A lawyer friend of mine who has acted on and off for large developers once told me that the really big money is Australia is made from change of land use.
Imagine, then, the vast amounts of money that will slosh about with Labor’s new policy to build 1.2 million dwellings over five years.
The Australian public will pay up to $3 billion which will to go to the states at $15,000 a dwelling. A further $500 million will go to local government for infrastructure.
It sounds all very laudable, but this housing policy will require massive and unnecessary shifts in resources that are completely against the public interest. The resources will go from the public sector to individual property developers and builders in the private sector – wasted on sterile unproductive investment.
The money is to bribe and coerce local government into trashing neighbourhoods with high-rise and to bribe and coerce state and local governments to surrender prime agricultural land to housing.
Agriculture will then further encroach on wilderness or other virgin land – adding the threat to Indigenous land. Eventually we become a net food importer. And what about the greenhouse gases generated by the construction of 1.2 million dwellings?
Why is Labor doing this? Why are the Greens also promoting high-scale construction of housing requiring massive environmental and agricultural destruction? The questions have puzzled me and others for a long time, but the answer is becoming more obvious.
Labor, the Greens, and all the economic commentators cry that increasing housing supply is the only answer to the housing and rental crisis.
For example, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said, “Supply is the key to putting downward pressure [on rent] and assisting renters”, along with a package of “sensible renters’ rights”.
Finance Minister Katy Gallagher concentrated all her comments about the housing crisis in a recent Q and A appearance on supply.
And in reasoning typical of economic commentators, one of Australia’s best economic journalists, Elizabeth Knight, wrote: “There are only two ways to solve this rental crisis – increase the amount of housing stock or increase the number of occupants living in a property.”
It goes on and on. Everyone in the business, economics and politics spheres says we must tear away planning rules to cram in more people and to tear away zoning laws to build houses willy-nilly everywhere. Supply, supply, supply, is the only solution, they say. They are utterly wrong.
The 300,000 elephants in the room each year are never mentioned. This is the demand side which is caused by upwards of 300,000 people being allowed each year to come to live in Australia. The housing and rental crisis in Australia is directly caused by too much demand, generated by ramped up immigration. The housing and rental crisis is created only by too much demand. If you turn off the demand the crisis ends. The very costly so-called supply crisis disappears.
The only sensible comments on the issue in mainstream media these days come from increasingly frustrated ordinary writers of letters to the editor and posts by members of the public of comments on increasingly maddening articles obstinately blinded or wilfully back-turned from the real cause of the so-called crisis.
You can understand the universities and the Coalition cheering on rampant immigration. The universities are happy to turn a blind eye to cheating foreigners as long as they pay once they get in. The Coalition and business since the early days of the Howard Government have beene happy to have a cheap supply to labour to suppress union power.
Howard was so obsessed by curbing union power that he was happy to ramp up immigration from about 70,000 to 250,000 a year so employers would not be held to ransom by union demands over pay and conditions.
But what of Labor and the Greens? The developments in Australian politics over the past half decade or so now provide an explanation.
Australian politics is no longer right v left or socialist v capitalist. It is now urban v rural and regional, or young v older. Labor and the Greens want to shore up their voter base and they can do that with high immigration because migrants and youth go to the cities.
It suits them to have a housing and rental crisis. That hurts the young and the urban. And the young and the urban turn to Labor and the Greens.
The three seats that the Greens won in Brisbane at the last election were among the highest youth and rental electorates in the nation.
As far as the Greens are concerned, stuff the environment, let’s crowd the inner cities so we can get more votes. Similarly with Labor: stuff the environment and the living conditions of the working class, let’s crowd the cities where we get more votes.
In short, Labor and the Greens like high immigration because in the medium term they are bringing in more Labor and Green voters. They have turned their back on the 60 to 80 per cent of voters (depending on which poll you read) who say Australia already has enough people or too many people and want immigration dialled down.
They are sick of the congestion. They are sick of the mad supply-side solutions to the housing crisis. They are sick of governments pandering to the short-term profiteering by property developers and retailers. They are sick of koala habitat being chain-sawed for housing to satisfy the growth mania. But in the present political climate are helpless in the fight against it. The dog-whistling racism of the conservative side of politics is not an answer.
With Labor’s latest so-called solution, they should be outraged that precious public money that should go to the health and education of people who already live here will be tipped into the rapacious maw of the property industry.
Australians will bitterly regret it in a decade’s time when they see the environmental and economic damage that ensues and the general decline in living standards of the many to serve the opulent living standards of the very few.
Why bring more people when we cannot educate the people already here without exorbitant fees or give them timely medical care without large gap fees or house them without so many people sleeping rough. Instructively, it did not happen in 1984-85 when Australia’s population was 15 million and our immigration program ran at 54,000.
Crispin Hull This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 22 August 2023.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.