WE’VE GOT TO TALK ABOUT IMMIGRATION
I’m not wedded to Dick Smith’s campaign but the issue is too important to ignore
Dick Smith is on another crusade, this time to convince the political class to cut immigration levels. The methodology of the campaign is far from ideal, and so far it has attracted some unsavoury types more interested in xenophobia than policy arguments. Nonetheless, we do need to consider our immigration rates.
Like it or not, the developed world faces serious challenges when it comes to workforce participation. There are concerns that there won’t be enough jobs for new generations to fill. Robotics, artificial intelligence and offshoring of even white-collar professional services are narrowing the jobs market. The predictions are that the situation is only going to get worse. The seriousness of the threats to job security is why some economists are contemplating the idea of a universal wage.
I’ve long argued for a big Australia, including when Kevin Rudd baulked at the idea because he feared a political backlash. But as John Maynard Keynes is purported to have said, when the facts change, I change my mind — what do you do?
Technological developments are changing the facts. Jobs are being replaced by machines and the trends look different to the false prophecies of similar outcomes when the industrial revolution took hold. Back then there were predictions of working-class job losses. However, the pro- duction lines absorbed large numbers of workers and the technology generated new jobs.
But the pace of technological change is far swifter today and artificial intelligence is now part of the equation. During the industrial revolution, new industries created scope for more jobs, whereas AI is replacing positions for which humans previously were uniquely qualified.
The rather obvious link in Smith’s argument between immigration rates and limited job opportunities is the fear that swelling the population by 300,000 each year risks leaving a growing percentage of the population out of work. And we know the harmful social impacts of long-term structural unemployment.
I’m not saying Smith is right. I’m not even convinced that cutting immigration is the answer, given the capacity to target immigration at certain skills. We also have to consider population ageing and the potential value of using immigration to recalibrate the age distribution of our citizenry. Immigrants, especially skilled and well-educated migrants, save taxpayers the hefty cost of childcare and schooling.
The reason Smith is worth listening to is because bipartisan support for a high immigration rate isn’t even being challenged. We are not prepared to even have the debate. The evidence is strong enough to crack open a debate, as long as the fringe dwellers who make it about ethnicity and the like are not allowed to hijack it.
We are witnessing right now the hijacking of a rather simple debate on marriage equality by fringe dwellers who are looking to make it about issues unrelated to whether two people of the same sex should be allowed to marry. Perhaps the major parties fear that if they seek an open debate on immigration levels the same hijacking will occur. But that’s no reason to ignore a potentially serious issue. Strong leadership can overcome fringe dwellers.
While Smith and his supporters are focused on the technological developments around AI that will limit job opportunities for younger Australians, offshoring is perhaps an even bigger concern.
Decades ago we saw the beginnings of jobs in blue-collar trades going abroad courtesy of cheaper labour in developing countries. Australians have become used to the “made in China” tag on much of their clothing.
The usual counter-argument is that higher-skilled nations such as ours can focus on other industries for new jobs, and as a resourcerich country we have been more than a little lucky. Besides, goods would be considerably more expensive were it not for the cheap labour used abroad.
But we are witnessing a further exodus of jobs because of globalisation. The emerging middle classes in developing countries are enabling the offshoring of legal work, accountancy practices and numerous other professional services. This adds to the mix of challenges for jobs into the future.
Again, I’m not backing Smith’s call to instantly cut immigration, nor would I go against well-established economic arguments in favour of globalisation to limit offshoring. But we need a comprehensive look at these challenges so that Australia is not unprepared for what’s just over the horizon.
This week Labor frontbencher Ed Husic made the point that driverless cars may proliferate in this country as early as 2020, which could affect the taxi and Uber sectors, just for starters.
Smith’s advertising campaign, which he has personally paid for, includes pitchforks and arguments that revolution will follow if our leaders don’t wake up to the threats of immigration. It’s far too dramatic for my liking, with the risk of becoming counter-productive. The debate is a complex one, which is another reason we can’t afford to ignore it.
On another topic, Rudd this week took to Twitter and Facebook to try to take credit for being ahead of the curve when it came to supporting same-sex marriage. His argument was that by equalising a host of rights for gay couples in legislation passed in 2008, his government paved the way for same-sex marriage. Readers may remember Rudd went to the 2013 election (which he had no chance of winning) promising to pursue same-sex marriage if re-elected.
What readers also need to remember is that Rudd in 2009 blocked the prospect of the ALP national conference debating the issue, and he privately let his now well-known temper fly on a number of occasions while seeking to shut down the debate. At the time Rudd still wielded enormous authority as a newly elected Labor prime minister, so he won the day and Labor advocates for same-sex marriage retreated. In keeping with his wishes, the matter wasn’t debated. He publicly stated at the time that, as a devoted Christian he opposed same-sex marriage.
People of course are allowed to change their minds, as Rudd did in 2013. That’s to be welcomed, as Anthony Albanese told me on Sky News this week. He’s someone who was supporting same-sex marriage long before it became fashionable for politicians to do so. But Rudd has no right to rewrite history. His 2008 reforms were not designed to pave the way for same-sex marriage. In fact he specifically shut down a debate on the matter in 2009, pushing the same-sex marriage cause back by years. Former union official turned businessman Paul Howes made a rare appearance in the policy debate to slap Rudd down on Twitter, and his recollection was backed up by Labor senator Sam Dastyari. Facts matter.