Time for the major parties to take migration issues seriously
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.