Like a form of cosmic background radiation to our public life, there’s one issue that is always lurking in contemporary political debates: the seeming inability of governments to get things done. Building a national broadband network. Addressing the disadvantage of Indigenous Australians. Delivering effective climate action. Providing sufficient housing supply. Protecting major river systems. Tasks that have proved beyond governments despite, often, huge amounts of money being thrown at the task.

This is the product of decades of neoliberal policy in action, aimed at curbing the role of government. Much of this has been delivered by taking away the tools of governments to accomplish things. We can’t build an NBN, for example, because we privatised the government business we traditionally used to roll out telecommunications infrastructure, and, worse, privatised it as a vertically integrated anti-competitive monster. So to build an NBN we had to build a new government business to do it from the ground up. Or we’ve allowed powerful interests to dictate policy, as in climate policy (well, we don’t have a climate policy currently) or the Murray-Darling.

Now the failures of governments are being used to justify cutting immigration. We haven’t planned and built enough infrastructure, so we need to cut immigration. We haven’t provided enough housing, so we need to cut immigration. Workers can’t get wage rises any more, so we need to cut immigration.

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Tony Abbott promised at the start of the year to make cutting immigration his priority for destabilising Malcolm Turnbull throughout the year. He copped a bollocking from ministers like Scott Morrison, Mathias Cormann (one of Australia’s best examples of the benefits of migration — certainly a better one than Tony Abbott) and even Peter Dutton. But since then, the idea has gained traction and credibility. The Australian has jumped on the bandwagon, with former editor Chris Mitchell and the normally neoliberal Judith Sloan calling for cuts to immigration. Usual anti-immigration suspects Dick Smith and Bob Carr (“Malthus of Maroubra” as Christian Kerr memorably christened him) have emerged again. Last night 4 Corners, which only last year was giving a platform to doomsayers to claim the property market was about to crash, offered its take on why we’ve struggled to cope with high immigration.

Amidst it all, the best contribution to the debate was from the Grattan Institute in its recent report on housing affordability, which it found to have been adversely affected by a number of factors, including high immigration coupled with poor state and local government planning:

“Reducing immigration would reduce demand, but it would also reduce economic growth per existing resident. First-best policy is probably to continue with Australia’s demand-driven, relatively high-skill migration, and to increase supply of housing accordingly. But Australia is currently in a world of third-best policy: rapid migration, and restricted supply of housing… If states are not going to improve supply… then the Commonwealth should consider reducing migration as the lesser evil.”

That is, reducing immigration isn’t actually fixing the problem, which is governments that have proven ineffective at meeting community needs. And how long would any “pause” in immigration have to last? Until governments rediscovered competence in infrastructure planning, development regulation and land supply? If they haven’t discovered such skills under the political pressure of rapidly growing populations, why will they suddenly emerge with the pressure off?

It’s a far cry from 1950, when 150,000 people came to an Australia when our population was one-third of its current size, while we built the Snowy Mountains Scheme. And that was when we were undergoing a baby boom. Those babies are now entering retirement at a rate that is going to place serious stresses on the workforce in decades to come. Who’s providing the health and care services they need? The dialogue goes something like this:

“Sorry, but we’ve halted all health professional immigration until local councils and state governments get their infrastructure and housing act together.”

“But we live in a regional town and can’t get any nurses to come and work here, we badly need foreign medical professionals.”

“Bad luck, you’ll have to wear the consequences of people in cities with ‘Fuck Off We’re Full’ bumper stickers.”

Or… governments could re-learn how to provide the most basic services for communities.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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