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Labor's immigration pitch falls short

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Anthony Albanese's Labor is equivocating on immigration policy (image via Twitter).

At the May Federal Election, Labor and the Greens overbid the already-high Coalition position on immigration and population.

Post-election, Labor muffles the topic, targeting instead Home Affairs and its Minister, Peter Dutton. Is that the right play?  

For this year's Federal  Election, Labor offered virtually open-ended migrant-parent visas. This would have upped the net migration trajectory by many thousands. On nearly the same page was Richard di Natale.

Check the irony. Greens are like kryptonite to Labor. The two were aligned here. Still, electors weren’t buying. Not even in suburban (or Labor) seats with higher proportions of migrant voters. A Labor dictum says, always back self-interest, at least you know it’s trying. The Election autopsy ought to analyse this misfire.

New Leader Anthony Albanese quickly dug in, elevating Kristina Keneally to Home Affairs, plus Immigration. They’ve intensely taken it to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Not Immigration. Here, I don't mean its Minister, David Coleman

Closeted in a Budget appendix are Treasurer Frydenberg’s huge 270,000 net migration and 1.7 per cent population growth increase. Is that the Treasury tail-wagging the Treasurer dog, or vice versa?  The protocol is that nobody really asks.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s population plan “caps” permanent migration at 160,000. And supposedly busts past Frydenberg’s mass migration, to “bust” congestion.

The third musketeer is Population Minister Alan Tudge, who has been making gestures to decentralise the migration influx into Sydney and Melbourne. He will be "surfing the demographic waves" with Lucy Turnbull, and Albanese himself, at the upcoming SMH population “summit”.   

Labor targets Dutton and Home Affairs 

As the swish Sydney summit indicates, Labor barely contests in the migration and population fields. Following GetUp, they target instead the marquee villain, Dutton on detainees, refugees, borders, visas.

Don’t get me wrong. We could process more refugees and cut back the misleading "skilled migration" stream. Plus, I’m with David Marr. "We do not have to keep people imprisoned on Manus and Nauru," he says, "to stop the boats".

It’s just that boats aren’t the greatest concern or the biggest threat to voters. Some might even believe the story, that Morrison "stopped them". 

Also, I agree with Keneally. Strong borders is partly a stunt. As I put it, we ‘...shutter the sea-lanes, yes, but not the air-lanes’. That tide of temporary entrants, who phoenix as permanent migrants? They fly in.

To recap, the "Chief Marketing Manager’s" hearty population-breakfast boasts three added vitamins. Lower migration. Congestion busting. Strong borders. Each is a placebo. Why would Labor lab-test the third one, much more than the first two? 

Here’s the thing. Sovereign Australia has choices. Airports notwithstanding, Dutton’s Home Affairs can and does control net migration, the feedstock for permanent migration. They get surprisingly close to Treasury’s annual migration targets.

By design and not accident, net migration is running at more than twice the rate of the Hawke-Keating years. In 2018, it tallied nearly 250,000. Unchallenged, Treasury now calls for the second-highest net migration of all time.

Big Australia isn’t for middle Australia

Backed by six prime ministers in a row, our cross-party Big Australia lobby is well on top. The Labor wing welcomes expansive migration. But also decries the loss of control at the borders.   

Maybe visa processing is “chaotic”. But Australia has made itself known, as a soft touch. A generous six figures worth of individuals is always parked onshore, on student or other visas, playing the system for permanency. To the extent “chaos” persists, why not roll back migration, to relieve pressure? Again, net migration is substantially controllable and controlled. Why is it so high?

To prop up “GDP growth”.    

Even Gladys Berejiklian ventured a “breather”, by halving migration into NSW. To steer net migration back near manageable Hawke-Keating levels would take courage. Morrison’s permanent-migration ceiling doesn’t cut it. It’s below the 180,000 average in the decade to 2017-18. But still huge, in postwar terms.

Meantime, the state of the environment declines. Population growth is a key driver of land use change, habitat loss, invasive species. How’s the electorate travelling?

Morrison meekly said "everyone has a view" on population. In like terms, Tony Burke endorsed the 2011 population plan. There was a"divergence of views" on population. Julia Gillard perpetuated the migration drives of John Howard and Kevin Rudd. The high reform party had fully embraced high migration.

Most professionals and political candidates endorse higher migration. The electoral majority would prefer the opposite. Widening the gap, the Senate trounced One Nation’s migration plebiscite 54-2. The proponent’s overt preoccupations weren’t race, but wages and congestion. 

Thus continues the extreme immigration economy of the developed world. To stop it, opines Crispin Hull, you’d need to quench the corporate political donations. 

Labor's immigration policy falls short

At the post-election warm-up, Keneally branded Dutton as a thug. Nasty you, retorted he. Is he being marked out of play? One infringement at a time? 

He seems to be kicking on. While key ministers for migration and population – Frydenberg, Morrison and Tudge – Labor waves them through. Maybe the Shadow Population Minister is backing up? Except there isn’t one, is there, not in such terms.   

Ideologically, the Government craves technical “jobs and GDP growth” and technical “budget surplus” at any cost. To book such results it wants sky-high net migration, in Treasury estimates. Ideologically, the Opposition plays down the drawbacks, seemingly preferring economic “pluses” and social justice of mass migration.

These ought to be weighed against the economic costs and social injustice of crush-loading cities, disadvantaging their residents and smothering their wages

Despite this, the Infrastructure Audit assumes the population will surge out to 2034. Infrastructure must keep up, as best it can. Responding, the Opposition Leader mildly suggests a "mature debate" on population issues. In 2022, he’ll hold the Government "to account" for holes undug and projects unbuilt. As Shadow Infrastructure Minister, he also decried holes not dug. Will all be dug and filled by 2034? You be the judge.     

Some might say: don’t challenge Morrison directly on population policy. Keep shellacking Dutton. Or perhaps, win back the flag, on a Frydenberg recession.

On Adani, not confronting the issue backfired for Labor. Something similar could happen with population. In effect, Labor has gone with mass migration ever since Kim Beazley folded to Howard. At what lasting advantage to themselves or their constituency? The rich are getting richer, while home ownership craters.

Even now, Minister Coleman presents as a party champion of "reduced" migration and "reducing" pressure on cities. Rather than refuting his story, Labor goes as the party of migration virtue. Last May, the Coalition looked like a lower-migration and congestion-busting party. This is also possible in 2022.  

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

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