Many assertions are being made about Australia’s rates of immigration and population growth, but it’s hard to find a coherent discussion of the issue. There’s not just an elephant but a menagerie of ignored creatures lurking around the living room.
The elephant in the middle of the room is the cost to society of ‘durable assets’ for each new person, imported or home-grown. Durable assets include not just infrastructure like roads, trains, water and electricity but houses, shops and schools. That cost is sensibly estimated by sustainability researcher Jane O’Sullivan to be around $500,000 per person. Some of that cost is public, borne by governments, and some is borne by the private sector.
A net population increase of around 250,000 thus costs us about $125 billion annually. We don’t hear about that cost because economists, lost in their before-and-after static modelling, don’t seem to know how to do some simple estimates of the cost of getting to the higher population.
The total cost is also missed because the political class focusses obsessively on the federal budget and is oblivious to the cost to the private sector. It is said that the federal budget is now ‘linked’ to immigration, though the formula is not spelt out. It is just asserted that slowing immigration will reduce revenue by several billion dollars, a minor amount compared with the full cost just noted.
Some politicians have suddenly realised that big-city infrastructure is overloaded. They’re right, but they don’t get to the essence of the problem, and some commentators just claim it’s poor planning, though that is certainly part of the problem.
The gorilla in the corner of the living room is the rapid degradation of the Australian environment: degrading and lost soils, limited fresh water, rapidly declining biodiversity including koalas threatened by the relentless spread of suburbs, pollution, emissions, death of major marine environments and so on. Those who proclaim their wish for a Big Australia either don’t mention the environment at all or have a very limited grasp of it.
The Tassie devil snarling on the china cabinet is the big business lobby that claims the economy would collapse without high immigration rates. What they probably mean, if they even understand what they’re saying, is that it has only been because of the rapidly growing population that our anaemic economy has been prevented from shrinking and recording the dreaded recession.
The per capita Gross Domestic Product has been slowing and incomes are nearly static, but we don’t want to mention that. Rather, we go on like Paul Keating’s galah in the pet shop about 27 years without a recession! 27 years without a recession! Polly want a cracker!
The big business devil also regularly proclaims labour shortages and skills shortages. The sensible resolutions of those alleged problems are to pay wages that will attract people to the jobs they want done and to educate our kids properly. These claims arise from nothing more than their desire for cheap labour and to cut government education budgets.
The giant panda in front of the TV is the huge overseas student intake, up to 100,000 per year, with many of those converting to permanent residency. This is the direct result of governments being unwilling to fund universities as they used to be funded. Universities scramble to import fee-paying students, but governments avoid planning to accommodate them.
The feral goat standing on the dining room table is baa-ing aggressively at the boat people being featured on a TV screen, complaining about Asians taking our jobs. But the goat is oblivious to the screen behind it showing just as many ‘plane-people’ refugees and a great many more normal immigrants flooding in. John Howard contrived to increase immigration to appease the business lobby while demonising legal, boat-borne asylum seekers to distract the Hansonites.
The koala pissing from the chandelier is spraying the racism allegation over anyone who questions the rate of immigration. The rabbit under the couch rabbits on about how immigrants have enriched our culture, which is not the issue. Even some normally fair-minded commentators can’t seem to conceive the people have any reasons other than racism and social conservatism to object to high immigration, as though they’re oblivious to daily traffic jams. So we are labelled ‘populists’.
An old roo five-points slowly around, muttering about the ageing population, ignoring the hopping joey saying ‘But Gramps, that just means there aren’t as many kids to educate’.
A spotted quoll snarls from another corner, spewing millennial resentment that Australia can no longer afford houses and back yards, now that we’re big and rich.
A wombat under the table is muttering ‘Why don’t they decentralise. And stop driving so fast.’
Sitting on the couch, two politicians are shouting at each other. ‘The budget.’ ‘Growth.’ ‘Racist.’ ‘Growth.’ ‘Moslem extremists.’ ‘Skills shortage.’ ‘Growth.’ The dogs at their feet have grown bored of the dog whistling and fallen asleep.