Dick Smith has long been a Little Australia man, steady in his opposition to immigration. If anything, he’s become more so in recent years, making videos, running a website, announcing a political party that had as its central tenet that immigration was a “giant Ponzi scheme” based on “perpetual growth”. There’s never been anything racial, discriminatory or bigoted about Smith’s hostility to immigration — it’s based on his economic and ecological views. But when the cancer of One Nation has returned to the Australian body politic, and anti-immigration populism is surging across the West and here, you’d hope Smith — who remains an iconic and influential figure for most Australians over 40 — would choose his arguments and facts with care.

Alas, no. Joining Sky’s angry white men last night, Ross “Sydney Morning Homosexual” Cameron and Mark Latham — two former politicians masquerading as victimised outsiders — Smith blamed immigration (“200,000 a year”) for almost the entire housing affordability problem in Sydney, warned that continued immigration growth would lead to the impoverishment of “most people” and that the services sector didn’t provide real jobs, merely “selling coffee to each other or doing nails”.

Does high immigration add to pressure on house prices? Even though 200,000 a year — in fact, if you include student and 457 visa holders, the number is significantly greater — is less than 1% of Australia’s population, of course it does. But economists would be intrigued to learn that migration is entirely to blame for poor affordability, and that the billions we spend a year via the tax system incentivising investors to put their money into housing rather than more productive uses, or the lack of housing construction in NSW when Labor was in power, or record low interest rates, or the unwillingness of successive governments to invest in infrastructure and public services, have nothing to do with the balance between supply and demand. Blaming migrants is the “they take our jerbs” argument of housing affordability.

And the reason you can’t drive anywhere in Sydney, Dick, is because of decades of underinvestment in infrastructure and public transport, and rampant NIMBYism among Sydney residents, not because of overpopulation.

How about immigration and “perpetual growth” impoverishing us? Handily, there’s been some work done on whether immigration encourages economic growth. An OECD study found that immigration was linked to “a positive but fairly small impact” on economic growth, which echoed a 2006 Productivity Commission analysis which found that “the overall economic effect of migration appears to be positive but small”. A key factor found by the PC was that “the annual flow of migrants is small relative to the stock of workers and population” — that is, for all the conviction that Australia has had very high immigration, compared to our overall population, it doesn’t have much impact.

And immigrants are younger, and have a higher workforce participation rate, than the Australian population — which means they work a lot more than the rest of us, and that gap will grow in coming years as our population ages. Immigration can’t halt the ageing of the population, but it can slow the decline in participation, which — far from impoverishing us — will support economic growth.

Does Smith want to cut student visas as well? After all, the approximately 400,000 foreign students in Australia need housing too. Of course, that would seriously harm Australia’s $19 billion a year higher education earnings and the tens of thousands of jobs it provides, but presumably that won’t impoverish anyone. What about the nearly 100,000 457 visa holders who also need housing? Does Smith think we can do without them? Who’ll work in IT companies, or cook in our massive cafe and restaurant sector? Who’ll work in our hospitals and aged care facilities, looking after elderly and ill Australians?

Ah, but for Smith, who has long been an economic nationalist — remember his marketing ploy, Dick Smith Foods, with its blatant appeal to patriotism — services jobs don’t seem to count. They’re just “selling coffee to each other or doing nails”. Somehow, in Smith’s view, that economic activity doesn’t count. The barista or waitress’ wages — they might be a student trying to pay their way to an education, or a mum trying to supplement the family’s income by pulling a few shifts if she can afford the childcare — isn’t real money; the care provided to the infirm and the elderly isn’t real care, the revenue earned by IT firms isn’t real revenue, because it’s that tainted word “services”.

The million Australians who work in the services sector — 8.5% of the workforce, up from 6.5% at the turn of the century and 4% in the 1980s — might take a dim view of their careers being dismissed by Smith, but it’s of a piece with the economic nationalist narrative, that traditional blue collar male jobs — manufacturing, agriculture, construction — are real jobs, while services jobs are associated with women and therefore don’t count as much — doing nails isn’t as real a job as making plastic widgets.

Smith’s conviction that a constant and exclusive focus on economic growth is unsustainable and needs reconsideration is certainly worthy of debate. But he’s fused it with a Small Australia mentality and backwards-looking economic vision of the Australia he grew up in, when nearly one in five of the workforce were in manufacturing. And Australia has always been an immigrant society — the world’s most successful one, even though many of us have, for generations, blamed migrants for our woes. That’s the tradition that Smith, sadly, is carrying on.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey