Australia is at a crucial juncture. We have just experienced two years of very slight population growth during the covid pandemic. Not since 1916 during WWI has anything like this occurred. Australians now have the rarest of opportunities to assess the value of a stable population.
For decades federal governments have foisted recklessly fast immigration-driven population growth on the Australian public. Politicians can no longer claim this is ‘inevitable’ and ‘unstoppable’, as the Prime Minister has done. They are clearly choosing a policy that most Australians oppose. The government’s call for a return to high (or even higher) immigration levels coinciding with a federal election has for the first time ever, made immigration an election issue. But is it enough?
High levels of immigration sustained over many years is a hugely transformative policy, and yet no legislation is required because Cabinet alone decides the quota for new arrivals.
Calling on the Coalition to hold a plebiscite alongside the 2022 election will help concentrate attention on the issue during the campaign. The Coalition’s likely resistance to it can be used to point to the lack support for its policy. The cost savings of running a plebiscite during an federal election ($69 million+) will give the Coalition even fewer excuses.
As long as the Opposition takes a different stand, it should help shift support towards them. Recently (December, 2021) the ALP leadership announced it would oppose the Coalition’s goal of a 160,000 migrant intake for 2022. (Liberal politicians are calling for up to 400,000 per year). Citing working conditions and unemployment, it has hinted at a lower rate without giving a number. It appears to be responding to the shift in public opinion since the pandemic and in the media (Tom Dusevic, “Post-Covid, not all aboard the Big Australia express”, 23-24/10 and Judith Sloan, “Big Australia myths leave locals in limbo”, 26/10, The Australian, 2021). While this is welcome, their immigration quota is unlikely to be low enough to be significantly beneficial. Internal party wrangling still sees left factions sanctioning those who speak out against high immigration, as Robin Scott (Vic., ALP) did and lost preselection. As of December, 2021, the ALP has increased its lead in the polls, suggesting the electorate is ready for a change. If they think they’re winning, there will be little reason for them to consider further policy adjustments. A NOM (net overseas migration) quota over 100,000 would not be considered moderate by Sustainable Population Australia, which advocates between 50k- 80k. Therefore, we need to keep the pressure up.
Prominent Australians are touting the benefits of a stable population. The RBA Governor and the Secretary of the ACTU both acknowledge wages have risen. Journalists in the mainstream media are pointing to the positives like never before. Alan Kohler recently lambasted the federal government for “deliberately undermining Australian workers by importing huge numbers of temporary migrant ‘slaves’.” He also calls immigration policy “the most material economic decision to be made by whoever wins the next election.” (Alan Kohler: immigration reboot a deliberate wage killer, New Daily, Leith van Onselen, MacroBusiness, 18 November 2021). Note that wages have improved, but very little, because unemployment has dropped a lot – the excess supply in the labour market has finally been absorbed.
TAPRI‘s latest survey (July 2021) shows public sentiment has hardened against immigration-driven high population growth. “The pandemic has created a unique opportunity to ask the Australian voting public what they think the level of immigration should be after it is all over… Do voters want the Big Australia policy back…? Their responses allow us to see whether the Big Australia advocates have been successful in putting their case … Voters are not persuaded that Australia needs more people. Most, 69 per cent, say that it does not (Figure 8).”
The Big Australia advocates – powerful wealthy donors who have captured both major parties – have had their way for too long. It is long over due that the interests of ALL Australians were taken into account, including all our other species. Let’s rethink Big Australia (video). Let’s set an example to the world and do our bit to help save the planet.
The impacts of rapid population growth include unemployment; deteriorating wages and conditions for workers (and productivity); housing unaffordability; higher personal and state debt resulting in cutbacks to social programs; congestion of roads, ports, hospitals, schools and recreational areas; expensive desalination plants; habitat loss and high species extinction rates; endangered ecosystems; loss of fertile soil to housing developments; more stressful, system-dependent urban lifestyles; more pollution and greenhouse gases; less revenue from natural resources per person; a bigger trade deficit; greater inequality between rich and poor; less social mobility, distraction from indigenous issues and the dilution of democracy. Tens of thousands of people leave Australia each year; we could receive the same number without adding to our population. Even then, it would take decades for Australia’s population to stop growing due to births. Refugees have made up only 5-10% of Australia’s immigration in recent years and this could be increased even with zero net migration. Our population growth rate is controlled by Federal Cabinet through immigration quotas and incentives to have babies.
How does a plebiscite work? A referendum is used to change the Australian Constitution… whereas a plebiscite is a poll that can be used to test whether the government has enough public support for a proposed action. Unlike a referendum, a plebiscite outcome can be ignored by the government. It requires the support of both Houses of parliament, so every plebiscite held in Australia has been put by the government of the day.
Prominent constitutional lawyer, George Williams (UNSW) stated, “Plebiscites are rare in Australia. They go against the grain of a system in which we elect parliamentarians to make decisions on our behalf. By contrast, referendums and plebiscites introduce an element of direct democracy that allows people to have a say … they can have a major political impact.” (The Age, 2011)
True, but this ignores the reality of a system skewed by campaign funding and the lobbying of vested interests; the reason the major parties are out of step with the electorate. Calling for a plebiscite should highlight this corruption of our democracy.
The Coalition would formulate a Big Australia plebiscite question of its own liking, however, we want a Yes vote to something like this:
“Before covid, Australia’s population was growing fast. After covid, do you think we should return to a much slow pace?”
Only the government of the day can realistically call a plebiscite. The wording would be it’s choice. When the time is right for a government to seek a mandate to abandon Big Australia, it’ll be time for a plebiscite.
Currently, 60% of Australians support above zero NOM (net overseas migration). Two thirds of them want lower levels than in the past (TAPRI October 2021 Report, Figure 1). Clearly, more time is needed to persuade Australians that it is in their interests – and of other countries’ – for us to live within the carrying capacity of our continent. Only then would there be a clear majority answering Yes to a question such as Should the Commonwealth government encourage our population to keep within the continent’s carrying capacity?
In the meantime, let’s raise the profile of the discussion, and make it okay to talk about. Please spread this message.
Beyond the next election, my focus will shift to genuine sustainability and keeping the population within the continent’s carrying capacity, of which there is less public awareness. That would therefore continue the long-term task of education, etc.. The wisdom of again calling for a plebiscite at a federal election can be assessed based on prevailing circumstances including survey results. A long term goal would be calling for a Specific Action:
The Australian government should try to keep our population within the continent’s carrying capacity through non-coercive means.
The following policies could be included in the campaign: