Scott Morrison Minerals Council
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

The same policy breakdown that has occurred in other areas of neoliberal policymaking is now occurring on immigration. It’s generating the same response as in other areas. And it has the same causes. Rinse, repeat.

Scott Morrison, who only a matter of months ago was an ardent defender of high immigration, now wants to cut it. The PM says he has heard the complaints of residents of Sydney and Melbourne about congestion and access to services and housing. 

Ironically, 38% of people in Sydney and 35% of people in Melbourne were born overseas, so more than a third of this alleged problem are drawbridge migrants whingeing about people who arrived after them.

As people with expertise in immigration, like former senior public servant Abul Rizvi point out, cutting permanent migration by 30,000, as Morrison proposes, isn’t going to do jack when every year we have hundreds of thousands of foreign students crowding into our cities, pushing up demand for housing and using infrastructure and services.

Not that the government would touch the sacred cow of education exports. We’ve traded away a major chunk of the academic quality and intellectual rigour of our higher education system because we prefer to dumb it down to attract foreign students rather than adequately fund it from taxpayer resources (foreign students also make a great resource for exploitation by unscrupulous employers, as we’ve seen time and again).

Business is appalled at the government’s turn against immigration too. After all, immigration increases demand and the supply of labour, enabling business to maintain wage stagnation and undermine unions. But it was appalled about the royal commission, and the bank tax, and the government’s gas policy, and its energy regulation, and every other shift by the government to acknowledge the deep electoral discontent about an economic system that works great for corporations, but poorly for workers. For once, however, the blame rests only partly with business itself. It was business that created the backlash against banks and power companies with its own behaviour — but most of the fault lies with governments, and well beyond decisions made in the immigration and education portfolios.

It was state and local governments that for so long stymied property development in Sydney and Melbourne, preferring to give in to NIMBYism than to display some foresight in permitting higher density housing around established infrastructure and economic opportunities.

It is the Commonwealth which fuels property investment and speculation with the taxpayer-funded “excesses” — Scott Morrison’s own word — of negative gearing, something Joe Hockey urged Parliament to fix when he left it. It is state governments that have failed to properly manage transport infrastructure until recently, but they still refuse to countenance congestion pricing. It was this government that promised a serious study of congestion pricing before abandoning it in fear of what voters might think. It is state governments and territory governments (apart from the ACT) that have resisted a shift from stamp duty to land taxes. It is the Commonwealth that dumped Joe Hockey’s successful asset recycling program that encouraged infrastructure investment by states.

Business, too, is complicit — the community will inevitably find more congestion, higher housing prices and poorer access to services more difficult to stomach if they are receiving none of the benefits of the economic growth that immigration is supposed to provide — like higher real wages. But government is the main culprit.

None of these issues are easy. Immigration isn’t merely about turning a tap of people on and off — it’s an intersection of infrastructure, taxation, development, education, health and public spending policies across all three levels of government, and all three levels have failed in Sydney and Melbourne, to varying degrees, over the last decade.

Instead of trying to fix the failures, and encourage what has worked, Scott Morrison has taken the easy option. Like Commonwealth, state and local politicians of all stripes have taken the easy option before him. We’ve been governed by people who have failed at the challenge of solving difficult but manageable problems, and we still are.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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