Scott Morrison economy speech liberal party
(Image: AAP/Darren England)

The charge that the Morrison government is playing up immigration reform to tap into xenophobia — plainly a far more toxic allegation now than it was before last Friday — is false. The collision of population, infrastructure, economic and property development policy that has caused such a mess in Sydney and Melbourne is real enough, whether the roads are full of “Asians with PhDs” as NSW Labor’s Michael Daley claimed, or seventh-generation Australians. But there’s a link between the issues that runs deeper.

As that raging leftie Judith Sloan pointed out today — neatly shredding the glowing coverage elsewhere in The Australian — the government’s fiddling at the margins of permanent migration numbers will do virtually nothing to affect the net overall level of immigration, especially when it has created entirely new classes of visas to allow more workers to come in. “The Coalition government is completely captured by the big Australian lobbyists (think big business, industry associations, universities and some community groups),” Sloan warned, “and won’t do a thing to reduce population growth.”

It’s not quite as blunt as Sloan — a born-again enemy of Big Australia — portrays. But as with its decades-old exploitation of racism and Islamophobia, and as with its enthusiastic support of large corporations, the Coalition has now discovered that a core part of its long-term agenda has turned politically toxic.

The Coalition has long implemented the demands of business to expand the immigration of workers, in order to keep downward pressure on wages and boost demand. The Howard government nearly doubled Australia’s permanent migration intake, particularly via the skilled migration visa intake (which not merely undercut wages, but reduced the need for Australian companies to invest in training), and more than doubled entrants under the 457 visa class, while selling itself as the party of border control.

And as part of its agenda to commercialise and defund a higher education already battered by the Hawke-Keating governments, the Howard government encouraged universities to rely ever more heavily on foreign students, who more than doubled in number over the life of that government. As a result, according to ABS data, in the four years to 2007, the net number of temporary visa holders entering NSW and Victoria almost doubled to over 100,000. Since then, both Labor and the Coalition have been happy to underfund higher education while universities trashed their academic rigour to attract and retain lucrative foreign students. From a negligible $2.5 billion at the turn of the century, higher education exports surged to more than $22 billion in 2017.

As with its support for deregulation and cutting taxes for corporations, the Coalition’s support for a virtual open border for workers and students was exemplary neoliberalism, which views borders as irrational obstacles to the free movement of business inputs and the free operation of markets (or, for corporations lucky enough to be able to do so, regulatory structures to be gamed to minimise costs and maximise profits). And when the Gillard government first broke with the open-door orthodoxy in 2013, Gillard was accused by Tony Abbott — of all people! — of demonising foreigners and dog-whistling (presumably Tony Abbott will now accuse Scott Morrison of the same? No?) 

But this disdain for borders, a key marker of national identity, in favour of acknowledging only people’s economic identity (you have no value as a person, or an Australian, only as a worker) ended up backfiring on the neoliberal project (cf. Trump, Brexit) and feeding tribalism and ethnicity-based victimhood, contributing to the current surge in white supremacism and fascism. But the policy consequences were also damaging.

In Australia, the federal government left dealing with the consequences of its open-door policy to state and local governments: they were the ones that had to fund the extra housing, infrastructure and services needed by hundreds of thousands of extra workers and students; they were the ones that had to endure voter anger over congested roads and hospital waiting lists and crowded schools. And when those political structures proved not up to the challenge — NSW Labor and local councils in that state proved hopelessly corrupt — federal leaders did nothing to help clean up a mess of their own making. Some, like Tony Abbott, actively cheered on the growing unaffordability of housing in Sydney that had resulted from the Coalition’s open-door policies.

Now, belatedly, the party that massively increased migration and accused Julia Gillard of racism for restricting 457 visas wants to claim it has got the message. But Sloan is quite correct: as with its attempt to claim it is a government of moderation and love, rather than of race-baiting and Islamophobia, open borders for workers and students are such a core part of the Coalition’s political thinking it can’t see the world any other way.