We Need a Population Policy Debate

Tuned into the boat-people debate this week? If yes, you’ll know that the stress and disagreement that has long characterized the debate about migration is over. We all agree now that it’s the people-smugglers we love to hate. People smugglers, the PM said, are “the absolute scum of the earth.”

Australians disagree about migration. We always have. Since the 1960s, opinion polls have shown those with more education support higher levels of migration than those with a trade qualification or high-school degree. A 2003 a national survey by the ANU found 41 per cent of university graduates thought immigration should be increased. Only 17 per cent of those with a trade qualifications or a high-school education agreed.

Only a few years ago, such disagreements were significant enough to swing an election. The Howard government leveraged them as part of the culture wars. The left aided such divisive efforts by implying that migration skeptics were not just wrong, but morally suspect.

The truth is that Australians have real disagreements not just about boat people, but our entire approach to population, including policies on fertility and migration. While there will always be a portion of Hanson sympathizers among migration skeptics, most are not racist and react angrily at suggestions they are.

I migrated to Australia twenty years ago. I was born in the States, where my great-grandparents migrated from Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms. I feel compassion for those who give up their language, culture and families to leave their homes to seek a safer and better life in Australia. I know how hard new migrants work, how much contribute to their new homeland, and how fiercely loyal they can be to the country that grants them refuge and the chance to give their kids a better life.

But I’ve also done enough traveling to know that we are on a good wicket in the west, including here in Australia. You don’t have to be too flash at math to know that if too many come to this country too quickly, the quality of life for those already here could be put at risk.

It’s a dilemma, and one that joining forces to snipe about those nasty people-smugglers will do nothing to resolve. Should we want to calm the waters around this issue-really calm the waters-we need to stop pretending the handful of boats that arrive each year are the problem, and stopping people smugglers the solution.

Instead, we need to give the public greater opportunity to contribute in a calm and reasoned way to shaping our national outlook on fertility and migration.

It may be the lack of a legitimate opportunity to contribute to population policy that sees the electorate over-react each time an un-seaworthy boat reaches our shores. Despite history showing that at least 90 per cent of those on board are likely to be legitimate refugees, the boats remind us of how unsettled we feel about all aspects of population policy. Because the boats get the get the attention of the media and the politicians, they provide the chance – through talkback and the letters pages – to express concern about the whole issue.

The Federal Government has not inquired into population policy since the start of the 1990s. It’s high time this changed.

We need to put the real issues on the table and to debate them, fair and square.

Publication history

We Need a Population Policy Debate  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)