Immigration: Australia's favourite scapegoat

April 11, 2010

Australian PM Kevin Rudd's appointment of Tony Burke as population minister continues the Australian tradition of playing political football with immigration. His appointment came after Treasury estimates predicted that Australia's population will grow from 22 million to 36 million by 2050.

Australia's population growth in 2007-08 was made up of 145,500 people through natural increase (births minus deaths), and 213,500 from immigration. Increasing life expectancy pushes up the natural increase: the birth rate is barely at a level to keep the population levels steady.

On the other hand, a big part of the immigration increase is driven by temporary arrivals, especially international students and contract workers. Australia's immigration rate is one of the highest in the developed world, but the influx of temporary workers and students is volatile and may not last for the next 40 years.

A March survey by the Lowy Institute said 72% support a rise in Australia's population, but 69% want it to remain below 30 million. Australia's population reached 22 million in September last year.

The Lowy Institute's Michael Wesley said: "Some of the concerns about overcrowding, about house prices, about the environmental strain that 36 million Australians would cause, are also starting to bite."

Burke told the April 6 7.30 Report that population growth is a concern for "water infrastructure… transport infrastructure and service delivery, including health". He said: "If you provided the immigration answer without dealing with all of the infrastructure challenges that you need to do you actually wouldn't fix anything.".

Burke may not mean it, but this is almost a tacit acknowledgement that there are serious problems with infrastructure as it is. Any user of hospitals or public transport knows that, of course, but we don't expect the government to admit it.

What will the new minister do? Is the federal government going to suddenly provide funding to fix housing, transport and health? Is it going to address Australia's unsustainably high water use? Or will it take the much cheaper option of blaming immigration, and fiddle with intake levels to appear to be doing something?

The position may simply be a move to cover the government from the fearmongering of the Coalition opposition, as it prepares another anti-refugee binge.

But it may also further the government's agenda on immigration. Temporary immigrants now drive immigration: students and workers.

Employers have been given free rein to import workers on temporary visas (often on substandard wages and conditions) and foreign students in Australia are contributing enormous wealth to the country in course fees. Yet authorities have denied that a spate of physical attacks on Indian and other international students have been motivated by racism.

Without even mentioning the refugees languishing in mandatory detention, it is clear that student and worker migrants — often from poor countries — are being exploited for all they are worth. At the same time they face a racist backlash.

Any new changes to immigration in the current climate risk making life even harder for these vulnerable people.

In past discussions on immigration, migrants have been presented as both the solution to, and the cause of, Australia's problems. But either way, the real problems get swept under the carpet of immigration panic.

Burke's appointment marks another stage in the government's surrender to this vicious Australian tradition, an attempt to ride the wave of xenophobia rather than be swamped by it.

It follows opposition leader Tony Abbott's claim that his party would be more effective in government at stemming the tide of "illegal" refugee entries. The xenophobia of One Nation and the 2005 Cronulla Riots has not gone away, even if Pauline Hanson and John Howard have.

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