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Saville’s Shout: rational refugee policy … food for thought …

Labor MP Andrew Leigh has some sensible things to say about the immigration debate. Plus why the Western diet is killing the world.

Getting immigration figures right. Canberra-based Labor member Andrew Leigh is one of the few politicians worth listening to, so when the Lowy Institute issued an invitation to hear him speak about population, it was almost a full house.

Leigh, 41, entered Parliament in 2010 from the Australian National University, where he was a professor of economics. His impressive resume includes a stint at Treasury and a PhD in public policy from Harvard, as well as four books. He recently become the shadow assistant treasurer. In his speech, “Does Size Matter? An Economic Perspective on the Population Debate,” Leigh applied an economist’s eye to the topic, explaining why it really is a debate about immigration.

Over the past decade the Australian population has grown at an annual rate of 1.6%, he said. Two-fifths of this is natural increase (more births than deaths) and three-fifths is net migration, the excess of arrivals over departures. Governments can do little to change the first figure (other than exhort us, Costello-like, to “have one for the country”), so the “migrant” lever is really the only one they can manipulate.

Since 2003, three in 10 permanent immigrants have come here for a family reunion, six in 10 have been skilled migrants, and one in 10 have been refugees, he told us. This means that “refugees are not clogging our roads. But the asylum seeker conversation is clogging our policy debate, because it’s both controversial and complicated”.

Australia takes 13,750 refugees a year, down from 20,000 under the previous Labor government. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that globally, there are 11 million refugees  If you add people who are internally displaced or stateless, the total could reach 39 million people.

Leigh, the grandson of a Methodist minister, said he hoped asylum seekers would become less of a partisan issue in the future, in the way that indigenous policies now have the support of both sides. “Australia can — and should — take more asylum seekers. Even after we have done so, they will still be a small minority of our total migrant intake,” he told the audience.

Skilled migration will remain the largest component of our permanent migration program, and it is vital that we don’t just focus on ‘how many’ but also on ‘who’? If we want to have a healthy migration debate, then ensuring that our migrant mix reflects our national values and priorities matters more than fretting about the next set of demographic projections.”

Looking at these figures, it does seem crazy that the arrival of such a small number of people should take up such a large share of the national debate, especially around elections. Leigh has a touching faith in the ability of Australians to absorb the facts about the refugee issue and form rational opinions. Let’s hope he is right.

Unhappy meals. If you have ever wanted to try lychee-flavoured beer, insect ice-cream and Heaven’s Hell Vodka, the place to be was the Taste of Sydney festival last week. It’s one of the highlights of the Sydney foodie year, and even torrential rain couldn’t keep the crowds away from the picturesque setting inside Sydney’s Centennial Park.

It’s a great experience for the public, with restaurants like 4Fourteen, Porteno, and my own personal favorite, Rojo Rocket, setting up stalls to feed the madding crowds.  In addition, more than 120 exhibitors turned up, many of them relatively unknown. These included the Joadja Distillery, which is about to start producing single-malt whisky in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, and Benfatti Fine Italian Foods, with a stall of very high-quality Italian products.

Small companies like these are extremely important to the maintenance of a diverse food culture, which is crucial for the health of consumers and the agricultural sector as a whole.

Last week on Radio National’s Bush Telegraph, agricultural scientist Colin Khoury presented a study showing that the whole world is  moving towards a Western diet, with potentially disastrous consequences for food security, crop production and health.The report, ”Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security”, found that people are consuming more calories, protein and fat because they rely increasingly on food crops like wheat, maize and soybeans at the expense of regional staples such as millet and sorghum. In addition, they are eating more meat and dairy products. The author said:

Overall, people are eating more energy-dense food, which is high fat, high sugar and high calorie, and we end up with an increased likelihood of dietary diseases like high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease.

These trends of increased homogeneity of crops is only going to increase the likelihood of that happening.”

The study used data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and looked at more than 50 crops from 150 countries. Khoury, from the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture, says all nations are moving towards a “global average diet”. “We looked at diets around the world and found that people are starting to eat the same crops. For example, wheat is now the predominant food in 97% of countries.”

According to the scientist, increasing resilience will be vital in future decades due to the extra pressures placed on agriculture by climate change. “If we’re going to rely more and more on particular crops, then genetic diversity within the crops is where we need to focus to keep crops resilient and to increase yields.”

The future of art. If you want to see the future of Australian art, head to the Art Gallery of NSW for the annual ArtExpress exhibition. This year the works of 41 students who sat for the 2013 NSW higher school certificate visual arts examination are on show at the gallery, and they are stunning.

Co-ordinator  Leeanne Carr says students are becoming less interested in using computers in the classroom and keener on learning more traditional art-making skills.

This year’s artworks “reflect a greater understanding of technique and conceptual thinking around environmental and social issues, dreams and the imagination, their personal world, religion and art history,” she said. The exhibition will be on until May 11.

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