Immigration and growth: 200 years of success

Bookmark and Share Governance & Service Provision | Chris Berg
ABC The Drum Unleashed 20th April, 2010

There's a Rowan Atkinson sketch about a (pre-David Cameron) Conservative Party speech. In character, Atkinson starts talking about Indian immigrants: "I like curry," he says. "But, now that we've got the recipe... is there really any need for them to stay?"

That combination of populism and affected naivety about immigration and population suddenly dominates our political sphere.

In Tony Burke, we now have Australia's first dedicated Minister for Population. Under Tony Abbott, the Coalition is looking to make population growth from immigration into an election issue. The shadow immigration minister has called for a dramatic reduction in migrants. There's now an opposition sub-committee dedicated to population.

And for what it's worth, the Greens are instinctively hostile to anything that increases consumption within our territorial borders. More immigrants, economic growth, new products, cashed up bogans buying plasma televisions, anyone buying anything - whatever it is, they're against it.

There is no force in parliament willing to embrace the benefits of population growth and immigration - historically, the two key drivers of Australia's success.

It's Kevin Rudd's fault. In October he admitted publically what most Australian governments have believed for the last century - he believes in a "big Australia" and he "makes no apologies for that". Since then, we've had six months of apologies.

Certainly, immigration itself presents policy challenges. But not that many. Australia isn't a target for welfare-shopping: migrants can't get the dole for their first two years.

And I'd be more concerned about the cultural challenges of immigration if we hadn't had two hundred years of successful pot melting. Each migrant cohort is always more "different" than the last. And each cohort has successfully integrated into Australian society.

But when a politician expresses concern about population pressure, it is typically nothing more than a cover for government failure.

Take infrastructure. Will governments be able to supply enough roads and railways and community services for an expanding population? Well, that's their job. To abrogate that responsibility is to admit that they are inept. They'll have the money: more people means more taxpayers.

Or our high house prices, which are now being blamed on migrants and foreign investors. According to opposition housing spokesman Kevin Andrews, speaking to The Australian last week, his constituents are "saying their kids can't get into the market because they go to auctions and are outbid every time by foreigners".

Andrews was a former immigration minister (you might remember that) so clearly he's playing to his favoured side. Nevertheless, Assistant Treasurer Nick Sherry has announced a "new enforcement crackdown" on non-residents buying houses.

House prices are inflated for a very simple reason: governments are choking land supply by restricting housing development at the edges of our cities. When demand increases but supply is limited, prices go up.

That's the fault of those politicians now so concerned about population. Bob Carr is one of the most passionate advocates of population restraint. And his government was deeply reluctant to release land for housing.

So the idea that we don't know where all these extra Australians will live is very peculiar. We've been expanding for two hundred years, and we haven't run out of space to build houses.

Critics of immigration and population expansion present their views as brave contrarianism - they are the only ones willing to talk about the elephant in the room.

For such "straight talkers", their case against population growth requires some awkward moral contortions.

Take the claim made by Bob Brown earlier this month: "skilled migrants, by the way, if left in their own countries, would help raise standards of living there". This is the "brain-drain" thesis - that when the most educated poor people leave their home countries, they further impoverish the developing world.

But it should go without saying the major problem in the developing world isn't they don't have enough skills. It's that they are underdeveloped. They're poor.

Brown is telling people in poor countries they cannot seek to improve their lives, and the lives of their family.

That's cruelty dressed up as kindness.

Well, it's actually worse. Migrant workers send money to their relatives back home. These remittances add up to more than the world's foreign aid budgets combined. And, unlike foreign aid, rather being funneled to governments, or distributed according to the preferences of first world donors, remittances go straight to the people who can use the money best.

So limiting skilled migration and chocking off remittances would add to third world poverty.

Migrants to Australia seek better lives than the rest of the world can provide. That should be flattering. They should not be used as scapegoats for the policy failures of our own governments.