The Albanese Labor Government has just sown the seeds of its own defeat unless it changes course on one key issue.
The past week or so was busy and productive for the Government. It announced half a dozen excellent policies, all but one of them essential steps in reversing the almost-decade-long stupor of Coalition Governments which allowed Australia to become a two-tier society: property-owning, high-income, or high-wealth people and the rest.
Labor commendably announced policies to increase social housing; to revamp Medicare’s approach to general practice and patient care; to reduce pharmaceutical costs; to clean up rorts in the NDIS; to improve the plight of single parents; to revamp defence thinking; to bolster long-neglected national parks; and to revamp the gas market.
All impressive stuff and proof that the Government is behaving sensibly and actively.
But, and it is a big but, all this will come to nothing unless it changes its attitude to immigration.
Last week, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil announced a bureaucratic tidy-up of Australia’ migration program, particularly the skills program – all obvious and well overdue. She said it would result in a slightly lower intake.
However, she told the National Press Club: “This is not about reducing the number, but I think it’s inevitable when we lift standards that there might be some implication for numbers. That’s not the target of this. The target of this project is making sure that we have the skills in our country that we need to meet national challenges.”
But surely the target should be about numbers. At least 65 per cent of voters so not want a higher population.
This financial year, Australia is projected to bring in a record net 400,000 people. At 2.5 people per household, that means 160,000 dwellings. This is less than we are building. And it does not account for natural population increase of a further 100,000 or more.
At a stroke, it will consume all of Labor’s recent housing efforts as if they had done nothing. And that is exactly what it will look like, and voters will condemn Labor for it.
It is Year 6 arithmetic. What doesn’t the Government understand about this? Are its members lacking in intelligence, or wilfully deaf to those grievously harmed by high immigration while being supplicant to business’s shrill calls for cheap labour under the mistaken belief it is good for the economy.
O’Neil’s policy to increase the income threshold for “skilled” migration from $53,000 to $70,000 is laughable. The average salary in Australia is $90,800. This new threshold, therefore, is reducing Australia’s average skill level, not increasing it.
Moreover, every skilled construction worker brought in requires health, education, transport infrastructure, and so on. That creates labour “shortages” in those areas – eating away at any effort Labor puts in to help people with easier access to pharmaceuticals and health care. Again, making it look like Labor has done nothing.
And every health worker brought in creates extra demand of construction workers, and a business bleat about labour “shortages”. The vicious circle goes on and on.
And land consumed by housing takes it from agriculture, so agriculture has to take it away from nature. Again, putting to nought Labor’s efforts on biodiversity, as if it had done nothing.
The best progressive government in the world cannot keep up with the monster of population growth.
There is an even bigger danger here. Nearly all people with progressive views support multiculturalism. Very good. But they often equate support for multiculturalism with support for high immigration.
It is utterly misguided. Australia is already a successful, harmonious, multicultural society. We should make sure it remains so.
High immigration threatens multiculturalism in two ways. First, the pressure it brings on infrastructure, particularly housing, and government services hits recent immigrants hardest.
Since World War II, home ownership has been a central part of giving migrants a sense of belonging in Australia and gratefulness to Australia while not abandoning their previous culture. Being shut out of that and making access to government services harder, is a sure way of creating resentfulness and undermining multi-culturalism.
Second, being shut out of housing and facing shrunken government services also can cause resentment by people already living here of not only of this year’s or next year’s intake, but of immigrants in general. This fear should not be taken lightly.
Already the Coalition’s is dog whistling about “Big Australia”. Its immigration spokesperson Dan Tehan accused Labor of “advancing a Big Australia by stealth”.
Of course, the Coalition would not mention race, but it is clearly appealing to the same people who supported Donald Trump in the US: people who think that immigrants are shutting them out and reducing their living standards.
It is utter hypocrisy because it was the Howard Coalition which began the ramp-up of immigration from 70,000 or so to 250,000 or higher.
This is dangerous stuff. A successful multi-cultural nation depends on the foundation that once someone comes to Australia to live and is granted permanent residency and citizenship, they are part of Australia.
To do that successfully, skilled immigration should to be restricted to people with skills that cannot be reproduced in Australia. Long gone are the days when unskilled or semi-skilled people improved Australia just by being here.
O’Neil mentioned astrophysicist Brian Schmidt. She histrionically said that under the previous government’s mish mash of visa categories, he would now find it difficult to get in. Nonsense. He would be in in a flash, as would any Nobel Laurette.
No-one resents high-skilled people who could not be trained here coming to Australia. What they resent is people being allowed in because they have a “skill” in, say, retail, hospitality or construction which Australia can easily train people in.
We should not be filling shortages at the behest of business because we are too lazy or silly to use our obvious capacity to train people already here. We should, on the other hand, be welcoming people with skills that we cannot train for here.
We can easily train construction, retail and hospitality workers if we remove barriers and increase incentives. We cannot easily train astrophysicists or rocket scientists.
Indeed, setting a population policy that does not jeopardise government efforts in other areas and does not jeopardise multi-culturalism is not rocket science. We can easily do it here.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 2 May 2023.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.
Featured image/ Official portrait of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Australian Government