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The Coalition's immigration challenge

By Rex Drabik - posted Wednesday, 14 February 2018


Is the long-standing bipartisan consensus in favour of high immigration set to unravel? While led, for now at least, by a ‘Big Australia’ enthusiast, a recent survey suggests that the Liberals might soon have little choice but to abandon their support for mass immigration if they are to avoid electoral wipe-out.

The issue is becoming too pressing to ignore. Australia’s population swelled by a staggering 384,000 in the year to March, 2017, with around 60 percent of this growth due to immigration. Propelled by the highest per capita immigration intake in the Western world, the national population will surge past 25 million this year. Malcolm Turnbull is routinely lambasted by his critics as a do-nothing Prime Minister who has thus far failed to leave a lasting mark, but that is not entirely true: his supercharged immigrant intake is irrevocably transforming the country in myriad of ways.

Despite a concerted effort by the major parties and the large parts of the media to smother public debate on the topic, Australians are noticing their urban and cultural environments change rapidly around them. There appears to be a growing worry about the effects of high immigration, as suggested by an Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) survey of voters last August. The findings: around three-quarters of voters think Australia does not need more people, with significant majorities seeing such hand-over-fist population growth placing ‘a lot of pressure’ on hospitals, roads, public transport, affordable housing, and jobs.

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As prominent economist Judith Sloan recently observed, the immigration-fuelled population explosion is squeezing the life out of our major cities, with liveability crashing as the new infrastructure projects necessary to accommodate such rapid growth fall further behind. Another economic commentator, Leith van Onselen, has repeatedly warned that our cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, face an “infrastructastophe” due to population crush-loading. Australia, van Onselen has pointed out, will need to build the equivalent of a new Melbourne every decade ad infinitum under current immigration settings, a scenario that is “unmanageable, unsustainable and undesirable.” Existing residents are quite rightly asking how Canberra’s plan to cram millions more people to our already clogged major cities will do anything other than degrade their quality of life.

The TAPRI survey, led by veteran population experts Dr Katharine Betts and Dr Bob Birrell, also found voter disquiet about the country’s fast-shifting ethnic and cultural make-up. A majority of respondents agreed with the statement that “Australia has changed in recent times beyond recognition – it sometimes feels like a foreign country.” Fifty-five per cent of those voters surveyed also agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Today, Australia is in danger of losing its culture and identity.”

Some supporters of high immigration invariably scoff at the suggestion of national identity being under threat, arguing the country successfully absorbed previous waves of migrants without losing its essential character and coherence and will be able to do so again. However, with the proportion of the population born overseas the highest it’s been since the colonial era and far more diverse than ever before, Australia is in uncharted waters. The last time the overseas born share of the population was this large, back in the 1800s, new arrivals were almost exclusively Britons moving from one part of the empire to another. It is hubristic folly in the extreme to assume that Australia can admit newcomers from every conceivable background in any given number without the risk of disrupting existing cultural patterns and national bonds.

Australians, it appears, want their government to be more selective when it comes to prospective migrants. Nearly half of voters surveyed by TAPRI supported or strongly supported a full or partial ban on Islamic immigration, including a majority of Liberal voters (54 percent) and a large minority of Labor voters (38 percent). In all, 48 percent supported or strongly supported such a ban, with a further 27 percent undecided. As Betts and Birrell observe, this result is quite contrary to findings by the pro-open borders Scanlon Foundation, whose reports are regularly adduced by the major parties in support of their high immigration and multicultural policies.

The Scanlon Foundation and others aver that Australians’ economic prosperity means they are more likely to support high immigration and multiculturalism. The argument in short goes that Australia’s broad material prosperity and optimism makes it different to the United States, the United Kingdom and Western Europe, where growing numbers of native-born “left behinds”, discontent with economic pressures linked to globalisation, have cohered around populist-nationalist immigration-restrictionist politicians and movements.

The findings of the TAPRI survey shoot holes in the claim that relative economic security insulates Australian voters from concerns about immigration and ethnic diversity. Few of those surveyed could be classified as economically insecure or in the “left behind” category. Yet half or more of respondents in the TAPRI survey wanted a reduction in immigration and were unhappy about the implications of Australia’s fast expanding ethnic diversity. Those expressing such views were spread across the full spectrum of occupations.

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Betts and Birrell note that voter concern about immigration and population has political implications, particularly for the Liberal Party, which is highly vulnerable to challenges from the Right. A majority of current Liberal voters are concerned about immigration levels and ethnic-demographic change in Australia and could switch their support to an alternative promising lower immigration. The Liberal Party can no longer count of its voters to remain forever loyal to the party as trust has collapsed (62 percent of Liberal voters did not think their politicians were working for them). The resurrected One Nation has already begun tapping into voters’ concerns over Australia’s runaway migrant intake, with the party polling around 14 percent during the November 2017 Queensland election. Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives has also signalled its opposition to mass immigration and offers another new potential home for disaffected Liberal voters.

According to Betts and Birrell:

The Liberal Party may have little choice but to mount such a campaign because it faces electoral oblivion in 2018 if it does not guard its voter base from challengers from the right. If the Liberals do make such a move, Labor is likely to be a big loser, given that many of its supporters are potentially responsive to such a move.

Liberal strategists would be wise to take note of the stark divide among Labor voters on the issue of immigration, as revealed in the TAPRI survey. 53 percent of non-graduate Labor voters believe immigration should be reduced, compared to a mere 34 percent of Labor voters with a tertiary education. It is conceivable that a significant number of non-graduate Labor voters – the remnants of the party's old working-class Australian base - could switch their vote to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the Australian Conservatives or even the Liberals if these parties were successful in making immigration an election issue.

For the floundering Turnbull government, immigration presents the circuit-breaking issue it desperately needs in 2018. The Liberals could simultaneously wedge Labor, neutralise the One Nation threat, and abate pressure on living standards and social cohesion by slashing permanent and temporary migrant numbers. Absent a change in policy, the Coalition will find it increasingly difficult to justify its high immigration intake in the face of anaemic wage growth, persistently high unemployment and underemployment, chronically unaffordable housing, overloaded infrastructure and services, choking cities, and mounting cultural disruption and tensions.

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A version of this piece originally appeared at Quadrant Online.



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About the Author

Rex Drabik is a former country journalist and political staffer based in Western Australia.

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