Scott Morrison's population plan: Snapping back to a 'Big Australia'

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As Australia recovers from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Scott Morrison may focus on a population boom, writes Stephen Saunders.

AFTER COVID-19, the three main parties offer divergent economic and energy policies, but very similar population policies. Already, mass migration or “Big Australia” has been passed down through six prime ministers and looks set to resume soon.

John Howard accelerated net migration in 2005-06. Figures of 200,000 and much higher, unknown before 2007, have been spun ever since as normal. Or inevitable.

Post mining boom, the Coalition has claimed superior management of a Wunderbar economy. Never mind the steep population growth, severe housing unaffordability, stalling wages and household recession.

The border shutdown and economic recession are a 15-year opportunity to revert to a more manageable population trajectory.

More likely, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will “snapback” to a Big Australia. Already, his hometown Sydney Morning Herald is propagandising the next population boom, disguising it as front-page news.

And yet, you hear very little of Morrison’s actual population plan, distinct from his population promo.

In the real plan, the Treasury updates net migration and population targets annually, squirrelling them into Appendix A of Budget Paper No.3 as largely self-defining “parameters”. 

In fact, the percentage population growth is a vital prop for the percentage GDP “growth”. Evidently, it also impacts on the ongoing welfare of the people. It ought to be a Budget headline, but it’s not displayed or discussed.

In 2019, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Appendix A craved the second-highest net migration ever. Instead, his speech touted the “strength” of a miracle economy in its “28th year” of growth. For 2019-20, he was pitching 2.75% GDP growth. Always a big ask.

Josh’s Budget Paper 1 showcased Morrison’s population promo, in which he spins Big Australia as a natural part of life. Like Australian sugar. ‘One of the big issues is population,’ he declares. ‘Everyone has a view.’

His view wins. “Population growth” and the “most successful” multicultural society make us “the envy” of the developed world. Check our “congestion-busting” and fake decentralisation. 

These narratives replay in the Commonwealth-State population framework, revised at the March 2020 COAG meeting. Again, answers precede questions — like “high population growth”, “migration, in particular”, “vibrant cities and regions” and “challenges, such as congestion”.

The COAG premiers divide equally, between Labor and Liberal. Neither side is pressing for the population framework to consult the population. It’s Treasury business.

Wouldn’t they at least recheck on the environment? As in Crispin Hull’s laundry list of ‘pandemic, climate change, cyber security, water security, over-population, species extinction, pollution and natural-resource depletion’.

Not at COVID COAG, where it suffices to gloss population developments as “vibrant” and “sustainable”. Drained of meaning, these words beg for respite.

With COAG gone, the National Cabinet retains a “population and migration” subcommittee. Morrison will spread the sugar. Treasury will keep the population levers. 

Most years, Home Affairs lands the Treasury migration targets passably well. Frydenberg’s 271,000 target for 2020, they’ll miss by a mile. Morrison foreshadows 36,000 for 2020-21.

Frydenberg was seeking population growth at 1.7%. COVID-19 could reset that, underneath 1%, more like the developed or OECD nations as a whole.

It’s a “sliding doors” moment. So, what comes next? Again, bet on a return to the winner’s circle, from elite galloper Big Australia.

I listed his backers as political parties, Treasury and Reserve Bank, states and cities, developers, media, academics and unions. Never mind the electors or environment.

Backers neutralise rebels. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said migration into NSW should halve. The media never investigated how she was coaxed back into the fold.          

Or consider Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally’s recent opinion. The sheer level of migration “has hurt many Australian workers, contributing to unemployment, underemployment and low wage growth”.

She also wants to put “Australian workers first”. Words not lacking for evidence. Yet the media fulminated — adds fuel, Hansonite populism, slammed, dropped a bomb and ‘wrong [American] to lecture us.

Cleverly, Morrison responded with spin and not the racism card. Deep cuts to “skilled” migration would “hurt” the economy and “communities around Australia”. We ought to rebound to 160,000-210,000 net migration, as per his population Professor Peter McDonald.

With respect, unless Australian history starts in 2006, these are very beefy numbers. Plus, net (and permanent) migration is largely disconnected from skills in demand. Also, most migrants head for Sydney or Melbourne — not around Australia.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese declined to deal directly with Keneally. Indirectly, he was “not happy”. His ensuing vision statement cited infrastructure, manufacturing and fairness — not population.

Similarly, Frydenberg’s May Statement ignored the population issue. But I’d expect Morrison to formally reintroduce mass migration by (or in) the October Budget of 2020. And I’d expect Albanese to fall into line as Kim Beazley did for Howard.

The lobbyists will be relieved. They were fretting, even before Keneally intervened.

Important people like Ross Garnaut, Bill Evans, Martin Parkinson and Abul Rizvi, pushing hard for migration-reflation as the saloon passage to economic recovery. Other developed nations won’t “envy” us that particular pathway.

Most “mainstream” economists are population boosters. Notably our Reserve Bank chief. An interesting exception is Judith Sloan. Her angle wouldn’t cut it at Morrison’s gas-fired COVID-19 Commission.

His property pals demand and get regressive “home builder” grants and still require the migration reboot. The higher education lobby pleads for the full return of international students. Pre COVID-19, these contributed close to half of net migration.   

Imagine if the environment or electors had the same clout as the mates and lobbyists. What requests might they slip through the sliding doors?

The environment might lean Hull’s way, as do official State of the Environment reports and a notable ANU report. It’s in trouble and much harder than initialling the pledge for net-zero 2050.

Voters, who carry the household load of Big Australia, tend to favour lower immigration and population growth. Post-COVID-19, this essential poll leans toward the Keneally line.

COVID-19 gave us a glimpse of people first, economy second. If too trusting of China, we’ve handled this virus better than the U.S. or UK, who gave us the neoliberal virus in the first place.

We ought to be resourceful enough to rebuild an economy that’s less radically reliant on immigration. I’d about halve the tail-end of the McDonald-Morrison kite. Because Australian “jobs and growth” looks like a continuing recipe for low innovation and low productivity.

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

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