28 June 2010

Migration, population policy and colonial exploitation

Another aspect that is rarely mentioned is the way government policy is undermining primary production – the family farm is just about a museum piece; few younger people are seeing the value in farming as a career so even if we were not busy turning our prime agricultural land into residential areas we still face the problem that our primary industry is in deep, deep trouble.

Yet these intuitive understandings of the problems that Australia faces are not backed up by any thorough going demographic research. In fact there is little systematic research in this area. See Katherine Betts’ excellent paper (Demographic and Social Research on the Population and Environment Nexus in Australia: Explaining the Gap). The reason for this may be found in the fact that Australia’s population growth is largely driven by migration. Therefore to challenge the wisdom of population growth is also to challenge the wisdom of our migration program; migration remains our sacred cow.

What is even more puzzling is that the very people who one would expect to spearhead any campaign on stopping population growth – the environmentalists – are those most likely to favour an increase in Australia’s migration intake. These are the people who are concerned about the impact that population has on habitat, yet at the same time resist the conclusion that we may also need to be prepared to reduce Australia’s population. (Betts’s paper found that 55 per cent of those who are concerned about the environment also favoured an increase in Australia’s migrant intake.)

One of the reasons that people are reluctant to mount an argument against migration is that they may be regarded as racist. It is a risk I am prepared to take. An immediate moratorium on all migration with the exception of our refugee intake and family reunion program is the only way we can ensure that our population stabilises at around 22 million.

The most compelling reason for a moratorium is that we need, as a matter of urgency, to determine how we are going to ensure that we can satisfy the needs of our existing population. There is ample global research that demonstrates if a population exceeds the carrying capacity of its particular habitat then the only way law and order can be maintained is by force. To continue on our present growth trajectory is to open the possibility of a dystopian future – it is a risk that we simply cannot afford to take.

All levels of government need to be engaged in the development of a population strategy that is not based on wishful thinking but one that is focused on developing policies that ensure that we are able to meet the needs of our existing population. All that we can say at this stage that we simply do not know what level of population is sustainable.

For some this argument is sufficient. People routinely engaged in strategic planning understand the need to have accurate data at their finger tips – the aim of all planning is to eliminate as much uncertainty as we can. Our biggest threat remains the climate – we really have no idea what the impact will be on our agriculture.

However, there are those who argue that regardless of uncertainty with respect to our food security it is unjust to call even a temporary halt to migration. Some couch their support in the following terms: “we should not slam the door shut on those people who would like to enjoy the sort of lifestyle that we have.” It is an odd sort of social justice argument for the people that we allow to enter are generally quite well off in their country of origin. If we really wanted to open the door to people who are genuinely unfortunate why not open the doors to the slum dwellers from Cairo, Soweto or Mumbai or indeed from any number of other places? Yet we are recruiting the very people who have the skills and expertise to help their countries escape out of poverty.

The social justice argument in favour of migration actually counts heavily against it. In considering social justice at a global level a number of issues predominate: poverty, over population, environmental degradation, resource management and climate change.

The experience of the developed world suggests that the first two of these can be addressed through education and the building of institutions that guarantee human rights, protect indigenous industries and guarantee equality of opportunity. Yet when one looks at the policies pursued by the developed world we note that in the main these policies are designed to frustrate attempts to implement social justice in the under developed world. One of the factors that limits the capacity of countries in the developing world to lift themselves out of poverty is the flight of their intellectual capital: when countries like Australia have in place policies that encourage the most skilled and capable to seek their fortunes abroad we are in fact reducing their capacity to lift themselves out of poverty. One can readily see that the idea of recruiting skilled labour from the underdeveloped world is little more than another chapter in colonial exploitation.

The central idea behind the neo liberal conception of free trade is that it gives all nations the opportunity to exploit and benefit from whatever unique competitive advantage they have. Thus a nation that excels in producing widgets will focus on the production of widgets. The income and economic growth derived from producing widgets will be used to import those goods and services that it cannot produce competitively. The problem with this notion is that in reality the only competitive advantage that many underdeveloped nations have is cheap labour. This is another way of saying that these developed nations need poverty as a means of maintaining a foothold in the global market.

The way the global free market is structured frustrates the development of a thorough human rights regime and a denial of equal opportunities. The two are closely linked, for in an impoverished society one cannot afford for labour to be organised and secure: better working conditions for the poorest of the poor for one country would lose the only significant competitive advantage it has. Equally one cannot embark on a thorough program of equal opportunity for to do that would imply the provision of universal education; and the better educated the workforce the less likely that workforce is prepared to accept exploitation.

Emigration of skilled labour ensures that the status quo is maintained. As long as those with the skills to improve the nation see that their future lies not locally but in the developed world it follows that there is not that pool of expertise to challenge the status quo. We have lost sight of the fact that protection of domestic industries, universal education and the provision of employment opportunities commensurate with people’s talents were key elements in improving our living standards.

Equally the importation of skilled labour impoverishes the host country. The shortcomings in Australia’s education system are effectively papered over because employers do not need to source their labour locally. It means that the government can avoid the rather messy problem of investing in education. (Health and education are the most expensive of all government activities.) and instead make pious noises about having a skilled migration program.

However, since migration is the main driver of our population growth this brings us back to the original question: how many people can Australia support?

Can we responsibly embark on a migration program without knowing the answer to that question? If we were to restrict our migration intake to refugees and people eligible under the family reunion program we would stabilise our population at current levels. If, in the fullness of time, it can be demonstrated that Australia is able to sustain either a larger or smaller population then appropriate policies would need to be implemented that are consistent with whatever number is demonstrably sustainable.

For those who debunk opposition to population growth as neo malthusian and who argue that Malthus has been proved wrong I urge you to go back and follow the links presented at the beginning of this article. Malthus had not anticipated the impact of the industrial revolution but his main thesis that exponential growth is ultimately unsustainable was correct. Those who favour unlimited population growth are placing their faith in an as yet unrealised technological solution to the problem of natural resource depletion. The prudent course of action is to manage the transition to a post fossil fuel world by developing policies that ensure we are not dependent on imports be it labour or food, to maintain our lifestyle.#

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.
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