With all the subtlety of a bull shopping for new dinner plates, Fraser Anning has put immigration and population growth back on the front pages. In fact, for an issue that we are constantly told we can’t talk about, it’s striking how many column inches and airtime is taken up with talking about who and how many are allowed to live in Australia.
Rather than dive into how appropriate it is to refer to a “final solution” with regards to immigration, we should consider the underlying factors that allow such comments to be spoken in our public discourse.
Below the rhetoric sit two fears – that rural and regional areas lose out to our cities, and that the population of cities like Sydney are growing at an unsustainable rate, that they are full to bursting and that our communities are can’t keep up. Because 80 per cent of Australia’s migrants move to either Sydney or Melbourne, these issues become conflated with each other, and immigration gets the blame.
Both of these fears are misguided. Immigration is good for Australia and stopping immigration won’t stop the growth of our cities. Finally, without immigration, our ageing population will impact on our ongoing prosperity.
However, the worst thing that policymakers can do is dismiss these fears. They provide fertile ground for lazy, racially charged solutions and are widely and deeply felt. Indeed, research undertaken by the Committee for Sydney and Ipsos shows that there is near universal community concern about a high cost of living, housing affordability and congestion.
When people express their concerns about these issues, immigration isn’t the problem. But some public commentators have successfully sold the idea that migrants are to blame. To address this, we should kick off a more useful conversation about how we manage and plan for the growth of our cities, and how this growth can benefit the regions around these cities.
The committee’s annual benchmarking survey demonstrates that Sydney is one of the most liveable cities in the world (something confirmed this week by The Economist). In large part, this appeal comes from our openness, tolerance and diversity – as well as recognition that immigration has enhanced our city. Turning our back on this important aspect of our city will lessen the quality of our lives, damage our international reputation and hurt us economically.
Between 2000 and 2006, NSW’s share of Australia’s total overseas migration fell by more than 10 per cent, which coincided with the state having the worst performing economy in the country. The impact of turning off the taps would arguably be worse today as Sydney’s boom industries in the tech sector, advanced manufacturing and professional services are highly reliant on accessing global talent.
Sydney and Melbourne need greater investment to keep up with growth. Federal plans to move recent migrants to regional areas make sense in areas of skills shortages, but not where jobs are already scarce.
The Greater Sydney Commission’s plan for a Metropolis of Three Cities sets out a plan that we should deliver. Along with matching plans for infrastructure and transport, this is a strategy that will ensure we’re keeping pace with growth.
We should also aim to grow existing regional cities in NSW, such as Gosford, Newcastle and Wollongong and link them together with faster rail links to Sydney. This could both relieve some pressure on Sydney while boosting regional economies.
But we should also have a discussion about funding. A large part of the funding of cities is placed on state government, who have to pay for the infrastructure supporting growth but have no controls over that growth. That’s why it’s reasonable to ask both the federal government to invest more in cities, while also expanding the options for local government to raise funds to deliver local infrastructure.
Our challenge now is to ensure that we remain a city for all in a period of great change. This won’t be through running our finger down a list arbitrarily deciding who’s allowed to become an Australian, it will come through proper discussion about managing the side-effects of growth and ensuring we continue to be a welcoming, open and diverse society.