Stopping the boats, but not the migrants

Although John Howard strode off the Australian political stage in November 2007, we are still reaping the benefits of his legacy today.  Thanks to John Howard, Peter Costello will never be Prime Minister. Thanks to John Howard, One Nation was destroyed as a political force, because the Coalition assimilated its major policies. And thanks to John Howard, I still can’t look at a Wallabies tracksuit without sniggering.

But perhaps John Howard’s greatest legacy is the Labor Party’s terror of the political wedge, which they fear more than Tony Abbott fears getting trapped in a lift with George Michael. Now, by ‘wedge’, I’m not referring to pulling someone’s underpants up sharply, a disciplinary measure popular amongst Kevin Rudd’s twentysomething staff, but the technique of using a specific issue to divide a party from its traditional base.

The most famous wedge was the Tampa, of course. Kim Beazley was damned if he didn’t support the Government, because the public were willing to vote to keep the asylum-seekers out, and damned if he did, because not only did he disgust the rest of his left-wing base, but he seemed like an insipid mimic of John Howard. While Beazley had a particular talent for insipidness in any event, the wedge destroyed him in 2001.

And where are we, nine years later? Neither side of politics is willing to state the obvious about boat people: it’s just not that big a deal. 5000 arrivals a year is a drop in the Pacific Ocean of a migration programme of hundreds of thousands. There’s never been any credible evidence of a particular threat to national security. And really, if the biggest problem facing Australia is that some people will do anything to come and live here, then we shouldn’t feel concerned, we should feel flattered.

But Julia Gillard won’t give this issue the short shrift it deserves, because she fears losing an election over the dastardly boat people. And while it’s extraordinary that one of Tony Abbott’s four major campaign priorities is to stop the boats, he wouldn’t be repeating the promise every five seconds if it wasn’t effective.

So, why all this fuss over 5000 measly arrivals a year, when visa overstaying by a far greater immigration problem? Because it’s socially permissible to object to queue-jumpers, but not to migrants. And not wanting boat people here is a proxy for not wanting migrants.

That said, some people, Dick Smith among them, are starting to argue that Australia can’t sustain high levels of immigration, and the argument sounds reasonable, except of course when Mark Latham makes it. Broadly, it seems that regional areas desperately need them, while our outer suburbs simply don’t have the infrastructure. It does seem reasonable to say that we need to either invest properly in public transport and sustainable development or stop funnelling in the new arrivals – although I’d rather we did the former than reduce multiculturalism, which is one of the best things about this country.

But boat people haven’t been demonized for the past decade because they threaten our environmental sustainability. It’s because of the rapid expansion of multiculturalism in our suburbs, which makes some people feel uneasy. And so, both parties pay lip service to Fortress Australia, and command our heroic navy to “put evil people-smugglers out of business” while neither is seriously committed to halting our rapid ethnic diversification. Over the years of the Howard Government, more than a million people migrated here, swelling the outer suburbs of our major cities, right where the boat people politicking is most effective.

And while I’m disgusted by the lack of compassion we show towards desperate people escaping vile regimes – and it’s not mentioned enough that refugees only get asylum when they’re in physical danger if they return home – perhaps the boat people politicking gives us a useful pressure valve? Maybe it’s best to distract the rednecks by giving them a soft target to focus on while we continue to shovel large quantities of migrants – including, of course, most of the boat people when they’re found to be legitimate refugees – into the ‘burbs.

Sure, the resentment bubbles away, occasionally flaring up when someone like Pauline Hanson stirs the pot, but it never entirely bubbles over. – and in the meantime, we get the massive economic and social benefits of an aggressive migration programme. It’s like a pantomime game you play with children. Look, over there, see the scary boats! And while they’re looking, we quietly let in a massive number of new arrivals.

Tony Abbott’s promise to cut down immigration was a similar trick – his target was merely what was projected to happen anyway. Furthermore, business lobbyists immediately objected, since immigration fuels growth and fills job vacancies, which is why he won’t actually do anything about it. So, the posture let him look tough without really doing anything nasty, and while it’s ugly politics, I’d rather he put on a show to placate the rednecks than actually addressed their concerns.

We can be certain that even if Tony Abbott’s elected, people will continue to be desperate to migrate here, and we’ll continue allowing hundreds of thousands to do so every year. The only real price, it seems, is enduring this unpleasant farce every election. Let’s just hope the anti-immigration mob don’t catch on, and demand that their political representatives actually do something about it.

The resulting problem, of course, is how to plan sensibly for the infrastructure needs of a swelling population – and the failure by successive governments to address this was emphasised yesterday, when most people heading to Rooty Hill for the town hall meeting ran late. But solving these long-term planning challenges is far more difficult than beating your chest about people-smuggling, and that’s why politicians settle for the latter at election time.

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