The Immigration Debate by the Numbers
Whatever happened to immigration — as a political issue, that is? As a socio-demographic issue, of course, immigration has continued on its merry way under the bipartisan Big Australia policy after the temporary COVID breather in 2020 and 2021. Annual net overseas migration (NOM), defined as permanent and long-term (16 months or more) arrivals, primarily overseas students and backpackers, minus net departures of same, had been around the 190,000 mark prior to the ‘No Entry’ sign being put up on our borders. This plunged NOM into historically rare negative territory, a 1-in-100-year immigration reversal.
NOM has subsequently bounced back to rude health, making up for ground lost during its bout with COVID mania. The Coalition’s final Budget in 2022 baked in new policy settings which plan for a well-above-average increase in NOM, to 235,000 every year from 2024-25 (targets from which the new Labor government has not dissented). Historically, NOM has been responsible for driving the majority (around two-thirds) of Australia’s total population growth compared to natural increase (births minus deaths), accounting for Australia generally having the highest rate of population growth amongst comparable OECD countries. Of the 34 OECD members, Australia sits second for foreign-born people as a proportion of total population (29 per cent). Every four years, the new NOM is forecast to add another million people to a country of just 26 million.
So it looks like ‘business as usual’ again for the ‘Big Australia’ immigration lobby which includes those from both sides of politics, the overseas student industry, property developers, think-tanks such as the Grattan Institute and peak employer groups, which rather likes a constantly increasing supply of cheap labour. Not everyone is cracking open the bubbly, however. A large majority of the Australian population have long been opposed to Australia’s excessively high immigration inflow and they remain so today.
All pre-COVID opinion polls (‘quickie’, snapshot surveys by Newspoll, Essential, Lowy, Centre for Independent Studies, etc.) have shown a majority of voters (variously between 55 to 65 per cent) opposed to high immigration-fuelled population growth. Only 10 per cent think immigration has been too low. Post-closed-borders, Nine Media’s Resolve Political Monitor in February 2022 found that this mood has not shifted following the economic slowdown of the mad COVID policy response – 65 per cent of Australians still want immigration at a lower level than existed pre-pandemic, with only 22 per cent wanting it restarted at the same or higher levels. The more comprehensive survey, by The Australian Population Research Institute of Oct/Nov 2019, found that 72 per cent did not agree that Australia needs more people, whilst their post-pandemic July 2021 survey found the new government NOM target gets the tick from only 19 per cent of voters, with 42 per cent wanting a lower number and a further 28 per cent preferring nil immigration — net zero, to repurpose a term much in-vogue just lately.
When asked by Essential) why they wanted reduced immigration, large majorities of Australians think that ‘increasing immigration levels would add more pressure on the housing system and infrastructure’ (63 per cent) whilst almost half (48 per cent) fear that ‘increasing immigration levels would create more competition for jobs and slow wage growth’. The TAPRI surveys concur that quality-of-life consequences of Big Australia immigration loom foremost in people’s minds, not least thoughts of further urban congestion (‘Our cities are overcrowded and there is too much traffic’), the cost and accessibility of house ownership and rentals, infrastructure stresses , agricultural and natural environment lost to development, etc.
Most voters, TAPRI finds, are unconvinced by ‘elite justifications for high immigration’ such as immigration being essential for economic growth, including meeting skilled worker demand (only 26 per cent agree that economic health depends on immigration) whilst 61 per cent prefer dealing with skills shortages by raising wages and productivity measures such as improving skills training for locals. Australians don’t need an economics degree to see the economic downsides of high immigration in their personal lives: it places their jobs and wages at risk, it affects the cost of housing and access to health, education and other services and, whilst it does boost aggregate GDP, it doesn’t move the needle on per-capita GDP (including real wage growth), the practical metric of living standards for your average Australian.
Immigrants are also a drag on government finances because many (particularly elderly parents of immigrants arriving here under the family reunification program) consume far more in government welfare than they have ever or will ever pay in taxes. The mooted tax-revenue boost from immigration to fund an ageing population also never materialises because the immigrants themselves age and need ever more immigration to fund their own welfare needs in old age. Around and around the mulberry bush we go in a giant Ponzi scheme.
Repeat after me, ‘Diversity is our strength!’
Neither are most Australians sold on the alleged ethnic diversity benefits of mass immigration that is the migraine-inducing drumbeat of Australia’s leftist elites. From 2004-05 to 2018-19, as TAPRI notes, the proportion of net migration to Australia coming from the UK, Ireland and Europe fell from 21 per cent (it had been as high as 42 per cent back in 1980) to just 5 per cent today, whilst Asia-origin migrants rose from an already high 45 per cent to a whopping 72 per cent. Fully 85 per cent of net migration now comes from Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
So have Australians welcomed this? No, we haven’t. Only 29 per cent agree that ‘we need more people to increase our cultural diversity’ whilst a majority (53 per cent) think that ‘cultural diversity is a threat to Australia’s own culture and identity’.
When the inevitable woke hysterics start shouting that all this polling shows ‘Australia is racist!’ and that white Australians are racial supremacists who really don’t like brown people, it is useful to note, as TAPRI does, that majority opposition to mass immigration is common across all birthplace groups. The annual quarter-million NOM Big Australia target doesn’t find much favour at all, even amongst those born in Asia (whose heaving metropoles may have culturally conditioned them to believing that bigger is better). Of these, only 30 per cent want to see their home-country levels of overpopulation reproduced in Australia.
This opposition to immigration from earlier cohorts of immigrants poses something of a dilemma for the Left because that would make off-white, as well as white Australians, guilty of ‘racism’. Since woke logic insists only white people are capable of racism, this would cause major cognitive dissidence if the wokeists were to stop their virtue-signalling long enough to think about it. When woke leftists say ‘race doesn’t exist’ followed immediately by ‘racial diversity should celebrated’, we can conclude that leftism is a distressingly common mental disorder.
No mainstream political voice
Despite the consistent majority of Australians being rather frigid towards Big Australia, this is not reflected in the mainstream political sphere, where immigration and population policy has (apart from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – PHON) been subdued as a campaigning issue. This is quite unlike other Western nations where immigration is a huge public matter with ‘asylum seeker’ caravans to the US making the ‘real and present’ case for a Wall or, in the EU, where large armies of Muslim ‘refugees’ marched unmolested through borderless Europe to be welcomed by every political leader from Merkel to Macron.
For Australia, however, as TAPRI’s 2017 survey notes, “whilst over half of all Australians want to see immigration reduced, only 4 per cent of all candidates in Australia’s previous  federal election wanted lower immigration”. This failure of immigration to resonate politically may be due to Australia’s island nation geography making it hard to dramatise the issue beyond boats where, even with the advent of a Labor government, maritime turnback of alleged ‘refugees’ (in reality ‘economic migrants’) remains policy across the Australian political aisles as a matter of electoral necessity (in the 2019 TAPRI survey, 58 per cent of voters agreed that ‘all boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back’, a sentiment with which only 21 per cent disagreed). The headline-grabbing visibility of flotillas of boat-people entering Australia illegally makes rescinding the turnback policy political kryptonite. But turnback, however, is really a sideshow. It allows governments to puff out their chests to show a muscular commitment on immigration control, thus acting as cover for their core commitment, in bipartisan harmony, to the massive legal immigration that takes place out of sight daily.
It is also all quiet on the immigration front because of the relative lack of salience of immigration as a political issue in Australia. When Australian voters are asked to rank issues according to their relative significance (as opposed to a simple dichotomous yes/no, agree/disagree), immigration rates are lower in importance than a number of more pressing issues. In April 2019, Essential Research found that, although 25 per cent of voters rated immigration as a ‘most important’ issue (assigning it a 10 out of 10 for importance/salience), it lagged eight other issues including health (40 per cent rating it as a ten), national security (35 per cent), economic management (33 per cent) and even climate change (for which 26 per cent gave it a perfect ten). As a result, immigration hasn’t found a mainstream political home commensurate to the level of its popular concern it evokes and has struggled to break out its PHON ghetto.
The policy exile of immigration as a politically defining issue in Australia is also due to immigration being hard to electorally pigeonhole here compared to other countries. Ethnicity looms large in the UK, for example, where Andrew Neather, a speechwriter for former Labour PM Tony Blair, crowed in 2009 that immigration as a campaigning issue
…didn’t just happen; the deliberate policy of ministers from late 2000 … was to open up the UK to mass immigration … the policy was intended … to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.
There were votes in it. In the 2005 British General Election, 80 per cent of Caribbean and African immigrant voters had ticked Labour, whilst only about 3 per cent voted Conservative. The British Asian vote also went 50 per cent for Labour and only 10 per cent for the Conservatives. In the US, likewise, a large majority of non-white immigrants support the immigrant-friendly Democrat Party – in 2020, Hispanic/Latinos split 59-38 per cent Biden over Trump, whilst 72 per cent of Asian immigrants voted for Sleepy Joe. Both as a policy issue and as a voter demographic, immigration is an active political faultline in the US and UK.
For Australia, however, the same level of immigrant political tribalism does not apply. Decades ago, the trend was for immigrants to largely vote Labor (unless they were specifically of Cold War anti-communist lineage), but this no longer holds true and both major parties pitch for the votes and pork-barrels of vote-swinging ethnic blocs. As a result, immigration is looked on favourably by both major parties, each delighted to drag Treasury on board with the Big Australia agenda (‘does my GDP look big in this?’).
Immigration’s negative effect on working class jobs and livelihoods, however, does make curbing immigration a natural political fit for the working class populist Right (Trump, Brexit, PHON, etc.) but it also has its more mainstream champions such as the ALP Right’s Bob Carr and even, in an unguarded moment, ALP Left mavericks such as, briefly, Kristina Keneally, who when Shadow Minister for Immigration said that, back when borders were reopening, that Australians should get a “first go at jobs” rather than “overseas, temporary labour that undercuts wages for Australian workers and takes jobs Australians could do”, noting that “one in five chefs, one in four cooks, one in six hospitality workers, and one in ten nursing support and personal care workers in Australia hold a temporary visa”.
Keneally took an earlier dip, in May 2020, as shadow minister for home affairs, observing the sheer level of immigration “has hurt many Australian workers, contributing to unemployment, underemployment and low wage growth”. Keneally was, naturally, howled down by the enforcers of respectable opinion (‘adds fuel’ [SMH], ‘Hansonite populism’ [AFR], etc.) and she was publicly spanked by her own party for deviating from immigration orthodoxy; then opposition leader Anthony Albanese joined in, saing he was “not happy”).
A small subset of otherwise incompatible economists also have found themselves on the same immigration-restrictionist page. When Ross Garnaut (advocate of universal basic income, a carbon tax and big-spending and heavy-regulating government) has a meeting of minds with free-market, light-touch government advocate Judith Sloan can agree that “the federal government’s irresponsible immigration policy implemented for over a decade and a half has had a number of adverse effects, including contributing to low wages growth”, we can see a view that goes well beyond mere ideological banner-waving over immigration. Garnaut noted in a passable imitation of Donald Trump that “the overall effect [of mass immigration] was to integrate much of the Australian labour market into a global labour market for the first time”; translated from GloboNewspeak what he is saying is that Australia has opened up to cheap imported labour at the expense of local workers. When he wrote that “increased immigration contributed to total GDP growth, but detracted from the living standards of many Australian working families”, Sloan wryly noted that “Gosh, I could have written that sentence myself”.
There has always been an element of the labour movement, too, that has dared to challenge immigration dogma. The White Australia Policy was instituted in 1901 through the Immigration Restriction Act and required prospective immigrants to pass a dictation test in a European language (thus sharply limiting non-White immigration). This was the fruit of early trade union agitation, with support from the ALP, which sought to protect Australians jobs from cheap imported competition (which primarily came from non-white countries). Whitlam legislatively killed off the policy in 1973, for being ‘racist’ and ’chauvinist’, as the woke Left saw it, pleasing corporate Australia no end.
Over in the US, the leftist leader of the United Farm Workers union in the early 1970s, Cesar Chavez (a third-generation immigrant and a US Navy veteran), kept afloat labour movement wariness of immigration. He opposed farm employers’ use of low-wage, often illegal, immigrant labour because they took the jobs of Americans (many of whom were themselves long-established and legal immigrants) and put downward pressure on general wage levels. Chavez was an icon of the Left back then, as he remains today. In 2021, Biden’s staffers chose a bust of Chavez (who was Hispanic, thus passing the woke test, and who was a trade union militant, thus clearing the class struggle bar) for the presidential office. Chavez also offered his union staffers and members to the government’s Immigration Naturalisation Service as volunteers to police the Californian border with Mexico, promising they would turn over any border-crossers to the feds. Not surprisingly, since that aspect of Chavez violates the woke code of today’s no-borders/no-deportations/amnesty-now, the Left and has largely memory-holed that opposition.
Immigration, race and Marx
As for the hard Left (Greens included), immigration is amongst the wokest of issues, a political purity test that comes with the peril of being looked upon as some sort of political pond-life should opposition be given voice. The keenest administrators of the test, according to TAPRI, are degree-holders (25 per cent of the Australian population) who are mostly (except, perhaps, for engineers) bred in our universities’ petri dish for wokeness.
Perhaps they should read their unexpurgated Karl Marx, whose only substantive contribution to the hot immigration issue of his late nineteenth century day, when one-fifth of Ireland’s starving population flooded into Britain during and after the Potato Famine, was decidedly unwoke. In an 1870 letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, friends of his in the German communist diaspora in the United States, Marx stated the obvious — that mass immigration by desperate labourers “forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class”. Marx would have torn bleeding strips off any leftist then, or now, who would invoke an abstract moralism about welcoming all immigrants, because ‘diversity’ or whatever, whilst ignoring their impact (‘material’ and, note, ‘moral’) on the native working class.
Engels was forthright, too – “the English working-man has to struggle with a competitor upon the lowest plane possible in a civilised country … the wages of English workingmen should be forced down further and further in every branch in which the Irish compete with him”. Engels added that “I have come to the conclusion that the decisive blow against the English ruling classes (and it will be decisive for the workers’ movement all over the world) cannot be delivered in England but only in Ireland.”
If the blood-thinning medication trading under the name of Warfarin was called by its base ingredient – rat poison – no one except a lunatic would go near it. If the Big Immigration policy that drives the Big Australia vision and makes sacred ‘Diverse Australia’ were to be marketed under its actual ingredients — wage-tanking, welfare-receiving, traffic-clogging, nature-degrading, Open-Borders globalism and the death of the Australian national identity and culture who but a lunatic — or a woke leftist — would have a bar of it?