The former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr has called for Australia to cut its immigration rate in half, declaring that the country’s experiment of running the fastest rate of immigration in the world was an experiment that was failing.
Monday’s ABC Q&A program concentrated on just one issue: Australia’s immigration levels and the pressures on our cities. As well as Bob Carr, the panel included experts on housing, development, the environment and migration policy.
The audience included over a third of people drawn from the growth hotspots in Sydney, who gave voice to concerns about traffic congestion, overdevelopment and pressure on schools and services.
A faultline quickly developed among the panellists over whether it was a question of the level of immigration or the failure of governments to adequately plan and invest in the infrastructure needed to cope with the population.
As premier of New South Wales between 1995 and 2005, Carr famously declared that “Sydney was full”. At that stage the city’s population was approaching four million and his government was under pressure over transport and infrastructure.
But while Sydney was one of the great melting pots of the world, which Carr acknowledged – “37% of the population of Sydney was born overseas, we celebrate it” – he said even immigrants were asking whether Australia could achieve the same benefits from migration at a less dramatic pace.
“Do we really want to be adding a million to our population every three and a half years? Would it be such a departure from God’s eternal plan for this continent if we took six years about acquiring an extra million?” he asked.
Carr pointed to a poll – he did not say which one – which had shown that “74% of Australians think there is enough of us already”.
But John Daley from the Grattan Institute argued strongly that the concern in Australian cities was not about levels of migration per se, but its impacts, such as skyrocketing house prices and congestion. He argued that Singapore had achieved relatively low levels of congestion on its roads by imposing unpalatable taxes to prevent people driving from into the city.
“Australia’s transport system is not that bad,” he said. There are plenty of roads, there are plenty of large roads, the issue is how much road space have we got relative to how many cars are trying to get around.”
Tim Flannery from the Climate Council highlighted Australia’s fragile environment. “We are a big country and Canada is a big country and Antarctica is a big continent as well – the habitability is the thing,” he said.
“It’s a big land but it is not a fertile land. We have to look at all of those factors as we grow. With the impacts of climate change, western Sydney will start feeling the heat because the heatwaves are getting longer, hotter and more frequent. The infrastructure we are building isn’t fit for purpose for that future. And I think we will struggle.”
Asked by a woman about the pressure on schools, Daley said planners had not envisaged that people with kids would live in the inner and middle rings of our cities. “I don’t think that people 15 years ago believed that there would be families. Now, things have changed. A lot more families are prepared to live there. And so we need to make sure that politicians get behind that and invest the money in schools.”
The Grattan Institute has forecast that Victoria needs 220 new schools in the next 10 years, with 213 for NSW and nearly 200 for Queensland.
Just curious: Which part of our immigration program do we cut? The one to fill skills shortages? The one to reunite families? Or the one where people are fleeing for their lives? #qanda— Joe Hildebrand (@Joe_Hildebrand) March 12, 2018
Carr pointed to the often hypocritical nature of politicians and business figures who call for heightened levels of immigration in the interests of economic growth but who were insulated from its effects by living in suburbs like Point Piper – where Malcolm Turnbull has his home
”Barry O’Farrell [a Liberal NSW premier] declared he was a great supporter of a big Australia, he wanted more ambitious immigration and one of his first acts was to cancel plans for highrise in his electorate along the north shore rail line.”
Carr also asserted that migrants were pushing down wages. “We had the Reserve Bank tell us that wages are too low. There is not enough growth in wages. And the reason is, the reason is we’ve got extraordinarily high immigration as part of our economic system.”
Wage growth is stagnant. Let's be clear: that has got nothing to do with migrants and everything to do with unions and working people being crippled by successive conservative governments. #qanda— The AMWU (@theamwu) March 12, 2018
But Daley and another panellist, Dr Jay Song, disputed this. Daley said the consensus among economists was that skilled migration tended to push wages up.
Song said 60% were skilled migrants and Australian businesses needed them to address skills shortages.
But Daley conceded that migration did drive up house prices.
Jane Fitzgerald, from the NSW Property Council said the answer was to do the planning on jobs, transport and housing. She strongly agreed with the Reserve Bank paper that said the planning system had added more than $498,000 to the price of each house.
One questioner asked why we had not developed high-speed rail links to regional centres such as Newcastle and Wollongong to encourage decentralisation. Daley said despite 117 years of official policy to do that, the record was 117 years of failure.
“If we think we’re doing it because we are making Newcastle and Wollongong dormitory towns for Sydney, that is doable,” he said. But he added that it would be better to increase the density in the middle rings of Sydney.
Flannery said the issue was marshalling enough resources in regional centres, and that even agricultural resources were often too thin to attract business to regional Australian towns.
Several people pointed to the importance of universities in activating these towns. Daley said the problem was employers who congregated in big cities closer to other service industries.
One young woman raised the issue of global population growth, which is forecast to reach 9.4 billion people by 2075. She asked whether Australia had a moral obligation to accommodate some of them.
Daley agreed there was a moral imperative. “They probably will live much better lives if they come to Australia. That is not just because there are other options, it is because Australia has a whole series of existing high-quality institutions and by global standards is a genius for integrating migrants into our community.”
But Carr said our obligation to the world was best expressed by us managing “this vast and beautiful continent” sustainably.
The better path was to become “so prosperous that through our overseas development assistance program we can be regarded as the most generous of the world’s wealthy countries. And not least by running an aid program with a feature of family planning in it.”