Sustainable population - not a debate about who we want here
The debate about a sustainable population for Australia only makes sense if it involves all Australians - as citizens, as producers, and as consumers. So the debate has to make sure everyone feels they have a stake and their input is respected; not only the middle aged, middle class, male and generally White people who dominated Dick Smith’s “population puzzle” on the ABC last week, and were barely leavened in the Q&A studio audience by Suvendrini Perera (Curtin University academic and Fairfax OpEd writer) on the panel, and Tanveer Ahmed and his dad on the floor.
Unfortunately the arguments of people like Dick Smith, while apparently well-intentioned, may well have racist effects. Immigration levels can be an issue for many people as part of the wider debate about population, but the legitimate presence of generations of immigrants and their children should not be. If immigrants are made to feel somehow they are the cause of problems other Australians face, this sets up a very dangerous basis for the debate.
Our current “national conversations” about migration and the rather different set of issues raised by asylum seekers, has not been helped when public opinion leaders such as politicians give license to prejudice by making anti-immigrant speech somehow OK. Both the major parties have taken short-term advantage of the attention that fear and hate foster. Whether it is “hearing peoples’ concerns about asylum seekers” or “the best Australians are locally born not immigrants” there is a fairly obvious message to those who wish to hear it that immigrants are have less value or legitimacy than other Australians. With asylum seekers now universally and so wrongly labeled as “illegal immigrants” the situation can only deteriorate. And that’s unsustainable!
Multiculturalism and sustainability
So let’s talk about multiculturalism as the basis for a sustainable population, and why its principles have to be part of any useful debate on sustainability - of people, of lifestyle, of environment, of employment, of economy and of the future. Everyone has to have buy-in to the debate if they are expected to own the outcomes. Non-Anglo Australians cannot be marginalised (as the government may already have done by placing only one “person of colour” Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly on only one its three advisory bodies on population) and then be expected to feel committed to the outcome of the process; after all, it’s their extended families that are one of the targets for the reduction in immigration. It’s their relatives in refugee camps who’ll be kept out or turned back; it’s often their expectations that are thwarted by rapidly changing immigration rules; and they’ve been the targets of racist attacks.
Their family consumption patterns will need to change just as much as anyone else’s, and they’ll need and want to know why. Their kids will need the training and support, and their older people the care and geriatic services. In the latter case non-Anglos made up 40 per cent of the over 70-year-olds at the 2006 Census, and could be creeping up to half-way for the 2011 Census.
Cultural diversity already contributes a critical component to our productive wealth and our community services. Whether we are talking health or the service sector or education or industry, turn off the tap on immigrants and you don’t just reduce demand, you reduce skill supply as well. A good way of turning off the tap is to make potential immigrants we do want and need, feel they’d be better off somewhere, almost anywhere, else. One of the most challenging areas for government and opposition is thus their level of recognition of these issues, and the policy settings that result from this awareness (or lack of it).
Politics, policies and cultural diversity
If we take the largest Commonwealth spending areas and the places where new ideas or recycled old ones have been most evident, cultural diversity hangs well below the radar. It may well be that both the ALP and the Opposition believe that most non-Anglo people are working class and rusted on to Labor; they therefore require no feeding for the ALP, and will be immune to any seduction by the Coalition.
Indeed studies by Melbourne social scientists Bob Birrell and Katherine Betts indicate that in the darkest days of the Howard ascendancy, Labor had two core groups holding it up - inner-city trendies and working class non-Anglo immigrants. That of course may have changed - with so many immigrants in the past decade the immigrant constituency is more diverse, in part far wealthier, and more politically astute than in the past.
The loss of Bennelong in 2007 was caused by the desertion of more conservative Asian voters who turned to Labor; Howard has been working hard in the region to try to lure them back to what the Liberals hope is their “natural” home. The gains in Queensland were from upwardly aspirational skilled workers, some of whom were earlier immigrants or their children, but not a group excited by multiculturalism. Indeed most of the people who really like multiculturalism may have already made their move across to the Greens.
Given there is no single “ethnic” or immigrant constituency, what are the issues that affect immigrants and ethnic minorities more dramatically than other segments of contemporary Australia? In simple terms they are those that relate to age group (older people, youth), language and communication, occupation and employment, extended family relations and human rights (often in quite complex ways). For some groups there’s also an interest in competitive leverage on influencing Australia’s foreign policies (e.g. Muslims v Jews over policy in the Middle East - and yes, they are religious groups but they act as ethnic lobbies).
Let’s recall that in 1989 the Office of Multicultural Affairs was in PM Hawke’s portfolio, and the ALP won an election asserting the value of the concept and the importance of productive diversity. Two decades on, and we have to search under rocks to find either major party saying anything of any interest.
The missing link
Neither of the major parties has a policy perspective that identifies or addresses cultural diversity as a dimension of policy planning or implementation. Neither treats racism as the social poison it is.
A generation ago the Office of Multicultural Affairs played a key role in understanding social change and advising on policy to both Fraser and Hawke, while the government had independent research advice from the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research. Policy across the board, from policing to poverty alleviation, from aged care to adolescent crises response, from child care to curriculum development, was instructed by evidence and policy debate that added to the stock of social knowledge. With the destruction of these agencies we have had 15 years of policy made on the basis of hunch, prejudice and hysteria. Not good enough, and not the way we should be going in the next generation.
We need a national office that focuses on cultural diversity issues high up the hierarchy of government, and a strong independent research base. Sadly for Australia’s future, which would benefit from effective social inclusion, positive community relations and good social and cultural planning, neither of the main contestants has placed those initiatives on the agenda.