies chaired by Barry Jones which found 23 million was our optimum population level.
Yet we are on a path to 36 million. How will our parched landscape cope with that, where will the water come from, how will we reduce our carbon emissions if we’re increasing our population at such a rate?
And speaking of climate change, what if our Pacific neighbours find themselves drowning as sea levels rise, won’t there be an expectation that we will reach out and invite them in to dry land – literally to dry land?
The Opposition calls for a plan to rein in our immigration numbers in a bid to manage our population levels yet it presents little in the way of a plan for substantial cuts to our carbon emissions.
There’s also scant, conflicting and confusing detail about its intentions when it comes to immigration levels. In fact now Scott Morrison says a cut to immigration is not official Opposition policy. So what is the policy?
The Opposition Leader’s call for unspecified cuts to immigration has displeased the business community which regards immigration as vital for economic growth and also made many in his own party room unhappy that this important and divisive issue was unleashed in the guise of opposition policy without being discussed internally first.
When Tony Abbott announced his generous and controversial paid parental leave scheme funded by a tax on business without clearing it with his colleagues he described it as a “leaders call” which he promised would be a “rare thing”. Not one month later and he seems to have made another one, even more controversial.
In January Tony Abbott said he has no problem with increasing Australia’s population as long as we’ve got the infrastructure to deal with it. He appeared to be endorsing the Prime Minister’s backing for a big Australia, albeit with caveats.
Fair enough. Bring on the population debate, because without a plan to sustainably support a 30 million plus population many Australians will start to resist and resent immigration and that will always be a difficult debate to have and to manage. But If Tony Abbott is sincere about a sustainable population policy lets dump the ad hoc, contradictory and inflammatory talk and get serious about it.
Fran Kelly is a presenter on the ABC’s Radio National Breakfast program.