*Pic: Under conservative rule ... Bosc d’Anjou, Flickr
Democratic societies prove their credentials by the worth of their public debate.
But for over a decade the bipartisan plans to accelerate our immigration intake have been pursued without so much as a murmur of consultation with the electorate.
Australia now has one of the fastest rates of population growth among all developed countries.
Population growth produces a worsening outlook for our sustainable use of resources in virtually every way. Yet most of us have compliantly tiptoed around even some of the more obvious indicators of unplanned growth – such as declining living standards in our major cities due to the lack of corresponding infrastructure investment.
In an odd alignment of interests, political correctness has provided a distraction from the neoliberal motivations responsible for our swelling numbers. Scientists, academics and environmentalists have been gagged by the real prospect of character assassination should they speak up.
Dissent of population growth per se has all too easily been conflated with the rantings of xenophobes and bigots. By salivating over trigger words the little debate that has bubbled to the surface has invariably been quickly silenced with a politically correct knee-lift and a lecture about the primacy of economic growth and its co-dependence upon population expansion.
While it would be silly to dispute the existence of racism in any society, the ever present ‘racist under the bed’ and monotonous tactic of trawling over language for signs of moral turpitude has promoted self-censorship. These days, a fear of receiving a savaging from the pit-bulls of political correctness for speaking out about population growth is far from irrational.
A cannon ball could be lobbed down the middle ground of Australian public opinion on population and multicultural issues without the risk of hitting a single politician from either major party.
They’ve jumped from the car after putting a brick on the population accelerator.
Amidst the ruin of public debate the political courage to defend Australian secular values has also taken flight. It’s a casualty of a new demand to ‘tolerate’ all things without analysis. Accordingly, we’ve arrived at an impasse about what public values Australia actually stands for.
Many of our political leaders can be found sharing podiums with the devout in order to offer warranties about so-called ‘religions of peace’ or offering their support to thinly veiled religious education agendas such as the National Chaplaincy Program.
In doing so our government sails ever-closer to the open betrayal of the very secular principles they are elected to defend. These are now highly malleable; twisted at will to appease economic, political and cultural interests they do not serve.
Yet our constitution leaves no room to doubt that Australian governance must be secular, pluralistic and based upon the rule of law with a separation of church and state. Such ground rules are not negotiable to political opportunity, religious sympathy or wishful thinking.
But in the pursuit of Big Australia, neoliberal Rumplestiltskins on both sides of politics have spun and weaved a distorted vision of secular Australia, adopting the rhetoric of multiculturalism whilst tossing out the values that best served it in the past.
Their common battle cry seems fair enough at first blush; that we are a ‘successful multicultural society’ hence our past success is presumed to anticipate more of the same. But this implies the context and rationale for Australia’s present immigration policies are based upon some historically consistent aims and values.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even a superficial analysis reveals that both the context and motivation for Big Australia is vastly different to that of Arthur Calwell’s Populate or Perish era of immigration. After WWII, we unashamedly asserted the defence of secular values and embraced multiculturalism as a way to protect them against a perceived threat from Asia. What we are now witnessing is the opposite; an embrace of Asia rather than a fear of it – which is a very good thing.
But the devil in the detail has slipped like a submarine beneath the stormy PC seas raging above. For the underlying difference in the rationale and modus operandi of today’s Big Australia is that it has arisen from the agonal gasping of a failed macroeconomic paradigm.
In recent times our population bubble has been accelerated to ease the pressure on the other bubbles that have followed in the wake of a neoliberal love affair with finance, speculation and debt.
In doing so Australia has been cemented into the poor-man’s alternative to a culture that might otherwise embrace innovation. We have become stuck with a paradigm that demands a never ending human pyramid scheme. In the process, much of what was unquestionably successful and valuable about Australia’s approach to multiculturalism of old has been commodified. It has been taken to the roulette table like a desperate gambler putting down the family silverware.
A policy of using human population expansion to maintain economic growth has set us apart from more progressive western societies that have successfully embraced technological and intellectual industries despite demographic contractions and the aging of their populations. Once Australia half-heartedly tried to follow a similar path, attempting to metamorphose into a ‘clever-country’.
But old habits die hard.
An emergent new economy that invents and makes things based upon intellectual property can barely get off the ground if it has to compete with tax-deductible asset speculation and a fixation on boom and bust commodity cycles. There is no way to negatively gear the science and education programs needed to build such a culture and little way to compel banks to invest in ideas as an alternative to finance instruments and debt.
Both sides of Australian politics have decided to go on with business as usual and this has become the elephant sitting on the chest of innovation; crushing the potential of our young hearts and minds.
After having the fiscal bejesus scared out of it by the GFC, Australia’s government panicked and reached for the population lever once more rather than taking the difficult path of reform. Promoting economic scarcity by cramming them in became the duel population and economic policy. It was a quick and nasty fix for a systemic addiction to casino capitalism and debt that brought us the GFC in the first place.
Unfortunately, demographic tinkering only kicks the can a little further down the road. It is where that road is heading that should concern us more.
Like the USA has before it, Australia instituted a program to pilfer skilled people from developing countries; those most needed by their own nation to develop a middle class and social institutions. Simultaneously we syphon off the foreign aid tank, chomping on a cigar as we snarled that we could no longer afford even token generosity as compensation.
Big Australia is being filled by a brain-drain that commodifies potential citizens based upon their economic prospects. It is a classic piece of economic rationalism that seeks to avoid investing and developing local minds in the rust belt if others can be picked up cheaply and easily as ‘human resources’ in some other place where an investment of someone else’s money in them has already been made.
Overall, Australia has embraced a neo-liberal economic ideology, not a plan for a multicultural society.
Because the genesis of Big Australia has nothing to do with plans to reinforce our secular values as a society nor does it pay heed to our past recipe for success. In reality, it puts it all at risk. Those nations who’ve dabbled in multiculturalism as a vehicle of cynical economic pragmatism show that human trafficking to prime economic development is a risky business.
France’s troubles began with a mix of a humanitarian and deeply pragmatic immigration to obtain cheap labor after WWII. Their failed 457-like experiment ultimately revealed that liberté, égalité and fraternité were not to be secular values embraced by all. Such concerns had been pushed into the background by economic pragmatism and a naivety that state values will be acquired by osmosis.
Fundamentally you cannot blame immigrants for rejecting your nation’s values if their residence or citizenship is predicated upon economic convenience. Because when you sow the wind with opportunism you risk reaping a whirlwind of the same.
Today we perceive only too well that Australia’s promise to immigrants is no longer as it once was; that it would invest in them if they shared our secular way of life. Instead their selection process has become more like a bank interview and test of credit worthiness that might qualify them for a mortgage in an economy with beaches and kangaroos. Citizenship has become the equivalent of a gold watch offered for service to the finance industry.
This is light years away from the criteria that once attracted Australian immigrants with little wealth and education but with a big appetite for risk and a capacity for hard work as they came down the gang-plank to face off with uncertainty. Our nation’s fortunes grew in a way that were surprisingly well aligned with a quintessentially Australian ethos forged some 150 years before.
A colonial outpost that began as a prison would first offer a second chance to its prisoners and then immigrants with an understanding that their lack of wealth and status did not define their worth or future prospects. Perhaps more than anything the current neoliberal experiment in Big Australia shows just how much we’ve broken with ourselves. We’ve willfully forgotten where our luck came from and along the way developed a lasting amnesia about who paid the price for our success.
Investing in indigenous Australians and those left behind by neoliberal politics would seem to be the moral choice, should we be a moral nation.
But one thing needs to be unpicked from this tangled web. Race and identity politics has no bearing upon the key issues that motivate the vast majority of those who promote or oppose Big Australia. Instead, economic pragmatism is in the national driver’s seat and has been for the last 17 years. In that same period the objectives of the political class have progressively diverged from the values of the Australian people. Race, skin colour and boat people are ostensibly powerful triggers of knee-jerk debate that’s got nothing to do with the social and environmental impacts of Australia’s population expansion. These topics are frequently a decoy, throwing us off the scent as we are led down the garden path to the neoliberals’ grand vision of Big Australia.
In part that’s because the failed neoliberal paradigm, now widely seen as the root cause of inequality and a cancer of participatory democracy, can no longer openly show its face in public. Nowadays it comports its politics via the tradesman’s entrance using executive power rather than democratic process. It roots about in back rooms looking for crises and division to exploit like a pig in search of lipstick.
Lazy and nagging censorship of language has seen us loose the will and capacity for discourse about where Big Australia came from and the dark place it might be headed. In the PC ‘much ado about nothing’ we’ve lost the basic will and intelligence to defend Australian secular values that built our society and swapped them for a soulless neoliberal economy created by a political magician’s trick.
It’s high time to recapture our culture’s once famous capacity for uncomplicated truth and plain speech and confront the neoliberal wolf disguised as the good shepherd of multiculturalism who’s been busily counting in the sheep.
For the wolf is far more concerned with lunch than the welfare of the swelling flock.
*Dr Wildlife Ecology is known to the Editor
• William Bourke in Comments: The big Australia agenda is indeed driven by corporate/consumption objectives rather than any overriding altruistic motive …
• Christopher Eastman-Nagle in Comments: … Thanks Doc for standing up to the pricks.