Time for the ma­jor par­ties to take mi­gra­tion is­sues se­ri­ously

The Sunday Times - - Opinion - Rita Panahi

PAULINE Han­son’s promised Bill for a plebiscite on mi­gra­tion has lit­tle chance of suc­cess when Par­lia­ment re­sumes in Au­gust. How­ever, an elec­tion-day plebiscite on pop­u­la­tion, not mi­gra­tion, is pre­cisely what this coun­try needs.

It is an is­sue of supreme im­por­tance and yet suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have failed to ar­tic­u­late a clear pol­icy on how big and how quickly we should grow, and what Aus­tralia’s tar­get pop­u­la­tion should be in 2025 or 2050. Pop­u­la­tion has an ef­fect on just about ev­ery facet of daily life, par­tic­u­larly in Mel­bourne, Syd­ney and Bris­bane where num­bers have soared in re­cent decades.

In sur­vey af­ter sur­vey, Aus­tralians have de­manded a halt to the high mi­gra­tion num­bers, but both the coali­tion and La­bor have stead­fastly ig­nored ma­jor­ity opin­ion and pushed ahead with a Big Aus­tralia strat­egy.

Just how big has not been ar­tic­u­lated, but Aus­tralia has one of the high­est pop­u­la­tion growth rates in the devel­oped world and we will pass 25 mil­lion in Au­gust. A plebiscite would force the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties to heed pub­lic opin­ion on this most cru­cial is­sue, which af­fects ev­ery­thing from com­mut­ing to work to hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity.

And I say that as one of the mi­nor­ity who sup­ports big Aus­tralia and be­lieves high mi­gra­tion is nec­es­sary to fuel eco­nomic growth, par­tic­u­larly in a coun­try with an age­ing pop­u­la­tion.

How­ever, it is clear most Aus­tralians are in favour of stop­ping the high num­bers, and fast. An Es­sen­tial Re­search poll com­mis­sioned by SBS in 2016 showed 59 per cent thought the num­ber of mi­grants com­ing to Aus­tralia over the past decade had been too high, and a sim­i­lar num­ber were against in­creas­ing the refugee in­take.

Last year, re­search by The Aus­tralian Pop­u­la­tion Re­search In­sti­tute re­vealed three in four vot­ers be­lieved we were “full” and did not sup­port pop­u­la­tion growth. And the lat­est poll on the is­sue from The Lowy In­sti­tute, re­leased last month, had 54 per cent op­posed to the mi­gra­tion rate.

The real fig­ure may be even higher, given a 2018 poll by TAPRI showed many Aus­tralians were re­luc­tant to share their views on im­mi­gra­tion for fear of be­ing called racist; 65 per cent said that those who op­posed high mi­gra­tion num­bers were seen as racist, which made them feel “threat­ened and in­hib­ited”.

One of the ad­van­tages of be­ing an is­land na­tion with sound bor­der pro­tec­tion poli­cies and a rel­a­tively low and pre­dictable birthrate is that we can de­ter­mine what amount of mi­gra­tion is needed to achieve our ideal pop­u­la­tion. But first we need to de­ter­mine what the num­ber is and that’s where a plebiscite makes sense.

A plebiscite ask­ing what Aus­tralia’s pop­u­la­tion should be in 2040 with two op­tions — 25 to 30 mil­lion or 31 to 35 mil­lion — would en­sure the ma­jor­ity view is re­spected and end the widen­ing gap be­tween pub­lic opin­ion and po­lit­i­cal pol­icy.

The cur­rent ap­proach is hap­haz­ard with lit­tle in the way of long-term plan­ning but also ig­nores pub­lic sen­ti­ment, given both ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties are on a unity ticket on pop­u­la­tion and growth.

Back in 1999 the Fed­eral gov­ern­ment told us Aus­tralia’s pop­u­la­tion, then at 19 mil­lion, would pass 25 mil­lion around 2050, but we will reach that mile­stone in a cou­ple of months thanks to a sig­nif­i­cant surge in our in­take of per­ma­nent res­i­dents.

In 2000-01 the num­ber of per­ma­nent mi­grants was only 80,610. This year we will re­ceive 190,000 per­ma­nent mi­grants, plus 18,000 to 19,000 un­der the hu­man­i­tar­ian pro­gram, plus many hun­dreds of thou­sands more here on tem­po­rary visas, in­clud­ing stu­dents and work­ers.

Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton has dis­cussed with coali­tion col­leagues low­er­ing the an­nual in­take of per­ma­nent res­i­dents from 190,000 to 170,000, but was re­buked by Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull and Trea­surer Scott Mor­ri­son. For­mer PM Tony Ab­bott has pro­posed cut­ting the an­nual in­take by 80,000.

Mi­gra­tion has been the dom­i­nant fac­tor in our soar­ing num­bers. Last year it ac­counted for 62 per cent of pop­u­la­tion growth. On cur­rent es­ti­mates, the pop­u­la­tion will be 37.5 mil­lion to 41.5 mil­lion by 2050.

An elec­tion-day plebiscite is cheaper to run than a nor­mal plebiscite and would give dis­en­chanted vot­ers rea­son to be­lieve their vote counts.

How­ever, there are some who only em­brace democ­racy when their side is win­ning.

Wit­ness the epic melt­down in the US and calls for rev­o­lu­tion­ary change as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion tries to ful­fill its elec­tion prom­ises, while in Bri­tain, the Re­main­ers are still try­ing to stop Brexit and defy the will of the peo­ple.

It is clear that pop­u­la­tion is a key is­sue for the vast ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralians. They de­serve to have their say.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.