Scott Morrison’s Population Crisis
This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Liberal’s plan for Australia’s future population. The announcement came with Morrison and Alan Tudge, Minister for Cities, Urban Infrastructure and Population, fronting up to the cameras with a plan to reduce Australia’s immigration intake by 30,000 from 186,000 in 2018 - 2019 to 160,000.
Before Trudge, armed with a powerpoint presentation, trudged through the stats, Morrison said that this reduction would ease congestion in the major cities. The image conjured up was of every immigrant 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 Trudge 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 and growth which was not a good thing. Left unsaid was how reducing population INTAKE - meaning more people were coming in but at a slower rate could somehow mean less cars and we could all stop being late.
Scott Morrison tried to act relaxed but when his head tilted at a particular angle you cos 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 - so liable to render any current 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 popular case was outsider Dick Smith’s long running campaign to reduce population size. He published Dick Smith’s Population Crisis in 2011 and kept on but suffered a credibility catastrophe when he supported Pauline Hanson’s Immigration Policy in 2016. 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 a benevolent, circuit tinkering, eccentric OzeMite maker, the sort of old man who will 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 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 will have a drastically lower standard of living to us but because of us.
His reasoning is sound and, 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, that 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 cliche’s 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. Housing prices, a lack of government spending in infrastructure, 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 payrise, why it takes so long to get to the shops now stocked with weird Asian foods. 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 historic high rate of 5000 sq km a year, that our carbon output per capita is the second highest in the world (to 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. Yet it reaffirms that any debate on population growth is conducted by people with the most pure of intentions and on the back of an unimpeachable condemnation of racism. Perhaps that is the highest barrier in our current political climate to attain meaningful results.