THE ISSUE of population took centre stage in the federal election. Gillard and Abbott blamed immigrants for everything from traffic congestion to climate change.
Julia Gillard moved quickly to junk Kevin Rudd’s support for a “big Australia”. She presented this as driven by environmental concerns—Population Minister Tony Burke was re-badged the Minister for Sustainable Population.
Workers from marginal electorates in outer suburban Sydney and Brisbane have suffered from decades of neglect to infrastructure and services. Even the federal government’s Infrastructure Australia has said that the NSW government lacks future planning for transport infrastructure and is not ready to build any new rail. Since the 1970s, goods transport by rail has declined from 70% to single figures, meaning more trucks on the road and more congestion nightmares. There are similar stories in health and education.
Gillard’s “sustainable population” was designed to tap into anger at this, deflect it from government and direct it at immigrants: “If you spoke to the people of Western Sydney, for example about a ‘big Australia’ they would laugh at you and [say]… where will these 40 million people go?”
Her stand was bound up with a sharp lurch to the right over refugees, and provided fertile soil for Abbott.
Abbott tried to wedge the Labor party earlier in the year by attacking Rudd’s “big Australia”. During the televised leaders debate, Gillard and Abbott traded blows over delivering the biggest immigration cuts. With everyone agreed that “stopping the boats” was the aim of refugee policy, Abbott could consistently point to the Howard government’s cruel record of “success”. It shows the way population arguments serve as a dog whistle to racism.
Tragically, The Greens proved unable to take this racist scapegoating head on, because of confusion in the party about population and sustainability.
Left-wing Greens have provided useful critiques of Gillard and Abbott’s arguments. New Melbourne MP Adam Bandt, in an interview with Farrago student magazine, pinned urban congestion on lack of investment: “Before we can have any sensible discussion about population, we need to have a discussion about infrastructure, and the part of the reason why people feel that the city is overcrowded and congested at the moment, is that we have failed to properly invest in infrastructure, particularly in areas like transport, to make the city move more efficiently.”
Lee Rhiannon rejected the idea that Australia had a fixed ecological “carrying capacity”: “For much of Australia’s history population numbers were low but that did not stop extensive vegetation loss, soil erosion, widespread pollution and species extinction.”
But neither Bandt nor Rhiannon argued against immigration cuts, or challenged the idea that population was a problem.
The Greens are hamstrung by Bob Brown’s strong commitment to cutting immigration. Brown was one of the first politicians to attack Rudd’s “big Australia”, calling for a Senate inquiry into population.
He played a terrible role in the Q&A special that followed the screening of Dick Smith’s xenophobic documentary, The Population Puzzle.
Brown declared that the 18th century British reactionary Malthus “was right… we’re chewing up more than the planet can sustain.” In an infamous 1798 essay, ‘Principles of Population’, Malthus argued that Britain’s growing population would soon outstrip food production. But just as changes in agriculture have allowed for massive increases in population, changes in energy production—for example from fossil fuels to solar and wind—would mean a growing population and decreasing carbon emissions. It’s not population that determines how environmentally destructive a society is, it’s the way production is organised.
Brown defended refugees, but attacked “business immigration”, saying restrictions on immigration were a blow to the “big end of town”. He said “we’ve concentrated ridiculously on one are two percent of the immigrants to this country who come as refugees on boats … meanwhile immigration as been calibrated according to business immigration”.
It’s true that Australia’s bosses are in favour of migration. A constant flow of workers helps stimulate the economy. This sometimes brings business into conflict with populist politicians who play on xenophobia to win elections. The pages of The Australian and the Financial Review have been scathing of “irresponsible” populism. But it still serves their interests, because it directs attention away from their own criminal responsibility for problems like climate change.
Immigrants—“business migrants” or otherwise—aren’t the ones driving up carbon emissions, it’s the governments and private companies planning to open twelve new coal-fired power stations. Cuts to company tax like that proposed by Gillard mean less money for investment in public transport, less money for rail and more roads congested and full of polluting trucks. It is politicians like Gillard that we should point the finger of blame at. Australian workers have nothing to fear from immigration.