Greens change their immigration policy

September 16, 1998


Greens change their immigration policy

By Francesca Davis

At their national conference, held in Melbourne from July 31 to August 2, the Australian Greens made significant changes to their immigration and population policies.

The Greens' 1996 policy planks supporting cuts to voluntary immigration and restrictions on concessional entry under the family reunion category have been removed.

In what seems to be a response to One Nation's racism and the Coalition's restrictive immigration policy, the Greens now call for "eligibility criteria to be reviewed to ensure that potential immigrants are not unfairly discriminated against by, for instance, the requirement to be fluent in English". They also call for migrants to have access to social security payments, English language classes and appropriate programs.

The Greens state that immigration policy should be considered within the broader population policy. Their 1996 population policy had the goal of "stabilising" population numbers (hence the call for a reduction in immigration).

The Greens' new policy has a different goal: "An Australian population policy should consider the distribution of human settlements rather than just concentrate upon population size at the national level."

The emphasis is on planning and construction of settlements which "minimise environmental [destruction] and maximise social well being". In line with this, there are references to the need to reverse the drift of population from rural areas and provide services of the highest standard in all areas.

The changes are a significant shift to the left. The idea that population growth, in and of itself, causes environmental destruction has been dominant in Australia's environment movement. This led to the Greens', the Australian Conservation Foundation and parties such as the Australian Democrats lending their support to "a zero net migration policy" (where the numbers of people entering Australia can be no more than the number of those who leave) as propounded by Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population (AESP).

Such a position has left environmentalists open to charges of national chauvinism, isolationism and racism. This has become clearer for environmentalists with the rise of Hanson and her racist attacks on migrants. The Greens' members who argued for the need to "stabilise" Australia's population found themselves uncomfortably close to One Nation's support for a zero net migration policy. Hanson has at times used the "excess population" argument herself.

A background paper written by Deb Foskey, the Greens' Senate candidate for the ACT and Australian Greens' spokesperson on population, indicates that the Greens reconsidered their policy in response to the current race debate.

Foskey, who also drafted the policy changes, told Green Left Weekly that the Greens adopted the amended position as an interim election policy. This means that elected Greens candidates will be bound by the policy unless there is significant opposition in the local and state groups when they come to ratify it at the next conference.

"The amendments to the policies caused no controversy at the conference, although they did require some explaining. I'm not so sure what the membership will think. There's a real lack of information out there on the issue, which is why we wrote the background paper to go to all groups", Foskey said.

The background paper states that population is "a complex issue in which issues of ecological sustainability, economic development, social equity, human rights, political democracy, and race, gender and class weave a potentially explosive mix. We have to get it right.

"The issues we are discussing, because they involve people, are a dynamic and unpredictable factor, more than just 'P' in the various formulae by which ecologists calculate 'carrying capacity', a concept more easily applied to kangaroos, cattle and sheep than to people, whose lifestyles are so varied."

Although the Greens' rethink of their policy is a reaction to growing racist sentiment, it also signals a more general reassessment of populationism, Foskey told Green Left.

"It's a debate that's been coming for a long time. Most people just haven't had access to enough information. The original theorists were mostly ecologists and have simply taken the concept of carrying capacity and applied it to humans without taking into account the fact that humans have control over how we organise our economy and produce things.

"People like Paul Ehrlich and Tim Flannery have entered the political arena without any idea of these concepts — as though humans are sheep to be 'reduced'. Population is not really about numbers, its about how you look after people and their needs."

The new policy indicates a move away from the ideas of groups like AESP. It was a member of the Greens who was also an AESP member who drew up the old policy, and also had a lot to do with the Australian Democrats' zero net migration policy.

The new policy will align the Greens more closely with the position of groups like the Sierra Club in the US, which recently rejected adopting cuts to immigration on the grounds that population is an international issue.

The consequences of the new policy are significant. Senator Bob Brown and Foskey say the Greens will now oppose cuts to immigration. Brown told Green Left that if they can vote against cuts, they will. However, the setting of immigration quotas is a ministerial decision.

In her background paper, Foskey states: "The issue of population is, in Australia, just as intractably tied to immigration as the issue of race is tied to migration and indigenous peoples policies ...

"Among the questions to be considered in forthcoming discussions is how we view Australia in the world. Are we global citizens or Australian citizens? When human interactions are increasingly global, are we justified in cutting family reunions? What will we do for our Pacific neighbours whose islands are threatened by the activities of people like us?"

While the Greens' shift is a positive one, the policy and paper indicate that the discussion on population has just begun. Although the Greens' policy moves away from a focus on size, the background paper suggests that a level of immigration of 60,000 — about that currently accepted by the Coalition — will stabilise Australia's population at 23 million people in 2040.

Foskey points out that the paper does not argue that 23 million is the "optimum" population for Australia. "I don't know what the population should be, I don't think anyone is in a position to know that. The paper was written for green sceptics and the figure is a fall-back position to open discussion. If we could get them to accept current rates of immigration, that would calm the argument and be a step in the right direction", she said. Nevertheless, the call in the old policy for action on population size has been retained in the new policy.

However, if maintaining an ecologically sustainable population is about social organisation or, as the paper puts it "the levels and processes used to deliver goods and services consumed", then size is not the key question. Only when we have worked out to what extent we can produce sustainably can we assess to what extent population size is an issue, if it is at all.

Recognising that there is a contradiction between setting a target for immigration to Australia and acknowledging "global citizenship", the discussion paper tries to compromise. "We can afford to increase our immigration levels in particular circumstances out of compassion or a sense of shared responsibility, so long as our overall figures are kept in mind", it says.

Foskey told Green Left Weekly that this refers to the plight of the Karen refugees in Thailand, or the East Timorese. With the number of famines and wars in the world today, however, one wonders how the Greens would decide what "particular circumstances" would apply. How can we honour our shared responsibility for the world while we pick and choose migrants?

Nevertheless, it is positive that populationism is being questioned within the Greens. The background paper states: "Everyone [at the conference] felt that there needs to be more discussion at local and state levels." Foskey believes that the discussion has just begun.

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