Why voters are ignored on immigration

Katharine Betts
This article originally appeared in The Herald Sun, 9 May 2018

For more than 10 years Australia’s population has been growing fast, mainly through immigration, and most of the new arrivals have found their way into Sydney or Melbourne.

As these cities buckle under the weight of numbers voters are shifting from discontent to anger. They resent crush-loaded trains, jammed roads, clogged schools and hospitals, outrageously expensive housing, and an eroding natural environment.

Despite stressed infrastructure and growing evidence of voter resistance both Coalition and Labor maintain their bipartisan commitment to even more years of high migration.

In 2016 the Australian Election Study (AES) found that 42 per cent of voters wanted immigration to be reduced. By August 2017 The Australian Population Research Institute (TAPRI) found that 54 per cent wanted lower immigration (and at an April 2018 Essential poll this had risen to 64 per cent).

Why do political elites continue to ignore voters’ unhappiness?

One answer is that politicians ignore voters because they can. They believe that voters have nowhere else to go, except for minor parties such as Sustainable Australia or One Nation.

The 2016 AES Candidates study provides evidence for elite indifference. Sixty per cent of election candidates wanted even higher immigration, including 67 per cent of Labor candidates. (Labor candidates were much closer to Greens candidates and Greens voters than to their own supporters.) An elite indifference driven by special interests leaves voters sidelined.

But there is a second answer to the question of why voters are ignored. Taking their concerns seriously risks breaking a rule stronger than politeness. It risks courting immorality.

This makes the division of opinion between political elites and voters more comprehensible. It stems from elite origins in the growing class of university graduates, a class imbued with progressive values.

A clear majority of professionals working in the media want even higher immigration, as do 49 per cent of university academics and teachers. Politicians and professionals are drawn from a similar pool of graduates, many of whom embrace progressive values including enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism, globalism, diversity and social justice.

Within this world view scepticism about high migration easily equates to racism. For example, Greg Jericho writes in the Guardian Australia that ‘because there are many desperate to hate – [the subject of immigration] must be treated with extreme care by politicians and journalists’ (24/2/18).

If scepticism about immigration is fueled by racist hatred, voters asking for reductions should not be taken seriously; their pleas are nothing more than poorly sublimated racism.

Beliefs of this kind have been held in elevated circles for some time. Politicians and their close associates are aware of them, and many share them. An in-group culture remote from the average voter, attention from well-heeled lobbyists, and a co-dependent relationship with media elites all contribute to creating an insider class. On the immigration question they live in a world remote from that of most Australians.

The TAPRI survey confirms that many progressives think that immigration sceptics are in fact racist. It also found that 65 per cent of voters know that this belief is widely held and that nearly half are inhibited by it.

The survey also found that, while many graduates can be termed ‘guardians against racism’, many other graduates feel threatened. They fear the slur. Because of this they are reluctant to speak their minds. After all they were likely to be working with other graduates imbued with progressive beliefs, and may even value such people as friends. Saying openly that immigration is too high puts them at risk of public shaming as well as exclusion from social groups that they care about.

TAPRI’s findings and those of the AES show that voters who are not university graduates are much more concerned about high migration than are graduates. Those who are the most concerned are non-graduate business managers, closely followed by a broad group of technicians, tradespeople, machinery operators, drivers and labourers. These non-graduates are less likely to fear ostracism but are also less likely to be in positions of influence. They can however say what they think in anonymous surveys such as those run by the AES, TAPRI and Essential Research.

They can also make their dissatisfaction felt at the ballot box. This, of course, is provided that there is at least one mainstream party courageous enough to stand against progressive opinion and the vested interests of the business lobby.

Taking a strong stand against racism is a core principle of progressive identity. And rightly so. The problem lies in the ill-informed reflex that is too quick to equate any discontent with high migration to racism.

This reflex helps to silence critics. It also gives the business lobby a free pass to enjoy the benefits its narrow constituency gains from population growth. As property developers bank their profits they can claim to be on the side of virtue or, if that is too far a stretch, they can safely deplore any opponents as xenophobes.

Katharine Betts is deputy head of The Australian Population Research Institute and author of ‘Immigration and public opinion in Australia: how public concerns about high migration are suppressed’, released this week on tapri.org.au.

Victoria: Parasite State

Victoria: Parasite State
Bob Birrell

Australia’s affluent lifestyle depends on huge imports of manufactured goods, particularly hi-tech electronic goods – for the simple reason that few of these products are made in Australia. In the official statistics these goods are labelled as Elaborately Transformed Manufactures (ETMs). In 2015-16 Australia exported $20.8 billion worth of ETMs and imported $190.3 billion. The resulting deficit was $169.5 billion.

This deficit was largely covered by the export of primary goods, mainly minerals and fuels. There was an Australia-wide surplus of $129 billion in 2015-16 in exports over imports of these primary goods. Victoria contributed a tiny $1.3 billion to this surplus in 2015-16.

At first sight, this is not a pretty picture. Victorians’ life style appears to be dependent on commodity exports, most of which originate from Western Australia and Queensland.

But surely Victoria makes a contribution to the export of ETMs? After all, Victoria has been in the lead in promoting advanced manufacturing and other innovative industries since the early 2000s, when Bracks and Brumby led successive Labor governments.

At that time, there were concerns about the consequences of the Hawke/Keating governments’ reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, which included drastic reduction in tariff levels. These opened Australian manufacturing industry to global competition. The fear was that Victoria’s legacy of protected manufacturing industries was at risk.

Bracks and Brumby embraced Keating’s reforms. Victorians were told not to worry about this risk. This was because Labor was putting in place initiatives that would promote hi-tech advanced manufacturing in Victoria. These initiatives, voters were told in 2002, would ‘make Victoria one of the world’s most innovative and international focused economies’.

Bracks and Brumby set out an Agenda for New Manufacturing. The Labor government promised to provide some financial support for innovation. But the trump card was its determination to turn Melbourne into an exciting destination city that would attract the best and the brightest from around the globe. Docklands and various iconic buildings like Southern Cross station were part of this. Labor claimed that these bright newcomers would enhance Melbourne’s already strong base in science and technology research.

The strategy included plans to boost Victoria’s population – labelled Beyond Five Million. The goal was to grow the states’ population from around 5 million in 2004 to 6 million in 2025. It actually reached 6 million in 2015, with Melbourne increasing its domination of the state’s population, despite the plan’s stated aim to decentralise Victoria’s population.

However the Labor leaders took no chances. Their new planning scheme, Melbourne 2030, provided for massive growth in Melbourne’s population by rezoning much of inner Melbourne and all of the city’s major transport and shopping hubs for high rise apartments. In addition, a huge swathe of Melbourne’s fringe was rezoned for new housing.

Labor’s initiatives were rewarded with the accolade of the world’s most liveable city in 2002. With so many ‘creative’ people expected to be attracted, the Labor leaders promised that Victoria would become ‘a world leader in the 21st century drivers of prosperity’.

Now let’s turn to the real world. How has Victoria performed since these promises were made? Victoria’s contribution to Australia’s meagre exports of ETMs has actually declined since the early 2000s. In 2004-05 Victorian enterprises exported $7.2 billion worth of ETMs. In 2015-16 they exported $7.3 billion. This is less in real terms than in 2004-05, because the Australian dollar was worth far more a decade ago than today.

There have been a few hi-tech success stories in Victoria, notably CSL, but these gains have been more than offset by the losses stemming from the demise of protected manufacturing industries, including the motor vehicle industry, which was the leading exporter of ETMs from Victoria in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile as Victoria’s population swelled and its residents’ affluence has grown, the state’s appetite for ETM imports has surged. As noted, some $7.3 billion of ETMs were exported from in 2015-16. In the same year, Victoria imported $52.5 billion worth of ETMS. The result was a deficit on international trade of ETMs of $45.2 billion.

And it’s getting worse. Victoria’s deficit on international trade in ETMs is deepening along with its growing population. Just a few years ago, in 2012-13, Victoria’s deficit on ETM trade was $34 billion.

Victoria is a parasite state. In 2015-16 Victorians, who made up 25 per cent of Australia’s population, were responsible for 28 per cent of the national deficit in ETM trade of $159.6 billion. Furthermore, as indicated, Victorian made only a tiny contribution to Australia’s surplus in the trade of primary products that largely finances the national ETM deficit.

Victoria is relying on the rest of Australia to provide for its import intensive life style. Melbourne, of course is driving this dependence because of its increasingly dominant role in the state’s economy.

In Melbourne, this dependence is ignored. Why worry when the economy appears to be booming. However the boom is being driven by employment growth in the health, social assistance and education industries that are largely financed by the commonwealth and state governments and a boom in the finance and property industries fuelled by a massive increase in mortgage investment debt.

The current Labor government is basking in Victoria’s national leadership in job creation, the continued award to Melbourne as the world’s most liveable city and the evidence of cranes on every horizon.

This is a mirage – where not a word of the truth, as summarized above, is allowed to intrude.

Bob Birrell is the head of the Australian Population Research Institute

An edited version of this text was published in The Herald Sun, on Monday the 28th of August 2017, page 20.
It was accompanied by an article by John Masanauskas, Bailed Out: Victoria dubbed a parasite state as imports trump exports by $51 billion a year and followed by an editorial, 29 August 2017, Livability clouds gather.