Cyprian Fernandes: IMMIGRATION: CLEARER THINKING NEEDED


Bob Carr: prophet or scaremonger?

THE MAN from the Australian Bureau of Statistics was shaking with sheer delight and could not hide his glee when he told Sydney morning radio that Australia’s population had just passed the 24 million mark. The bells were ringing all day as the news of the 24 million was repeated throughout the day. Very few, if any, had anything to say about it. Well, except Bob Carr, the former Foreign Minister and once the most respected and admired Labor Premier of NSW.

Carr has been on the immigration case for a few years now. Not so long ago, he was calling for a complete halt of Iranian economic migrants. On the day, February 16, 2016, Australia learnt of its new population mark, Carr was telling anyone who would care to listen that Australia’s “third world-style” population growth rate had made a strong case for cutting Australia’s immigration intake by at least 50%.

He said that Australia could not continue growing at the current rate.

He said: “Our population is growing too fast.  It’s the result of what I would describe as crude, industrial era, force-fed immigration.”

According to Carr, the country’s population was far greater than “what we need and what we can absorb, environmentally and economically”, he told ABC radio.

He moaned an often repeated mantra of the far right: “the country’s rapid population growth was flooding major cities and putting huge pressure on house prices”.

“People wonder why their youngsters can’t get housing in big cities,” he said.

Australia will admit up to 190,000 people in 2016. He blamed Canberra diplomats for not putting enough thought about the pressures on the property markets in Sydney and Melbourne.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures based on the 2011 census “The largest contributor to Australia's migrant population continues to be people born in the United Kingdom (UK). In the 2011 Census, 1.1 million UK-born migrants lived in Australia - around one in every 20 Australian residents.

“Migrants born in New Zealand were the second largest overseas-born population in Australia, at close to half a million people (483,000 people). This was followed by migrants born in China (319,000 people), India (295,000), Italy (185,000) and Vietnam (185,000). Cumulatively, migrants born in these six countries accounted for about half (49%) of all migrants in Australia in 2011.”

I can’t teach the Honourable Bob Carr to suck eggs but his call for a cut in immigration by up to 50% has left me a little perplexed. For one thing, he will have worried sick any potential migrants of special value to Australia. In the past couple of decades our successive governments have not enjoyed a reputation as a kind, caring and welcoming for people in dire need of a new home. In fact, with the help of a few right wing nuts, I would not be surprised if people look at us with the suspicion that the White Australia policy is alive and well.

Australia needs younger migrants to replace its greying population in more ways than one, especially in meeting the vital skills need, new income tax payers to maintain Treasury’s coffers in the manner they have become accustomed to and continue increasing the domestic consumer market. But what is the right number of migrants, what skill-sets, investment potentials, that will be required to boost Australia’s domestic needs? Carr has been crowing about the Federal Government being slow in reading the danger signals flagged by his figures. Question is why didn’t the former Foreign Minister do something about it when he was in government? Mr Carr is beginning to sound likely scratchy broken record. But no one, it seems, is taking any notice.

There may be some truth, however, in what Carr says. For example, in my own little suburb in Western Sydney, it is like living in the back streets of Mumbai or Colombo. Homes in these suburbs were built with the one-car-family in mind. Today, with subdivision rampant, each home has three or four cars. There is one ugly MaCmansion that regularly has six or seven car every day and three times that at weekends.

We moved to our suburb because of its quiet village atmosphere. Forget. These days finding a parking spot means having to go round and round in circles. The quality of life has been shot to pieces.

I am sure that similar grouses have been made over the years every time there has been a large influx of new migrants. There has been an ongoing debate about the appropriate population numbers fluctuating widely between 20-80 million, the conservatives vouching on the unsustainability of the Australian Ecosystem, fragility of its top soil etc and the bold trumpeting American success due to its large population base.  

I don’t mind the growth as long as someone, like NSW Premier Mike Baird, does something about it. Sydney’s Western Suburbs are bursting at the seams. I mean in suburban streets, a trip by car that took 10 minutes at peak times is now taking 30 minutes or more amid increasing frustration. The roads are clogged and traffic is choking the transport arteries and adding to our concerns over pollution. I know there is quite a lot of land further out west and the western suburbs continue growing at a huge rate but unless something is done to mitigate the infrastructure, health, social and educational needs, something’s got to give.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the NSW Premier Mike Baird used his Australia Day address to warn that Australia was at risk of losing its character to anti-immigration politics.

"I believe strongly we are now at a fork in the road," Mr Baird said in the address at Luna Park. "We are potentially at risk of losing what makes Australia the best place in the world to live because some want to shut our door and avert our eyes.”

What he did not say was how his government was going to provide the required infrastructure and relevant services.

Back to Bob Carr. What he did not provide was the science behind his assumptions. Had this been discussed in the Labor Party?  What do the proper experts (alright not the Canberra bureaucrats) and urban scientists and engineers have to say. It is always very well for Bob Carr to do a sophisticated take on Pauline Hanson, but effects are just as in the negative. He might as well have been loud-hailing for anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, racist protesters who are growing in number.

Surely this subject should have been discussed behind closed doors, fine-tuned and then foisted on the Australian public, preferably with bi-partisan support instead of seemingly awakening the ghost of White Australia past.

If there is a genuine case for cutting immigration, continued restriction on refugees, revamping of the much abused 457 visas and the like, let us discuss it as mature and sincere adults (oxymoron that?) and not sound like an educated moron just cutting his teeth on being a yob. Bob Carr certainly knows better than that.

Or is Bob’s fear that immigration will mean that White Australians will one day be in the minority?

In an effort to provide balance to the above, I emailed Bob Carr with a series of questions and I got this reply from him: Cyprian, It’s the numbers. I have made it clear when it’s come up.” 

With that he referred me to ‘A Current Affair’ where he told Tracey Grimshaw that Australia today was a different country from early post war years when Australia needed large number of migrants for motor, steel, mining and other large scale industries. “We are still stuck in mass immigration and the Government has been slow to catch up. I want a much gentle pace.”

He said he would like to go back to the 1990s level but he is proud of the fact 28% of the Australian population was born overseas.

He said: “It is the numbers, and if a slogan was required it would be: It’s the numbers stupid. I want a generous immigration program but not the hugely ambitious, force fed (one) by the Liberals we have at the moment.”

I would like to think past history is witness to immigration being positive for economic growth. The large number of immigrant success stories in the highest strata of business is proof of this. Immigrants begin in small business and relatively quickly move into big business. I know of at least one instance where immigration has actually saved a decaying suburb: Harris Park in Sydney’s West. Until relatively large numbers of Indians moved in a breathed new life into the suburb it looked as it was on its last legs. Today it is one of the busiest curry strips anywhere. Indians flock all over Sydney to taste “a little bit of home” every night of the week. It does tend look a little like an Indian ghetto, after all it is “Little Punjab” in the West and growing by the minute.

As I said Bob Carr has been pouting off on “boat people” and immigration in general for many years now. There may be something in what he says but pursuing it further, in the first instance, would require a balance of rational rather than emotive politicking. There is plenty of science to clear the air of supposition, ignorance, cheap headlines, and exploitation of a group of humans whose misery is unending.  Immigrants will continue to be kicked around like a football until government steps in.

And there is prejudice about refugees and asylum seekers. I get the impression that fly-in refugees and asylum seekers have it lot easier than the boat variety. Even the over-stayers have a much easier chance of being allowed to stay

The dangerous thing about it is that loose talk on immigration feeds the rhetoric of the far right groups and young Australians are now mouthing the vitriol of White Australians of the past. This new cauldron of hate is bubbling away at speed and the danger is that Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Middle Eastern people and others will wear the brunt of it. Without being too alarmist, it would not be stretching the imagination to think that the sins of Britain’s National Front will surface in Australia.

On the one hand it is hate mail on the internet, talk back radio and where more than two like-minded people meet. On the other hand, they point to the fact that many suburbs are losing their multiracial identities with one particular immigrant group dominating a particular suburb.  In Sydney’s West, suburbs like Westmead, Wentworthville, Pendle Hill, Girraween, Toongabbie and others have large concentrations of either Indians, Sri Lankans, Sudanese, Pakistanis and other minority groups. The whites are moving out in large numbers.

More recently, India’s Hindu and Muslim Punjabis are most visible in Westmead and Wentworthville while Lankans, Tamils dominate in Pendle Hill, Toongabbie and Girraween. The once quite village of Pendle Hill has been overrun by Sri Lankans. They have taken over the whole of the tiny shopping centre with more Sri Lankan/Indian takeaway food shops than any other suburbs. The Sudanese are more visible in Blacktown. The cultural mix of these suburbs has changed forever as it did in the UK with the arrival of the Asian migrants from East Africa. Today, many of the UK’s districts, provincial centres and the suburbs of London are dominated by immigrants from country or another, especially South Hall which is now Britain’s version of “Little Punjab” with a profusion of Sikhs. Seems like it didn’t do them any harm.  Immigrant communities from the past 60 years from many parts of the world have found a permanent niche in a comparatively small (in terms of area) country like the UK. The children of Asian immigrants understood what it is to be British and have grabbed the opportunity as naturally as they are Born British. Yet, many still nurse (however slightly) the scars of “Paki bashing” by White supremacist thugs.  The UK’s more recent immigration concerns have been the free-for-all migration from Europe, the price of being part of the European Union. It has become so chronic that the UK has had to negotiate a new deal which will be put to a referendum soon.

If Bob Carr is right, why has there not been thunderous support from any side of politics.