Quite a few people on the ‘progressive left’ have a cosmopolitan outlook and are supportive of universal human rights. This often leads to something approaching an ‘open borders’ position when it comes to encouragement of immigration. In parallel, many on the left also reject analyses of ‘overpopulation’ and instead sheet home all our environmental and other ills to overconsumption and inequality. It is my contention that those on the left who advocate this dual position have got it wrong.
The left’s failure to get it right on population and immigration has created a political vacuum that hard right parties such as One Nation in Australia (or UKIP in Great Britain) are more than happy to fill with an alternative ‘nativist’ narrative.
Exhibit One in this leftist habit of thought: recently in the Saturday Paper Guy Rundle — who is one of Australia’s most impressive public intellectuals on the left — wrote an interesting piece (paywall) on the failure of planning in Australia’s cities. And in that piece he made the following assertion:
We have decided, as a nation, to become a substantially larger one. That means much bigger cities.
Rundle correctly recognized the importance of immigration in what he termed the “relentless” growth of Australia’s population:
For nearly 70 years, with only minor variations, immigration policy has been predicated on the idea of growing the national population with arrivals who, through higher birth rates, will further increase it. The 1996 election was the only one at which this might have come under question, with the wins of John Howard and Pauline Hanson. But Hanson never had the will or skill to make a challenge on immigration policy, and Howard displaced conservative anxieties onto boat-borne arrivals, thus decisively committing the nation to a high-immigration track.
But what was concerning was Rundle’s presumptuous assertion that ‘we have decided’ anything about population — when in fact the question of Australia’s population size is probably one of the things least ‘decided’ by any form of democratic deliberation in this country. In a discursive move which ought to be familiar to those on the left, population growth has been ‘naturalized’ as an inevitable process which is beyond human control. Debate about population size and growth is effectively locked down by a tri-partisan agreement between Coalition, Labor and the Greens — which simply prevents it coming onto the policy agenda, despite a brief moment back in 2010 when Rudd’s ‘Big Australia’ comment lead to a flurry of policy debate, before it was all shut down again.
Rundle’s presumptuous comment prompted me to submit a letter to the Saturday Paper which was published on 1 October 2016:
Population growth not a given
Guy Rundle is partly right in his diagnosis of the appalling planning regimes in our major cities, and their capture by developer and party-political interests (“Urban stall”, September 24-30). But why does Rundle not consider the possibility that our population growth could be slowed or stabilised? Instead, he asserts that, “We have decided, as a nation, to become a substantially larger one.” How does this square with consistent opinion polling that shows a majority of Australians think we don’t need more people, with about 65 per cent believing our population should be no more than 30 million? A majority also thinks our record-high immigration levels are indeed too high. Rather than take “expansive” population growth as a given, perhaps Rundle could ask why the will of the people is so doggedly ignored? As the Productivity Commission notes, our immigration policy is our default population policy. Rundle’s vision of a big Australia accommodated within Melbourne II and Sydney II, built within existing city footprints, is pie in the sky. Be assured that if the population keeps growing, then our urban fringe areas will continue to sprawl, trashing biodiversity, habitat and scarce arable land.
Just this weekend (12 November 2016) Rundle has another piece in the Saturday Paper, this time trying to make sense (if that is possible) of the Trump victory. Rundle’s conclusion is most pertinent:
… progressives [must] abandon their demand that every social class accept their specific values as the revealed truth. Any new progressive coalition will have to recognise the need for strict controls on immigration flow numbers, and the notion of a bordered society; that many people are alienated, not excited, by a globalised, radically open world, and are “parochial” in the best sense of that word; that trying to manage behaviour and speech through state enforcement has a totalitarian dimension to it; and that whatever changes society goes through, progressives will never have sufficient numerical dominance to take power and create the society they want, without class allies. (emphasis added)
I do not want to read too much into this, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope that Rundle recognizes that the left needs to look with fresh eyes at questions of population and immigration?