Population: Numbers and faces

The question of Australia’s population is finally a matter of serious debate, after years of being settled by default and deceit[1]. As this surprisingly reasonable piece from Chris Berg of the IPA points out, even the Greens, who have generally been willing to “present clear policy where Labor and the Coalition just waffle”, have found this difficult to handle. Berg observes that the Greens are torn between general sympathy for those wanting to migrate and environmental concerns about the implications of population growth.

For Berg, a Big Australia advocate, the issue is simple. Environmental issues can always be fixed by economic growth and “high immigration … has been the fuel of the Australian economy for two centuries.” Implicitly, Berg asserts that more immigration will make current Australian residents better off. The problem, as Ross Gittins points out is that this generally isn’t true. Increased immigration doesn’t raise average income for those already here, and the need for lots of new infrastructure creates all kinds of economic and social stresses. Of course, the costs are even greater in the case of natural increase – Peter Costello’s fatuous suggestion that couples should have an extra child for the sake of the country was a prime illustration of his lack of any economic understanding, despite a dozen years as Treasurer.

So, there is no getting around the dilemma described by Berg. Considered in terms of aggregate numbers, we would be better off, economically, socially and environmentally, with a slower rate of population growth. But potential immigrants aren’t just numbers. They are people with a variety of good reasons for wanting to come here (to reunite with family members, or to take up a job to escape from persecution or just to get a better life). Refusing them admission hurts them as well as those in Australia (relatives, potential colleagues and employers, those who feel a moral obligation to help refugees) who want to welcome them here. There is no easy answer to this question, and the wishful thinking displayed by advocates of a Big Australia does not help to resolve it.

fn1. The most prominent example being the Howard government’s policy of ramping up immigration while playing on racist fears in relation to boat people. Under Abbott, the conservatives are at least consistently anti-immigrant. That makes them less dishonest, if no less ugly.

79 thoughts on “Population: Numbers and faces

  1. I don’t think this need be a serious dilema from an ethical POV. Migration places for genuine refugees are a small part of our quota. We can still keep taking them without so much environmental impact. We can also do a lot more to help improve the conditions for dispalced persons in the countries most refugees come from through foreign aid. In the end we can’t take them all and we have to be honest about that.

    The real issue is family resettlement and skilled immigration. Those are the largest groups, and would be unpopular to cut, but they are where the problem lies. Reducing “skilled” migration would lead to higher wages here and force government and employers to train more people. Business would hate it, but that is what needs to happen. “Skilled” migration is basically an admission of training and educational failure. Reducing family resettlement numbers would be unpopular with various ethnic lobby groups, but having such quotas is clearly double counting when there are already quotas for refugees. Ethically, I don’t see that there is a case for a person to have a stronger claim to settle here because they already have a relative here, than an equally deserving person who does not.

    Of course, if we are going to be serious about population policy, then there is no case for giving baby bonuses to people for having children beyond replacement rate. So after two children, we should cut the bonus.

  2. Tony Abbott for PM @ #11 said:

    I would consider myself to be on the far right on a conventional political spectrum. However, on the issue of immigration I would be more than happy to vote greens if they advocated for a 0 immigration policy. Of course my underlying rationale for 0 immigration would be different to that of the greens. This is why i see the political spectrum as not being a horizontal linje, but a circle. Often the far left and far right ultimately want similar things but for entirely different reasons.

    TAFPM you are correct that “the political spectrum is not a horizontal line”. However, neither is it a “circle”. The “circle” metaphor best describes the mid-20thC phenomenon of totalitarianism, where nationalists, like Hitler, gradually became more socialistic. And socialists, like Stalin, gradually became more nationalistic.

    In conventional politics the best depictor of political alignments is a four-quadrant matrix, as shown in the Political Compass. In this format, roughly speaking, there are two main axes, displayed orthogonally, which show the polarities of the given spectrum:

    Economic: Progressive Left -> “Regressive” Right
    Civic: Liberal individualism -> “Authoritarian” institutionalism.

    One could, of course, introduce more axes, but most ideological disputes seem to boil down to choice of ideological ends (Left-Right) and institutional means (liberal-authoritarian ).

    As you can see by my use of the “scare quotation” marks, I have some problems with the tendentious nomenclature used by standard social scientists. But the general structure of belief systems is clear enough and roughly fits common usage

    Moving in a clock-wise direction:

    – NW: New Left Left-liberal eg Fran Barlow;
    – NE: New Right: Right-liberal eg Chris Berg;
    – SE: Old Right: Right-“Authoritarian”eg Joe Bjelke Petersen;
    – SW: Old Left: Left-“Authoritarian” eg Arthur Calwell.

    FWIW, I have sympathies with all four quadrants in this matrix. I strongly adhere to evolutionary relativism in ideological and institutional matters, whatever works, shameless opportunism, followed up by crisis-management.

    Some people call this old-fashioned “social democracy”, and I am happy enough with that term.

    Of course, this quadrant matrix does not exhaust the modes of human action, it simply focuses on ideological goals and institutional teams. My own belief is that instrumental tools are the most facilitator of human progress.

    Your point about the blatant contradiction in Green program between its Leftist desire to curb industrial pollution and its liberal desire to maximise diverse immigration is, of course, true. I never miss an opportunity to drive a wedge into that rather yawning gap.

  3. Fran Barlow @ #25 said:

    Longterm: socialism on a world scale; general social freedom and equality; progressive dissolution of state power.

    I suppose its possible to wish for “socialism on a global scale; general freedom and equality” as an ideological end whilst expecting the “progressive dissolution of state power” in institutional means. But its a bit like popping some dairy products into a hot oven and hoping that the appliance cooks ice cream.

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