Politicians want to have their immigration cake and eat it too
Today’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments kicked the population policy can down the road, as it was intended to do. Of course it should be possible to have a mature debate about immigration levels without being called a racist, as former prime minister John Howard urged yesterday. Howard should know: it was his policy overhaul that doubled the annual migrant intake from roughly 80,000 to 160,000 between 2001–08; and it was his government that reaped the economic benefits. The problem is that the conservative side of politics seems to want to have the immigration debate indefinitely, year after year, without ever seriously discussing or investing in solutions to the problems of integration or congestion. It almost seems more interested in allowing these problems to fester, generating more anger in the community, which in turn is exploited politically. The immigration debate becomes not the means to an end but the end itself.
Journalist and author George Megalogenis outlined the Howard legacy in an essay last year for Australian Foreign Affairs, titled “The Changing Face of Australia”. He describes how Howard shifted the focus of debate about the migration intake from family reunion to skilled immigration, resulting in an enormous influx of skilled migrants from the fast-developing economies of China and India, particularly to Sydney and Melbourne. There was little or no pushback from conservatives or trade unions at the time, Megalogenis writes, because the domestic economy was booming. Tough rhetoric on border protection allowed Howard to “double the intake of migrants while assuring conservative voters that the back door remained bolted to asylum seekers”. Skilled immigration continued to climb after the financial crisis, under Labor, to a record 190,000 in 2012–13, to the point that “the demand-driven model of migration has replaced mining as the main driver of domestic growth”. The economic benefits continue, including redressing the ageing population. Megalogenis writes that while this is a terrific story to tell, Australian politicians prefer to engage in a “relentless search for a migrant scapegoat [and] since the boats stopped, the finger has pointed at people who came here at our invitation … we continue to run a mass-migration program, but as an entitled host, berating the new arrival to sign up to our values or face demonisation”. Megalogenis calls it a dangerous game.
The prime minister’s hand-picked immigration expert, Professor Peter McDonald, made much the same point at COAG today, telling state premiers that cutting migration will hurt the economy. Officials toldThe New Daily that the meeting burst into laughter at McDonald’s disclosure, although the PM’s office denied this. Morrison, after all, made exactly the same point early this year, when he was treasurer, responding to Tony Abbott’s call for immigration to be reduced. The chamber of commerce made the same point yesterday. Queensland and South Australia, unlike New South Wales, said [$] this morning that they want more immigration, not less.
The border protection rhetoric is ramping up regardless – Howard says it’s one of three things Morrison has going for him heading into the next election: “the economy is strong; Labor is going to wobble on border protection again, as they always do; and there’s no ‘it’s time’ factor.” Dutton, back at work, is hammering the strong-border rhetoric for all he’s worth, targeting Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek over her previous opposition to boat turnbacks. “[She] sits around the national security committee in a Labor government. Do you think that she has the ability to turn back boats where it is safe to do so?” Dutton said. “Will she make that call? I doubt it very much. So people smugglers will be rubbing their hands together.” The outgoing boss of Operation Sovereign Borders warns [$] that people smugglers will be closely watching the refugee debate here, that the border protection mission has no end in sight, and that Australia should never again be put in a situation where the defence force was “pulling bodies out of the water”.
Meanwhile, Dutton was forced to deny a report based on an internal email that the Australian Border Force will impose “operational limitations” to achieve a saving in the annual fuel budget and that “ships will cease active patrolling to achieve this fuel saving”. As former home affairs chief Roman Quaedvlieg tweeted: “[T]here is either a threat in which case the vessels should be operational, or there’s a significantly reduced threat which warrants their deactivation, in which case why are a swathe of govt politicians lining up to whip up the border security threat?” Good question, although we all know the answer.
since this morning
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Peter Dutton says [$] that he will not accept all of Labor’s amendments to encryption-cracking laws in the new year, saying “we’ll entertain amendments which are consistent with the joint recommendations from that committee, but we’re not going [beyond] that”.
At the National Press Club today, Labor’s shadow industrial relations minister, Brendan O’Connor, argued for expanding collective bargaining beyond a worker’s direct employer.
in case you missed it
Scott Morrison has offered the states a $1.25 billion health funding sweetener in his first COAG meeting since becoming prime minister.
A world-first simulation of the Australian welfare system has shown [$] that the dole would need to be increased by almost $300 a fortnight and the age pension by about $11 as other welfare payments are cut so the poverty gap can be reduced by 11 per cent, according to The Australian.
The Courier-Mail’s Dennis Atkins writes [$] that Barnaby Joyce is “ready to pounce” on Nationals leader Michael McCormack, while The Guardian reports that “Anyone But Nats” campaigners are pledging to target Joyce after “unwarranted” raids by the electoral commission.
The Daily Telegraph reports [$] that the CFMMEU is polling blue-ribbon Liberal seats, like Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah, in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, to find weak spots where it can drop support for Labor candidates and instead back strong independents.
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Today’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments kicked the population policy can down the road, as it was intended to do. Of course it should be possible to have a mature debate about immigration levels without being called a racist, as former prime minister John Howard urged yesterday. Howard should know: it was his policy overhaul that doubled the annual migrant intake from roughly 80,000 to 160,000 between 2001–08; and it was his government that reaped the economic benefits. The problem is that the conservative side of politics seems to want to have the immigration debate indefinitely, year after year, without ever seriously discussing or investing in solutions to the problems of integration or congestion. It almost seems more interested in allowing...