There is growing debate in Australia about population growth and its alleged impacts on the economy and the environment. The Federal government has argued for a population increase to 35 million by 2050 (up from the current level of 21 million). These calls have been backed by various employer organisations as a quick fix to the skills shortage.
Others, such as Federal Labor MP Kelvin Thompson, economics journalist Ross Gittins, and environment groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), have argued that population and migration into the country needs to be cut in order to limit carbon emissions and to reduce demand on resources and services.
Many Australians are suffering the impacts of higher unemployment and cuts to public services. Consequently, to many people, arguments in favour of population and migration control seem to make sense. This is especially the case when no alternative solution is being proposed.
Internationally, the effects of the Global Financial Crisis have been devastating and anti-population theorists are gaining ground. Whether consciously or unconsciously, anti-population advocates serve the purpose of blaming the systemic faults of capitalism on ordinary people. It is an easy and simplistic argument to say that more mouths to feed equals less resources, however the reality is quite different.
Blame the system, not the victims
Recently refugees on their way to Australia have been hounded as “illegals” and “queue jumpers”. What has been implicit in these attacks on refugees is the idea that Australia is an overcrowded land and simply can’t support more people. Anti-refugee hysteria comes hand in hand with the idea that there is only so much to go around.
In reality refugees, like all immigrants, have the ability to develop and strengthen the economy. A study by the Network of Asylum Seeker Agencies (NASA) showed that 70% of asylum seekers have skills that are needed in Australia. Instead of making use of these skills, the Rudd Government is spending $257 million locking people up in the Christmas Island detention centre and funding the imprisonment of refugees in Indonesia.
Refugees are continually used as scapegoats by Labor and Liberal politicians alike. It is much easer for them to blame refugees and migrants for diminishing employment opportunities and cuts to services, rather than acknowledge the shortcomings of the system they administer.
Overpopulation theorists are also guilty of hiding the real cause of environmental destruction. Ross Gittins, economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, said that cutting Australia’s immigration was “one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce the growth in our emissions” because “it’s a safe bet they’d be emitting more in prosperous Australia than they were before.”
Firstly, a climate change policy based on limiting population growth implies that per capita emissions can never be drastically reduced. Even if Australia’s population stayed at its current level for the next 20 years, unless a substantial plan to shift to renewable energy is implemented, carbon emissions would remain at catastrophic levels.
There is a drastic need to reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions. This will not be achieved by simply turning away refugees or reducing immigration.
Any argument to refuse entry to refugees on the basis of environmental sustainability is a clear case of blaming the victims. We should not support a solution to climate change that keeps people of other nations in low emitting poverty so that Australia’s emissions can remain high. At the end of the day climate change is a global issue that will not be resolved by reinforcing national borders.
Secondly, it is not ordinary people who are responsible for Australia’s carbon footprint.
Who produces Australia’s emissions?
While it is often claimed that Australia is the highest polluter per head of population, these “per-capita” scales are not an accurate measurement of an individual’s emissions. They average the damage out over the entire population by simply dividing a country’s total emissions by its total population.
While this may give us a means to compare countries it offers no true measure of the usage of your average individual. Industry is responsible for the majority of environmental destruction, not domestic usage. For example the greenhouse gases caused by the burning of oil flare-offs by big oil companies in Nigeria is greater than that caused by the production of all the electricity used in every household in Britain! The number of migrants will make virtually no impact of the highly polluting energy industry in Australia.
Instead of pointing the finger at migrants, steps need to be taken to make society as a whole more sustainable. These arguments simply deflect the blame away from big business and the governments who pander to them. They are the ones who have locked the world economy into environmentally destructive practices and a reliance on fossil fuels. They are the ones the environment movement needs to focus on.
Can the economy support population growth?
Federal Labor MP Kelvin Thomson has been a vocal supporter of cuts to migration. He wants to see Australia’s total migration intake cut from its current 200,000 a year to 95,000, and the number of skilled migrants from 130,000 to 25,000. He has claimed that resources will have to be “spread more thinly” if the population keeps increasing. He states that there will be “greater competition for our available food, water, petrol and land, pushing up food prices, pushing up the price of housing, pushing up the price of water, pushing up the price of petrol.”
What Thomson ignores is that migrants do not come into this country as empty mouths to feed. In fact higher migration intakes will have a positive impact on the Australian economy. Phil Lewis, professor of economics at the University of Canberra has argued that “migrants actually create jobs, they need houses and the retail sector receives a boom because migrants tend to spend more.” Rather than ‘stealing jobs’, migrants actually create jobs due to increased demand for goods and services.
Even Philip Ruddock, the infamous Immigration Minister in the Howard Government, admitted that every 1,000 new skilled migrants adds up to $50 million in extra federal taxation revenue. In the context of vast government debt created by the stimulus plans, migrants can play a positive role in boosting Australia’s economy.
Skilled migration: In who’s interests?
The Housing Industry Association (HIA) has complained that “The current immigration framework is less than effective in plugging skilled labour shortages in the residential sector [of the construction industry].” HIA’s Chief Economist, Dr Harley Dale, has claimed there was a shortage of labour in ten out of thirteen skilled trades within the housing construction industry at the end of 2009.
Not only do migrants increase demand and therefore create jobs, but they can also combat skilled labour shortages that exist in some industries. To this end many bosses argue for increased migration into Australia. This factor is undoubtedly part of the Rudd Government’s motivation in calling for a substantial population increase.
Calls for increased migration are clearly coming from sections of the ruling class who are set to benefit from a broader pool of labour. Does this mean immigration should be opposed by Australian workers?
Immigration is a class question
Within the union movement, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has been one of the most vocal opponents of skilled migration. Particular focus has been put on the 457 visa scheme for temporary foreign workers.
CFMEU National Secretary John Sutton has claimed the situation for Australian workers is becoming ”perilous”. A survey of 50 companies by KPMG last August found that more than three-quarters would not choose to retrench 457 visa holders instead of Australians. Two-thirds said they were continuing to recruit 457 visa holders while they were reducing staff numbers overall.
Giving insight into employer’s motivations, Sutton identifies the key reason is that ”the minimum salary level in the 457 visa scheme is as low as $45,000 in jobs where a local worker could expect to earn more like $100,000”.
Central to this issue is the constant drive for increased profit margins. Big businesses are in competition with one another for market share and profits. If a business can cut its costs by paying lower wages and giving itself a competitive edge, then it will do just that. This forces competing businesses to follow suit. The result is the driving down of wages for all workers, which is not the fault of immigrant workers but caused by the imperatives of the capitalist system itself.
How should the union movement respond?
Some unions, including the CFMEU, have responded by lobbying government to restrict skilled migration. This approach, aside from being ineffective, ignores the central cause of the problem.
When bosses attack hard won wages and conditions, the response of the labour movement needs to be that of collective action and united struggle. Instead of undermining the right of migrant workers to cross borders in search of work, the motivations of the bosses who want to exploit migrant workers needs to be cut across.
Migrant workers need to be unionised and afforded the same pay and conditions as local workers. This would help stop employers driving down all of our wages and conditions. Therefore, the approach of the unions needs to be that of uniting migrant workers alongside local workers in a collective struggle to maintain and improve upon wages and conditions.
While big business and their representatives in government may argue for increased migration, they are nonetheless prepared to play on the tensions it creates. Social conservatives and the mainstream media constantly push the idea that migrants and refugees are responsible for the mounting economic and social problems suffered by ordinary people.
Many Australians want a government that supports their interests, ensures secure employment and a living wage, provides accessible and substantial welfare for those in need and properly funds public services that provide for all.
Unfortunately, these are not the aims of big business and their political representatives in the main capitalist parties. They are not prepared to sacrifice their profits in order to provide decent lives for ordinary people. Immigration is used by big business and governments as an excuse for underinvestment in vital services, while placing the blame on those most in need.
Both Labor and Liberal, when in power, have sought to break up and privatise public services to keep their big-business friends in profit. Both parties have wilfully cut state expenditure and this has led to the decline of quality, accessible services.
It is this underinvestment and privatisation that needs to be opposed. We need to fight for properly funded, publicly owned and controlled services run in the interests of ordinary people.
When blaming migrants for the inherent problems of capitalism, the mainstream press pushes a racist and xenophobic line to further divide working people. It is only in the interests of employers to sow divisions among the working people of the world.
As long as workers are viewing migrants as the cause of their problems they leave themselves divided and distracted from the real issues they face. Racism is entirely at odds with the objective needs of workers, which is class unity in the face of capitalism.
Is there enough to go around?
Claims that Australia is “full” are simply false. The entire world’s population, organised in family units of four with a quarter-acre block each, would fit into Queensland with room to spare.
Food production and distribution is not governed by how many mouths there are to feed, but rather by market forces. Under capitalism food is often left to rot or dumped in the ocean if it cannot be sold at a profit. If food production and distribution was planned and distributed in the interests of people, rather than profit, Australia could easily sustain a population of many millions more.
Despite the criminal mismanagement of our water resources by governments, private water companies and second-rate farming techniques, Australia still has per capita twice the renewable water than the US.
A rise in migration would have a minimal impact on Australian water reserves. In Victoria alone only 8% of water use is domestic, whereas agriculture is responsible for 66%. While people have been having four minute showers all over the country no serious attempt has been made to hold industry accountable for water wastage.
What is needed to sustain Australia’s water supply is serious investment in new irrigation and farming methods, recycling water were possible, and a shift away from water intensive crops like rice and pasture. For many small farmers these types of changes are simply unaffordable, for giant agribusiness they are simply unprofitable. The mismanagement of Australia’s water has nothing to do with migrants. Key to the water crisis is the lack of will from governments to address big business water wastage.
What’s the solution?
The concern of working people in Australia over the state of wages, unemployment, welfare and public services is totally legitimate. However, placing the blame on migrants does not address the causes of these problems or advance anything to improve the situation. The problem is the capitalist system itself.
The path to beginning to solve these problems is workers’ unity across ethnic, religious and national lines. It is vital that the trade union movement makes the recruitment of migrant labour a top priority. Joint action of Australian-born and immigrant workers, organised in unions and based on collective interests, is the way to stop big business using immigration as an excuse to cut wages and reduce funding for public services.
The economic crisis, climate change and the food crisis are all international, and so too needs to be the fight back. The UN Human Development Report has estimated that “the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food and safe water for all [is less than the combined] wealth of the [worlds] 225 richest people.” What this shows is that there are plenty of resources to go around. The problem is they way they are distributed under capitalism.
There is an urgent need for the labour movement to develop a clear alternative to the backwards ideas of anti-population theorists. Left unchallenged, capitalism will continue to cause poverty and environmental damage. What is needed is a democratically planned economy and an international struggle for socialism that will bring the wealth of the world into the hands of workers.
By dramatically increasing the use of renewable energy, increasing public transport and improving the overall efficiency of production we can move towards a sustainable economy.
A publicly owned and democratically planned economy would create a society based on need, not profit. Taking the major companies out of the hands of their profit-driven owners is the first step towards a society capable of providing for all.