Until Perrottet took centre stage with his designer pram, I would have thought the environment and population landscape was fairly predictable for the upcoming federal election.
That is, parties will make noisy political theatre over the purity of their “commitments” to net-zero emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, the Government wants to expand coal mines and start fracking the Beetaloo Basin.
With helpful Treasury economists “externalising” this profound environmental dissonance, the 2021 Budget and 2021 Intergenerational Report articulate Morrison’s population program: year-upon-year net migration of 235,000.
Labor, having “learnt its lesson” from the 2019 Election, hasn’t challenged Morrison. It is safer for Immigration Shadow Minister Kristina Keneally to ply Labor’s virtuous preference for permanent over temporary migration.
But you need not be designated as a “permanent” migrant to add to net migration and thereby population growth.
Increasingly, permanent migration is a self-fulfilling visa-upgrade scheme. Give Home Affairs officials a “target” or “ceiling” of 160,000 and they’ll match it somehow.
In 2020-21, two-thirds of the 160,000 migrants targeted for permanent migration status were already living onshore at the time of submitting their application. How many of their 52,000 offshore migrants actually got to migrate onshore within 2020-21? They don’t directly say.
However, they did tell me, only 36,000, less than one quarter, of their 160,000 total were principal applicants in the “skill stream”.
This further undermines the traditional government story: that a central enterprise of Australian immigration is drumming up “scarce skills”. Their related fiction is that now we must scour the world to “catch up” on our huge migrant shortfall due to COVID.
Under Morrison, even more so under Perrottet, these migration fictions are stretched. It’s more about population mass, to goose up big-city real estate, undermine local wage, and prop up Treasury GDP. You'll also get Morrison's congestion-busting and dubious “decentralisation” promises.
Why did Berejiklian quickly drop the subject? Why did her former deputy raise the shell game to another level?
While ritually endorsing net-zero, big business also covets high population growth. That’s who these NSW Premiers work for. Anyway, luckier voters are already on the ownership side of the world-level unaffordability in Sydney, and Melbourne, housing.
In steps the Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI). Only 19% of their national random sample taken in July of 2,500 voters supported a return to net migration of around 240,000. 22% wanted it 'somewhat lower' and 20% 'much lower'. 28% preferred nil net migration and the rest were undecided.
TAPRI describes a:
'... gulf between Australia’s elite and Australia’s electorate on immigration policies.'
And, under COVID, there was a 'distinct hardening' of voter attitudes.
Maybe this is of limited interest to academia, whose tenured economists and demographers teem with partisans and media “influencers” for government population policy. You’d think it might interest journalists, however.
Interestingly, mainstream coverage won by TAPRI has been in “right” News Corp papers: the Daily Telegraph and The Australian. By contrast, the “left” Guardian Essential, operated through The Guardian, has quickly countered with a poll of their own, claiming attitudes to big migration have softened not hardened.
But their poll question seeks general responses to migration levels 'in the past decade'. Comparatively, TAPRI looks at specific responses to the unexpected COVID migration lull, as compared to big migration 'in the ten years to December 2019' and perhaps coming again 'when our borders reopen'.
Faced with the Perrottet juggernaut, might not federal Labor edge closer to the apparent majority position on migration?
'In a close election, Labor might be prepared to make immigration levels an issue.'
Even in a close election, would Labor give ordinary citizens the same hearing as well-heeled city constituencies? Neither ducking nor weaving, would they reject the Morrison migration machine and offer voters that alternative of “much lower” or nil net migration?
As Thomas Piketty has documented, today’s “left” parties represent educated elites more than average punters. TAPRI attests that this tectonic shift applies to Australia, with non-graduates drifting into the conservative camp. It’s graduates and younger folk who are likely keener on high migration.
Then there’s the consideration of racism. I can accept TAPRI’s claim that the higher incidence of COVID in migrant-rich suburbs hasn’t led to “overt racism”. As they note, 'opposition to big Australia' is strong among migrant groups, not just those born in Australia.
Still, Labor’s aversion to the spectre of “racism” shuts down migration discussion. Just ask Keneally after her call in 2020 to reduce temporary migration. This fear may prevent NSW Chris Minns Labor from openly challenging the Perrottet play, also.
And also there’s the religion factor. As Annika Smethurst wrote in her recent biography of Scott Morrison, it’s difficult to counter his calculated plays for faith voters.
Not really “separate” from their politics, the god of Morrison and Perrottet seems to nourish their migration drive. Ironically, Perrottett's call for 400,000 more migrants has allowed the media to reframe Morrison's 235,000 as divinely normal.
Not much less than a global pandemic could have snuffed out the Liberal-Labor and Greens love affair for big Australia. It might almost take another pandemic to stop the bromance from rekindling.
So long as Liberal-Labor continues the fossil-fuelled war on the environment, foisting populate-or-perish platforms on voters, take their “net zero” narratives with a pinch of salt.
This is not just my suspicion of cartoon eco-villains like Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce. Academics and mainstream media rarely probe too deep into the somewhat self-contradictory green-energy darlings like Ross Garnaut or Andrew Forrest.
Similarly, the media valorises Perrotet’s Treasurer and Environment Minister Matt Kean. When he isn't effortlessly “greening” the NSW economy, he allows the burning of forests for electric power and "protects" wild horses.
Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer.
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