Politics Opinion

Budget 2022 embraces the environmental folly of Big Australia 2.0

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The 2022 Budget made recommendations for opening borders to trigger net migration of 235,000 a year (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Coalition's plan to increase net migration ignores the already present danger of the climate crisis, writes Stephen Saunders.

A CRUCIAL BUDGET MEASURE is “Big Australia 2.0“, an urgent return to record levels of net migration. So, we must have had a big honest national conversation about that. No, as usual, the Treasurer totally disses electors and the environment. 

What is the most important measure in the 2022 Budget? If you read the Treasurer’s speech or his Budget overview, you might think the answer had something to do with national security, cost-of-living bribes, or building infrastructure.

The most important (most reckless) Budget measure, I argue, is the bipartisan rush to reload high-growth population policy.  

Coming out of the border closure and its 1-in-100 year immigration reversal, Australia has been presented with a real sliding-doors moment. To renovate its economic and social pathways, for a warming world with troubling geopolitics.

Without hesitation and without consultation, Liberals (with Labor) are reverting to the tricksy high immigration platform that John Howard kicked off in 2005.

In so many areas of national policy, those bushy eyebrows still dominate. Although, it was Kevin Rudd who rebranded the Howard program as “Big Australia”.

This fateful 2022 population push scoffs at fires, floods and pandemics. National water security — that’s for sissies. Stuff the koalas. Greenhouse emissions be damned.

A huge 180,000 net migration influx is urgently scheduled for the coming 2022-23 year, rising to 235,000 every year from 2024-25. They gaslight you that this is completely normal. Actually, it is even higher than the 2005-2020 average and nearly three times the 1991-2004 average. 

Australia is an outlier among the wealthier nations in reigniting such a radical population prospect, right on top of COVID-19. Only Canada visibly looks more extreme.

In local political theatre, however, the Treasurer’s speech carefully omits his prime GDP lever. The Opposition Leader dutifully follows suit in his Budget Reply, just as he stayed mum last year.

One obscure corner of the Budget sets down the post-COVID population play in the most misleading terms imaginable. As per usual, it is technical Appendix A, of Budget Paper No. 3.

In 2022, how can the Government and Treasury possibly justify such a radical push with such profound implications for the next generation? With five lines of guff.

In essence:

‘The [immigration] forecasts incorporate information from detailed data on international arrivals and departures together with offshore visa grant data...’

There is an expanded Budget population blurb from the Centre for Population, a Treasury puppet:

‘From 2024-25, NOM [net overseas migration] is forecast [my emphasis] to return to pre-COVID-19 trends and remain steady at 235,000.’

You get the picture, folks. The ever-increasing population mass is not even a deliberate political scheme at all. The renewed immigration throngs will just surge through the turnstiles by magic. Like unexpected downpours on parched fields.

Cynical Treasury covers for cynical Government. Re-priming the population pump, to feed the sudden upward revision of the real-GDP forecast.

But wait, mainstream media and academia are onto this, right? Because independent scrutiny is central to their job description. Alas, with a few honourable exceptions, they sit front and centre in the Big Australia cheer squad.

They even work overtime to normalise humorous government propaganda of a tightly controlled permanent migration program that pinpoints scarce and highly paid skills.

So, everyone's a winner then. Apart from unwashed voters and the depleted environment.

Indirectly, the elite consensus on mass immigration hands the Treasurer an election weapon.

He claims the 13-year (or is it 48-year?) unemployment low as a big tick for Coalition economics. Acknowledging the COVID-19 stimulus spending, it is more down to the unprecedented, unplanned COVID-19 shutdown of Big Australia 1.0. Add in an underlying surge of public service jobs. 

The 2022 population push is lousy environmental and economic policy. GDP growth (such as it is) will continue to lean on lazy population surges and crass resource giveaways. Rather than productivity improvement and industry renewal, favouring jobs and training for the locals.

At the same time, much is made of the unsurprising disclosure that our carbon credits scheme is a total fraud upon the public and how can we ever get to net zero emissions now?

But Big Australia 2.0 is much worse climate fraud. It implies that we can hike our population by about 40%, trundle on with habitat destruction and land clearing, play out those tempting fossil-fuel fields and still post a meaningful net zero by 2050.

No wonder Liberals and Labor have made pro forma commitments to this United Nations prospectus, almost as a supreme form of greenwash. Just watch Aussie emissions plummet when the Government bends them like Beckham closer to 2050. No, seriously.

Australian population policy, much as it hoodwinks the public, is also a gesture of contempt.

Voter resistance to endless population growth has fluctuated over the years. Especially since COVID-19, opinions have turned negative.

With political parties ever mindful of property and industry donors, these voter concerns have net zero impact on population policy.

Some might fondly believe Labor will dial down immigration, if only they can reclaim the Treasury benches. With ambitious Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers on Treasury watch, old stager Shadow Energy Minister Chris Bowen helming climate policy and biddable Senator Kristina Keneally covering immigration, that inherently seems unlikely.

Again, remember the unambiguous record of the Rudd-Gillard Government. They embraced and expanded the Big Australia 1.0 of Howard and Kim Beazley.

Crucially, Anthony Albanese is nothing if not an infrastructure buff and “congestion buster“. In 2008, the year that Rudd was forging an all-time high of 316,000 for net migration, Albanese was launching Infrastructure Australia.

And yet, Howard’s final year of 2007 was the first time ever that we had topped 200,000. Now both parties are back onto their reassuring hamster wheel. By golly, they cannot afford to lose prospective migrants to Canada. 

Inevitably, a Prime Minister Albanese would recycle the Scott Morrison conceit. That our increasingly-unequal mega-cities can build their way out of their self-inflicted population binges. With national debt nudging a trillion dollars, this mantra sounds less plausible than ever.

You might almost think the states, which after all do the heavy lifting on infrastructure and services, would finally push back. As they did so well over COVID-19. But no sign of that.

Population wise, state political leaders are either confirmed masochists or just as donor-driven as their federal counterparts.

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer.

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