I’m not wed­ded to Dick Smith’s cam­paign but the is­sue is too im­por­tant to ig­nore

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - PETER VAN ONSELEN

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.

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