Politics Opinion

Time for a plebiscite on Big Australia

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Scott Morrison and Dominic Perrottet are pushing to increase Australia's population in 2022 (Image by Dan Jensen)

With a federal election looming, it's worth raising the question to the Australian people whether or not we should increase our population, writes Simon Cole.

AUSTRALIA AS A COUNTRY and its people are at a crucial juncture. After decades of remarkable population growth, COVID-19 brought it down to a crawl (due to births). Not since 1916 has anything like this occurred. Now’s our chance to decide whether a stable population is desirable.

(Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Federal governments have gotten away with high levels of immigration – the main contributor to population growth – with little public debate. Many surveys have shown most Australians oppose it. COVID-19 has highlighted federal and state governments’ control of borders and migration. Politicians can no longer claim it is “inevitable” and “unstoppable”, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has.

Now he’s calling for 160,000 new arrivals (NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet wants 400,000 per year). With a federal election in the wings, immigration has finally become an election issue.

Massive immigration is a transformative policy and yet no legislation is required. Cabinet alone decides the quota for new arrivals whether their skills are really needed or not.

A balanced assessment of immigration has been hampered by accusatory reactions. Finally, the evidence is cutting through. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) both acknowledge wages have risen.

Unemployment has dropped. The excess supply in the labour market has finally been absorbed. Financial journalist Alan Kohler recently lambasted the Federal Government for ‘deliberately undermining Australian workers by importing huge numbers of temporary migrant “slaves”. He also calls immigration policy “the most material economic decision to be made by whoever wins the next election”.’

Rapid population growth kept house prices skyrocketing. The COVID-19 stimulus packages kept that on track. But developers are counting on a return to population boosting.

Many people leave Australia each year. We could take in the same number. Even then, births would keep Australia’s population rising for decades. Refugees have made up only 5-10 perr cent of Australia’s immigration in recent years. This could be increased even with zero net migration. 

The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI)‘s July 2021 survey shows most ‘voters are not persuaded that Australia needs more people’ (Figure 8).

(Source: TAPRI)

Powerful, wealthy business donors who have captured both major parties have had their way for too long. Perhaps it is time the views of all Australians were taken into account. People who are concerned other species as well. People who are concerned about our environment and excessive consumption patterns.

Calling on the Coalition to hold a plebiscite highlights the lack of support for its policy. The cost savings of a plebiscite during an election will give them even fewer excuses. 

Recently, the ALP leadership announced it would not support the Coalition’s goal of a 160,000 migrant intake for 2022. It is citing working conditions and unemployment. For a major party to be offering a choice this time around is a milestone, but it’s being very cagey about a number.

It’s anyone guess what its strategy is. It could be a rerun of Coalition “big” announcements that amount to little of substance. As of December 2021, the Opposition has increased its lead in the polls, suggesting the electorate is ready for a change. Calling for a plebiscite could raise the profile of the debate. Any party that takes a different stand to the Coalition should gain support.

A referendum is used to change the Australian Constitution. A plebiscite is a poll used to test whether the Government has enough public support for a proposed action. Unlike a referendum, a plebiscite outcome can be ignored by the Government. It requires the support of both Houses of Parliament, so every plebiscite held in Australia has been put by the government of the day.

Prominent constitutional lawyer George Williams stated:

‘Plebiscites are rare in Australia. They go against the grain of a system in which we elect parliamentarians to make decisions on our behalf. By contrast, referendums and plebiscites introduce an element of direct democracy that allows people to have a say... they can have a major political impact.’

True, but this ignores the reality of a system skewed by campaign funding and the lobbying of vested interests; the reason the major parties are out of step with the electorate.

Assuming such a taunt to the Coalition was taken seriously, it would be up to the Government to formulate the plebiscite question. However, polls show a majority of Australians would vote “Yes” to something like:

“Before COVID, Australia’s population was growing too fast. After COVID, we should return to a much lower pace. Do you agree?”

Simon Cole is a teacher, campaigner and journalist.

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