'Small Australia' is implicitly racist

Racism is at the forefront of the 2010 Australian election. Both Labor and Coalition politicians use some of their most passionate language to convey the false idea that the few thousand Afghan and other Asian asylum seekers who have arrived by boat are responsible for a host of problems caused by their own decisions to prioritise corporate profits before social needs, such as their encouragement of suburban sprawl and lack of funding of public transport and public health services.

Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard has spearheaded her attack on immigration by arguing that it is reasonable to be “anxious about” the arrival of “boatpeople”, even though these 4500 people account for less than 1% of Australia’s immigration intake since the election of the Labor government at the end of 2007. In the July 25 election debate with Coalition leader Tony Abbott, Gillard mentioned a “sustainable Australia” eight times. Three of those times she directly followed the words “sustainable Australia” with the phrase “not a big Australia”.

Gillard thus sought to contrast her position with that of former Labor PM Kevin Rudd, who had declared his support for a “big Australia”. Rudd’s position was based on a Treasury forecast that Australia’s population would grow by an average annual rate of 1.2% over the next 40 years, expanding from its current 22 million to 36 million by 2050.

While Gillard is yet to define what population size she regards as sustainable, Abbott has already declared that a Coalition government would reduce net overseas immigration to 170,000 per year from its peak of 300,000 last calendar year, even though private studies suggest that on existing trends immigration will come down to this figure by next year anyway.

But it’s not only the major parties that are on the anti-immigration bandwagon. The Australian Greens opposed Australian migration levels even before the Labor Party changed leadership. On February 1, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown told AAP: “I think immigration levels should settle down much lower than they are at the moment, without cutting humanitarian immigration.” This declaration by Brown gave “left” credibility to the major parties’ anti-migration stance. While Brown and Gillard argue for population reduction on the basis of “sustainability” we should be under no illusion that their policies objectively mean the same as Abbott’s.

Environmental sustainability

Australia is the largest greenhouse gas emitter per capita in the world. If the whole world consumed like Australia does, we would need four identical planets to sustain the current world population. While it is true that we can’t sustain an infinite population increase in Australia or anywhere else, any serious discussion on population reduction before there is a consideration of the wasteful way capitalist society produces the means to sustain life amounts to ignoring the basic cause of unsustainable resource consumption. As Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani points out, “optimism concerning population control without a fundamental change in the underlining social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative”.

There are several areas in which Australia could cut down resource consumption. Currently, for example, BHP-Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium mine at Roxby Downs uses 37 million litres of water per day. That is 238,709 times the 155-litre daily amount the Victorian government would like Melbourne residents to reduce their water consumption to. That is, if you just got rid of the one uranium mine, you could provide water to three quarters of a year’s worth of new migrants. But BHP is actually lobbying for 250 million litres of water to be consumed per day under its planned expansion of the Olympic Dam mine. Using the same formula as before, that would mean the mine would use as much water as required for the daily use by over 1.61 million Australians.

When you factor in the other uranium mines as well as other shameful waste practices in Australia such as growing cotton instead of hemp which uses less water or greater government funding for water tanks, grey water pipes and other water saving options there are actually lots of potential ways to save water (with no loss in standards of living). However, neither Labor nor the Coalition are actually seriously interested in resource consumption reduction since creating an environmentally sustainable Australia isn’t profitable for big business. While the Greens are stronger in terms of their advocacy of environmental sustainability, by claiming that high migration is also an issue they allow the major parties to sideline the real debate on sustainability.

Furthermore, the Greens’ approach actually feeds into a racist “fortress Australia” mentality — that “our” resources (however plentiful or not you believe they are) should be kept for the existing Australian population rather than shared with “foreigners”. Gillard has articulated this approach with her pitch to cut immigration so as to preserve “our Australian sanctuary”. If we presume everyone on the planet has the right to have the same carbon footprint then whether someone is in Australia or not should make no difference and we should instead work together to lower wasteful consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if Australian governments were actually concerned with lowering the size of the world’s population to make it “more sustainable”, then increasing migration to First World countries like Australia would assist this because First World countries have a much lower birth rate as a result of women’s better access to education and contraception and these countries’ lower infant mortality rates.

Some have argued that lowering immigration on the grounds of environmental sustainability isn’t racist because this will mean restricting immigration from everywhere. However, given that other predominantly white Western countries have similar high per capita carbon footprints as Australia, it is utterly naïve to believe any such motivation of a restriction of immigration will not disproportionately affect people coming from Third World countries.

In arguing for a cut in immigration, Brown criticised the numbers of skilled migrants who are entering the country, arguing that more resources should be devoted to training locals. He declared on February 1 that “you can buy your way into this country if you’re rich or you’re highly skilled”. But if total immigration is cut, it is naïve to think that governments that shape immigration policy according to the profit interests of capitalist employers, “labour market needs”, as it’s officially described — won’t disproportionately favour immigration by the rich and “high skilled” over those who are poorer and less skilled. And where is it going to be hardest to get the money and skills to prove your “worth” to Australian employers? The Third World, not other predominately Western countries like New Zealand, Britain and the USA.

‘Big Australia’ and big business

While creating barriers to immigration is objectively racist, it should not be thought that Kevin Rudd’s policy of a “big Australia” was based on promoting the interests of working people here or overseas. It was based on what was seen as good for the Australian capitalist class, boosting the size of both the work force and the market for goods and services. Aaron Gadiel, chief executive of the Urban Taskforce, which represents property developers, pointed out in response to Gillard’s opposition to Rudd’s “big Australia” policy, that if Labor limited Australia’s population to fewer than 30 million by 2050, the average annual economic growth rate would be half its historical level. “It would mean the economy would be 15% smaller than it would otherwise have been”, he said in a media statement.

Gillard and Abbott are well aware that any substantial reduction of immigration will mean less consumers, less workers for employers to exploit here and less people paying tax (seeing as working people not corporations bear the brunt of taxation). Which is why Abbott, in his July 24 “My plan to stop the boats” opinion piece in the Murdoch press, stated: “I want a strong Australia. Over time, a stronger Australia will almost certainly be a bigger Australia.”

It is also why Gillard has put no figure on her “sustainable Australia” and why the Coalition has set a population growth rate target for 2013 of 1.4%, average growth rate for the previous 40 years. Both Labor’s and the Coalition’s rhetoric about immigration is not aimed at actually cutting it, but at making immigrants, and particularly refugees, the scapegoats for the social ills created by Australian capitalism and pro-capitalist government policies.