'Small Australia' advocates are too pessimistic
Immigration is a great issue for sorting the optimists from the pessimists.
Supporters of high immigration levels tend to believe that any problems caused by increasing Australia's population can be overcome and we can have prosperous futures in vibrant big cities. In contrast, those advocating lower immigration argue that the problems are insurmountable and paint a bleak picture of waterless, congested cities.
Of course, using lack of infrastructure as an argument against immigration has not always been the first option for immigration opponents. Opposition used to be either economic (migrants will take our jobs) or cultural (migrants are too different).
Recent history has tended to discredit both of these. The massive expansion of the immigration program under the Howard Government coincided with unemployment falling to a 30 year low of 4 per cent, so it was hard to maintain the argument that migrants were taking jobs from those of us already here.
In fact, the traditional economic argument against immigration has now become so discredited that one of the nation's leading anti-immigration figures, former NSW Premier Bob Carr, now argues the reverse, citing the fact that "immigration adds more to the demand for Labour than it contributes to the supply" as a reason to curtail it.
And as for the cultural argument, most Australians in the big growing cities have now had sufficient contact with Asian immigrants to have got over any Hansonite concern about being "swamped by Asians", although occasionally Africans now cop this argument, with one commentator asserting that they will not "fit in", because they come from "such violence-prone places as Somalia, Sudan and many west African states".
So, if you are an instinctive pessimistic "Small Australia" advocate, what arguments can you now use? The answer seems to be the environmental (migrants will stop us meeting our greenhouse targets), or related to infrastructure (migrants will further clog up the roads), or a combination of the two (migrants will use water we could either drink or use to rejuvenate the Murray-Darling).
Of course, the environmental argument is laughable. Global warming is, as the name implies, a global problem. It hardly seems like much of a win for the environment if we meet greenhouse targets in Australia, by making sure people stay in other countries and help stop those countries meeting theirs. Of course, there are some particularly hard-hearted environmentalists who argue that because per capita emissions are lower in the third world we should do all we can to keep people in those lower carbon economies. Talk about loving humanity and hating humans.
A more credible concern is the infrastructure one. There is no doubt that in key ways the infrastructure in our major cities has failed to keep pace with population growth. In some cases systems were not only badly placed to cope with surging demand, but had also failed to maintain existing assets in a workable manner.
The most often cited infrastructure problem is water, but in reality there are plenty of ways that more water can be supplied (desalination plants, recycling etc.), provided we accept that it is a resource for which we need to pay a realistic price.
Then there is transport and congestion. In order to defend his record, Carr lists a string of infrastructure projects his government completed and claims that these would have been adequate if only federal governments had not been simultaneously ramping up immigration. The only problem with this analysis is that for much of the period he is discussing, due to his policies, Sydney was hardly growing. At the same time, Melbourne's population was increasing far more quickly, yet despite this, or more likely because of it, that city's services were performing much better.
Train patronage in Melbourne has almost doubled in the past decade and, while this has undoubtedly created problems, in the longer term users of public transport should benefit as the increased demand will help build the economic case for major new pieces of infrastructure. As a general rule, bigger cities have better public transport than small ones.
Perhaps there is a case for the Commonwealth providing some funding to the states for infrastructure needs created by high immigration, but there is an even stronger case for states reining in their own recurrent spending which in almost every jurisdiction has seen large increases in both programs and bureaucrats, and in many cases a failure to continue with the sort of competition reforms begun in the 1990s.
With better infrastructure, there would be less fear of bigger cities and perhaps more focus on the benefits of big cities and why so many people choose to live there - more diverse employment, educational and leisure opportunities. Those who choose outer suburbs of big cities, even if it entails long commutes, have clearly decided it provides a better quality of life than the oft suggested alternative of regional towns.
There is no doubt that public opinion is against growing the nation's population but, if governments had polled those already in Australia in 1788, 1851 or 1945, there would have been majorities against the waves of immigration that were about to start. As most of us have ancestors who came in one of those past immigration booms, we tend to think they were a net benefit to the country.
So if you are a "Small Australia" pessimist, maybe it is worth considering whether the optimists may end up being right again.