Migration: two-thirds are not racist

Labor should be both alert and alarmed lest it become the first government in more than 90 years to lose office after one term. It needs to be alert to what Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is doing, and alarmed at how effective he could be with just one policy: immigration.

Dutton’s Budget reply speech marked an end to a major-party tango in which the Coalition supported high immigration to provide a cheap labour pool to curb union power and Labor supported high immigration because it equated it with multi-culturalism, diversity, the migrant vote, and as a force against racism.

The people went along with it, at least until recently, invariably answering pollsters with “about right” to whatever the current level of immigration was, even if they did not know it was.

Now, however, the voters are telling pollsters that immigration is much too high. This week, for example, Resolve Political Monitor found that fully two-thirds of voters thought last year’s intake was too high.

In the past quarter century, the immigration consensus has had an appalling effect on Australian living standards. It took a while for the public to twig. And it has taken until now for one of the major parties to break ranks and state the obvious: high immigration and high population growth are the cause of the housing crisis and the strains on every element of social and concrete infrastructure.

The great social and economic benefits of immigration in the immediate post-war years – skills, diversity etc – have been attained and the need for a big immigration program is now not only no longer needed, but is hurting ordinary voters.

The public now sees that.  And, more importantly, Dutton sees that they see it. He is jettisoning the Howard anti-union high immigration made palatable or invisible to the public by his dog whistling harsh refugee policy. After all, the Work Choice dogma cost Howard the 2007 election.

Dutton correctly sees a call for lower immigration (even if his figures are a bit fudged) as a more likely path to the Lodge.

Of course, many in the media jumped on Dutton, accusing him of racism and dog-whistling. Underlying their comments was a fear that arguing against high immigration automatically equates to racism.

They have simply got it wrong. I do not think that the two-thirds of people who told Resolve that immigration was too high are racist. They do not care whether their timely hospital bed has been taken by someone who is brown, yellow or white. Or what the colour of the people are who are congesting the roads. Or who is shutting them out of housing.

They are just agitated that too many people are causing them to be shut out. It is insulting and misguided to brand two thirds of Australians as racist.

We are now talking about hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Half a million last year and half a million this year. Voters are not just fearing, they are actually seeing housing, bulk-billing, and decent wages out of reach.

There is no need to dog-whistle. The fear is not the possibility of being “swamped by Asians”, it is the reality of just being swamped – white, brown, English as a first or second language, Muslim, Christian, or atheist; it does not matter. 

The costs of ramped up immigration over the past 20 years have been too high and the benefits negligible. 

Immigration lawyers and agents and universities have made a mockery of any constraints that might have made the system workable. The agents have enabled the unskilled to be presented as skilled and the universities have warped temporary education visas as tickets to permanent residency.

The voters realise that they have been duped.

It is foolish to dismiss Dutton’s new policy as racist dog-whistling that will not fool many voters. There is only one intelligent response to this policy for Labor, and that is to match it.

This is because if Dutton and the Coalition lever themselves into power on the back of immigration, Australia will be burdened by the phalanx of other Coalition policy and the loss of worthwhile Labor policy. 

Goodbye sensible government incentives to green industry. Hello to costly, untested nuclear power stations; the continuation of coal and gas for many decades; austerity; and unfair taxation.

The strength of Dutton’s new position has another arm. All the business organisations and right-wing thing tanks have now ditched high immigration as a means to provide cheap labour as the prize of attaining government. They now see that proposing immigration cuts looks like bringing them so salivatingly close to power that it is worth ditching cheap labour for other benefits.

The noted Coalition-supporting, Institute of Public Affairs, for example, called Dutton’s plan a “common-sense first step”.

Its deputy director general, Daniel Wild, even claimed, “The IPA was the first institution in Australia to publicly identify the growing problems of unplanned and out-of-control mass migration.”

The claim is laughable given that Sustainable Population Australia has been doing this since 1988 and the Grattan Institute and the Australia Institute have each being doing it for more than a decade. But it shows the self-confident, self-righteous, moneyed power of the “think” tanks from the right. 

It may also show the smallness and insularity of the echo chambers in which they inhabit. But do not under-estimate their power.

IPA said, “Australians today are over $14,000 worse off over the last eight years, as productivity-driven economic growth has been replaced with the lazy and short-sighted growth model of uncontrolled, mass migration.”

Dutton has tapped into a concern which has justified and demonstrable support, and he plans to exploit it. That’s democracy.

Dismissing or under-playing it, as Labor and many commentators appear to be doing, is not only folly but against the public interest.

Further, those commentators who say that supporting reduced immigration would hurt refugees and encourage racism should remember that because of the sensible levels of immigration in the 1980s (about 70,000), the Hawke Government was in a position to help Chinese students in Australia during the Tiananmen crisis in 1989.

Today, proposing help for Gazans in this high-immigration environment is simply impossible.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 21 May 2024.

One thought on “Migration: two-thirds are not racist”

  1. Dutton has not said anything about temporary migrants. My suspicion is that they would make a small drop in the immigration numbers but ramp up the number of “temporary” migrants. The net inflow would not drop or could possibly increase. This would mean less high skilled migrants and more low skilled easily exploitable temporary workers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *