The master’s apprentice

The editorial in the Herald hit the nail on the head this morning. Julia Gillard’s population comments are purely symbolic.

She advocates a ‘sustainable population’ but won’t say what she means by that, and in any case has ruled out both avenues by which population growth might be curbed (except for boosting the death rate). Measures to reduce the birth rate would, as she herself observed, involve an unacceptable intrusion on free choice; in any case, as an explicit policy it would be in jarring contradiction with the conventional wisdom that we need more babies to mitigate the ‘aging population problem’. Nor does she intend to cut immigration quotas. As Peter Hartcher put it:

So this is not a policy, and it’s not even a debate about possible policy. It’s just a placebo, a sugar pill for the electorate to suck during an election campaign, to keep it happy and quiet. When the placebo dissolves, nothing is solved.

The relevant metaphor is just the sugar-pill part — I don’t quite know why he keeps stressing the placebo aspect. Setting that side, the point is that the PM’s language is all about making people who feel threatened about population growth feel that she’s on their side.

So, what do they feel threatened about? Overcrowding of the suburbs — manifested in rising rents, a higher ratio of transient residents, and traffic congestion — is one aspect. Walid Ali’s comment on the unloved Q&A that it’s not so much a population problem as an infrastructure problem, was mostly on the mark. But this problem, most seriously manifested in Western Sydney, is due to profound problems of vertical fiscal imbalance and state government paralysis. These are not Federal responsibilities as the best of times, and given the prevailing mindset that fiscal austerity is in order, the Federal Government cannot make any credible promises at all in relation to improving infrastructure.

But while it’s true that the anxieties could be largely eliminated by improvements in infrastructure, that isn’t necessarily how the problem is felt. The thing is, it just happens that the increase in population is due mostly to the influx of foreigners. There is a certain logic in attributing the congestion to the most recent arrivals. So of course the population issue is really an immigration issue after all. Gillard and her advisors understand that perfectly. So let’s do what neither the Herald editorialist nor Hartcher were prepared to do. Let’s call it what is: dog-whistle politics. Gillard has learnt the master’s lessons well — just as Tony Abbott has, although Abbott has even fewer scruples about putting them into practice — it was he, after all, who first experienced the population eiphany. Ben Eltham reached the same conclusion about Gillard’s comments on the related topic of asylum-seekers:

There has been much debate about whether Gillard’s repeated statements of understanding for those with “concerns about unauthorised arrivals” amounts to “dog whistling”. I’m not sure why. Gillard’s statements are a textbook example. They reveal a deep vein of political opportunism in our new Prime Minister that augurs poorly for the moral standing of her administration.

All this increases one’s respect for Kevin Rudd just a little. His outburst about not moving the government to the right on refugee policy — during his Black Knight press conference on the night of his overthrow — seemed bizarre at the time, but in hindsight it all seems to fit together. The Machiavellians in the Party had been urging a shift in rhetoric to appease voters in marginal seats who are receptive to Abbott’s covert anti-immigration signals, and Rudd had been resisting. It’s now clear that was part of the reason they decided to dump him.

To avoid misunderstanding, I note that the broader anxiety about immigration is not necessarily racism, although the particular hostility to boat people probably is. If new arrivals are making your life harder, you’re more likely to discover other things about them that annoy you. But I don’t think that ethnic differences are inherently the issue: if the bulk of new arrivals were Icelandic the incumbent inhabitants would begin to discover a raft of irritating habits and incompatible values in the typical Icelander.

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Wazza
Wazza
11 years ago

Better infrastructure certainly would help deal with population growth, and would probably allow Australia to accommodate more people.

Migrants and their employers clearly get a significant windfall from migration. How much of this windfall trickles down to the ordinary taxpayers who have to pay for the new infrastructure and share the existing infrastructure and publicly owned resources?

Skuter
Skuter
11 years ago

Hi James,

Another good post from you.

This is the money quote:

But this problem, most seriously manifested in Western Sydney, is due to profound problems of vertical fiscal imbalance and state government paralysis. These are not Federal responsibilities as the best of times, and given the prevailing mindset that fiscal austerity is in order, the Federal Government cannot make any credible promises at all in relation to improving infrastructure.

Thus, it is not ‘what government does’ per se but ‘how governments work’ and what should they be responsible for, that are key issues here. We either need to examine constitutional reform – either giving the feds more responsibility for spending or state governments more control over revenue. Personally, I favour the latter, but am open to debate.

As for state government paralysis, I don’t know what to do about that, except to say – time for a change???

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

Bloody Icelanders.

conrad
conrad
11 years ago

“The thing is, it just happens that the increase in population is due mostly to the influx of foreigners.”

Perhaps Western Sydney is different, but population increase at present isn’t mostly due to immigration — it’s the biggest factor, but not much bigger than natural increase, see e.g., here. I guess this means there is still a lot of natural increase going on as people live longer and the birth rate creeps higher up to replacement levels.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Indeed, Nicholas. A little known fact that won’t surprise you is that David Stratton originates from Iceland (his real name is Davíð Srtódttsson), as does the Dawkins family (originally Dochunsson).

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

Bloody Icelanders. .

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

The second full stop in my last comment was necessary to avoid moderation for repetition – but I didn’t really mean it. I was being censored – my right to repeat myself was being violated.

Violated!

Dallas Beaufort
Dallas Beaufort
11 years ago

Green Labor’s state manufactured new squeeze toy, NEO-NIMBY’S a popular public service time wasting essential item employed in their arsenal of costly unproductive glad bag of small squibs.

James
James
11 years ago

Skuter: +1. Perhaps we could have a people’s chamber on restructuring the constitution?

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
11 years ago

On the serious side, I have a few things to offer on this topic.

1) All politicians dog-whistle a great deal of the time, in the sense that they tailor their message to their audience.
2) I first became aware of the term ‘dog-whistling’ when Noel Pearson attacked the Liberals (really John Howard’s) campaign slogan “For all of us” as “racist scum”. He was making the point that a fairly nasty and racist undertone was instrumental in a party’s slogan. In some ways I don’t really blame Howard for that. The issue of special race-based help is a legitimate one for those who feel they get a worse deal to feel bad about. Howard was marketing to that, and doing so sincerely. His lack of generosity to aborigines knew few bounds – wasn’t even preapared to apologise to them for nicking their kids. But I don’t really think he demonised aborigines.
3) He really did demonise refugees. He turned their arrival into a moral panic (he was the only Cabinet Minister, and perhaps the only senior politician in teh country at the time to object to Malcolm Fraser’s fine leadership on boat people from the late ’70s on. He told us that the refugees had chucked their kids into the water for a photo op. He can be held in contempt for all those things and for any dog-whistling that went along with it – although ‘We decide who comes here’ isn’t really dog whistling, it’s just, quite straightforwardly playing the statesman to the moral panic he helped set off.
4) I think there’s a lot of difference between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ dog whistling which I tried to express in this comment on another post.

I recently attended a talk by Petro Georgiou at Cranlana in which he attacked the current Government and Opposition for their pusillanimity on asylum seekers. Fair enough too. Especially for one who has put his own self-interest at risk for his principles.

But I kept thinking that the kind of equivalence between the parties that was being proposed was ill judged, and indeed self-serving. As contemptible as it is, the ALP is doing what it’s doing in an essentially defensive posture. It was Petro’s leader, John Howard who seized the issue to win an election on, and then continued to try to use it for his own divisive ends. I think the ALP has the electoral position to do what Malcolm Fraser did and lead the community on this, but it hasn’t done it – on this, or on global warming.

But we know what motivates it and it’s not any great comfort for the agenda. They’re doing it because the Libs spend all their time trying to outflank them on the xenophobic vote (something that Malcolm Turnbull did as well!).

Not good. Not good at all.

I don’t have any problem with Julia Gillard saying she understands people’s anxieties and doesn’t think they should be called racist for it. Firstly it’s a defensive posture. You can call it defensive dog-whistling if you like. But we all know why this is happening. Because John Howard poisoned our country on the subject after a generation of bipartisan humanitarianism of which we can be proud. We all know that Julia Gillard would like to be continuing in that proud tradition but finds that to do so would come at an electoral cost she’s not prepared to pay. I like to think Malcolm Turnbull felt the same way, but when leading the Opposition, I didn’t see any very noticeable way in which his approach was different to Tony Abbott’s today. Shame on both Tony and Malcolm (Tony’s a Christian too), but hey, it works and you don’t have a lot of options in Opposition.

There’s another reason I don’t mind Julia Gillard saying she understands people’s anxieties and wouldn’t accuse them of racism. Because getting on one’s high horse and accusing people of racism is high handed, arrogant and only likely to inflame the situation. People are anxious about foreigners turning up in their neighbourhood. Always have been, always will be. And the more different the foreigners are, the more anxious they are. Now if one is a leader, one doesn’t fly at such people and accuse them of racism (even if you think they are being racist, which in some sense they are being). And you don’t just tell them you understand their anxieties because you are conning them. You tell them that because you can actually relate to their anxieties.

Now I could wish that having established her sympathies with people’s anxieties, Julia G would then speak more directly in defence of humanitarian values, and the values of tolerance. I guess I do, but I’m also hoping that perhaps as she strengthens her political position perhaps we’ll see a little more of that. But I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly optimistic on that score. I expect we’ll just get Julia’s ‘sympathy’ for people’s anxieties. A defensive sympathy and perhaps a genuine one and the Opposition will continue to try to exploit the issue and fan the flames of anxiety, and she’ll try to dampen them down.

In the circumstances – well there’s that word again – my sympathies are with Julia.

Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

James Farrell said:

But while it’s true that the anxieties could be largely eliminated by improvements in infrastructure, that isn’t necessarily how the problem is felt. The thing is, it just happens that the increase in population is due mostly to the influx of foreigners.

There is a certain logic in attributing the congestion to the most recent arrivals. So of course the population issue is really an immigration issue after all. Gillard and her advisors understand that perfectly. So let’s do what neither the Herald editorialist nor Hartcher were prepared to do. Let’s call it what is: dog-whistle politics.

Isn’t it time we retired the shop-worn phrase “dog-whistle”? I realise that SWPL liberals need some form of ideological hood ornament to demonstrate their social status superiority to those forced to live out in the cultural waste-lands of “Western Sydney”.

But our (notionally Left-wing) PM’s statement about the irrelevance of political correctness means that McCarthyite liberals will have to resort to rational argument, rather than “point-and-splutter”, when confronted with yet more public blow-back to their ill-considered schemes.

Not that a fine fellow like James Farrell would stoop to use this method of conquest.

Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

James Farrell continued on, in much the same vein:

To avoid misunderstanding, I note that the broader anxiety about immigration is not necessarily racism, although the particular hostility to boat people probably is. If new arrivals are making your life ha

rder, you’re more likely to discover other things about them that annoy you. But I don’t think that ethnic differences are inherently the issue: if the bulk of new arrivals were Icelandic the incumbent inhabitants would begin to discover a raft of irritating habits and incompatible values in the typical Icelander.

Your conciliatory “note” is duly noted, although you went and spoiled it all by taking it back in the very next clause. James you really must do some thing about this nervous liberal tick that acts up every time you broach this ticklish subject, it makes you look like you are hiding something. I would advise against a career change to high-stakes poker.

Once upon a time the term “racism” referred to political agents who advocated the persecution or privileging of defined ethnic groups. Now it is an epithet hurled at people who count – counting is racism! But since counting’s reputation is pretty robust it is most likely that this politically correct tactic will only discredit the hoarse-voiced wolf-criers.

You are quite right to suggest that “ethnic differences…are…not issue”. Most of the general populus take a leaf out of the Master’s book and object more to “the method of their coming” rather than the “who comes here”.

That is why there is little or no public anger (although some understandable misgivings) about the massive rate of NESB immigration or even the large number of NESB air-borne asylum-seekers who come here. They invariably arrive with valid documents through authorised channels (ie ticketed plane flights). These aliens are just as NESB as the people-smuggled boat people. Yet they dont get under peoples skins the way boat-people do.

Occams Razor suggests that Australians are fussy about process. We really are a state-broken people who have always been rather particular about making visitors observe the forms when attempting entry. No doubt this attitude could be faulted for its wary suspiciousness but its one of the secrets of this country’s unbroken record of political success.

Whats more the populus want to be the “we [who shall] decide” rather than the cosy bi-partisan consensus cobbled together by clapped-out liberals like Malcolm Fraser. And who can blame them considering the way that liberal cultural policies have come apart at the seams over the past two decades. cf The Intervention, with Howard cleaning up yet another one of Fraser’s little messes.

Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

I don’t want to prolong James Farrell’s agony any longer than necessary. I have been banging on about this subject for most of the second half of this decade, and he has probably had to endure more than his fair share of ear-bashings from my quarter.

For my troubles I usually get the kind of frosty reception usually reserved for elevator flatulators. Please forgive me, I can’t resist the temptation to use this moment savour the vindication, when the leaders of both parties have finally acknowledged the bleedin’ obvious.

And James Farrell’s post, riddled with error and rent by yawning gaps of facts as it is, really is streets ahead of the usual rubbish served up by knee-jerk liberals. At least he goes some way towards acknowledging that those on the other side of the ideological fence are not necessarily the pitch-fork-brandishing, torch-bearing, noose-fashioning Klansmen of lurid Fairfax imagination. For these and other small mercies, I give thanks.

To give a particularly spine-chilling example of how bad this stuff can get, I point to this recent offering by Ziggy Switkowski, otherwise a brilliant scientist and highly regarded executive. His recommendation of a 100 million population target over the next century shows how mesmerised liberals are by the mirage of endless material growth. He just assumes we can distill the water for four more Australian populations out of the sea. No doubt we can conjure up the arable land by just using hydrogen bombs to trigger volcanic eruptions which will one day turn into rich black soil. Someone should whisper the words “food security” tin his tin ear and see if there is a flicker of recognition.

However it seems fitting that I balance all these snarky remarks with a positive explanation of the facts. I propose a novel approach to the problem of evaluating AUS’s immigration rate: use basic theory and acknowledge hard facts.

As every school boy knows, the more guests at the party the smaller the slice of chocolate cake for each. To make the analogy clear just substitute any natural or positional good in fixed supply you care to name for “chocolate cake”. This country is running out of free elements: earth, air, water and fire. Or arable top-soil, uncarbonized air, natural water catchments and domestic oil, to use the more technical terms. Not to mention positional goods such as affordable water-side properties, free-flowing traffic, schools and hospitals without endless waiting lists and a host of other urban amenities.

Cities are bursting at the seams, rents are sky-rocketing, wages are stagnating…and liberals want more of the same? Gimme a break!

We are rapidly turning into a nation of slum-lords, sweat-shops and degree-mills in our efforts to milk the very last ounce of blood out of our industrial, residential and natural capital. Is that really what being a “clever country” is all about?

If that homespun analogy is a little too crude for the refined economists who frequent this site can I remind all parties of the three little words that launched our dismal science: “diminishing marginal returns”. (Of course this does not apply to owners of capital who benefit from increased turn-over on a given stock of capital. But I think Frank Lowry can probably manage to get by on the interest off his current pile.)

The basic facts on immigration are not a closely guarded secret. They are available to anyone who can be bothered to google inconvenient facts. But they make very grim reading for immigration boosters who are so thick on the ground in the media-academia complex. The Productivity Commission did not mince words. In its 2006 report on Immigration concluded that the average native citizen would gain virtually nothing from a 50% increase in skilled immigration, of 20 year duration off the 2004-05 baseline:

To estimate the effect of migration on labour supply (hours worked per capita) in the Australian economy, the Commission…simulated [an] increase in the annual level of skilled migration from 2004-05 by 50 per cent (about 39 000 persons)…By 2024-25, annual income per capita is about $383 (or about 0.71 per cent) higher than it would otherwise have been…It should be noted that the increase in average income per capita is an average number across all existing residents plus new immigrants. Based on the analysis by CoPS, it appears that most of the gains are likely to accrue to the immigrants themselves.

A measly $383.00 bucks for putting up with all this upheaval. It does not seem like a very good bargain from this end. And the PC does not factor in any of the spill-over effects into this calculation (which to be fair, go both ways – positive and negative).

This really is gob-smacking stuff and explains all you need to know about public misgivings over our astronomical immigration rate heavily under-stated by concentration on the headline permanent resident figure, which ignores the huge numbers of visas issued to businessmen, skilled workers and students -876,222 arrivals for 2008. No need to invoke “race-cards”, “wedges”, “dog-whistles” or any of the tired cliches on macro on the keyboards of liberal media and camp-following academics.

The bit about “most of the gains are likely to accrue to the immigrants themselves” was added almost as an after-thought but really twists the knife.

I know, I know, this kind of calculation really proves nothing more than the fact that economists are soulless calculators who miss the point about celebrating the enriching aspects of cultural diversity. And I agree, its a good thing that so many high-IQ Indian and Chinese nerds choose to call Australia home. Someone has to be around to hook up our computers, perform life-saving surgery and generally RTFM. Whitey is too busy lawyering-up or trying to make a killing on the stock market to busy himself with these grubby technical details.

But its surely not too much to ask economists who comment freely on public policy to count the beans. Its not “racist”, you know.

Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

James Farrell @ #14 said:

Jack #11 Too subtle for me, I’m afraid. What ill-considered schemes? (I do live in Western Sydney by the way. Great people, hopless infrastructure).

Give the phrase “dog whistle” a miss. It makes you come accross like a clapped-out post-seventies liberal on auto-pilot. Not a good look.

The “ill-considered scheme” is the plan to fill Sydney to the gun-whales and then charge the captive market like a wounded bull for everything from exorbitant housing to extortionate free-way tolls. Bob Carr did go on about it, but he was over-ruled by the Property Council.

So Sydney’s logistical problem is, yes, partly a supply side one, inadequate infrastructure. But mostly it is a demand side one, unsustainable immigration, at two-to-three times the historic average into a “catchment area” which is rapidly heading into diminishing returns territory.

Melbourne is facing the same problem and everyone agrees the VIC ALP are much better governors than the NSW ALP. So the “inadequate infrstructure” line is mostly a furphy.

I lived in Sydney for over a decade, not alas with the good folk out West but amongst the swanky wankers of Bondi [gag]. So I know whereof I speak.

Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

James Farrell @ #14 said:

Jack #12 You make two separate points here. The one about overusing the word racism can’t be directed at me since I explicitly said I wasn’t talking about racism. .

Well James, you did suggest that “the broader anxiety about immigration is not necessarily racism, although the particular hostility to boat people probably is“, which is an explicit enough reference to “racism” for me. So I think my point can be “directed at” you with some justice.

To be fair about 5% of the population are out-an-out racists. Normally they are kept in line by political correctors. So they mostly keeps a lid on it in public in order to make themselves presentable to polite society. I will concede that pc does society a favour now and again by keeping the red-neck riff-raff in line.

No doubt issues like border protection and immigration give them oxygen. I guess we shall just have to be brave about that.

James Farrell said:

The one abouut Australians being primarily upset about queue jumping has a grain of truth to it, but is a breathtaking departure from your previous obsessions; I find it hard to take a such a fast moving target serioiusly.

I will take that as a grudging concession.

You have not been following the bouncing ball very closely if you think my criticism of various liberal cultural follies covers the range of my “previous obsessions”. More generally, I have scads of intellectual “obsessions”, revolutionary technology, evolutionary biology, reconstructing liberal ideology. (Some kinder souls might even call them a wide-range of interests.) So many that my various single-minded “obsessions” resemble those solitary cowboys who ride into the empty canyon one by one. After a while the canyon is filled up with those solitary cowboys.

On the issue of immigration numbers my form goes back a long way. Here I am back in 2003 speculating on the convoluted politics of immigration. And again in 2008, where I suggested that immigrations days as a “suppressed viewpoint” on climate change are numbered. And finally in APR 2010 where I claim my bragging rights for being ahead of the curve on this issue.

By the look of things your intellectual “target” calibrator is on the blink and probably needs a valve job, if it struggles to track such deliberate movements. Perhaps you can be forgiven for missing these gems but that should teach you a lesson about going off half-cocked.

Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

James Farrell @ #14 said:

Jack #13 Thanks for conceding that I’m not the chardonnay sipper of your nightmares. Are you sure he exists at all, though?

Come come now, please don’t insult the readers intelligence by playing dumb on this matter. Yes, the “chardonnay sippers” are out there, as anyone who faces the dispiriting task of riffling through the Fairfax op-eds each day can glumly attest. Do they have their knee-jerk liberal responses programmed on a macro-key or do they honestly crank this stuff out by hand?

The PM herself has now staked out this ground as a legitimate area of debate. So the Left-liberal thought police will just have to find some other areas to patrol.

Granted that it is hard to turn the dial on a wireless that has been tuned to the Howard-hating channel for the better part of two decades. But it is self-evidently absurd to describe her as an Apprentice to the Master race-card player. At some stage pundits have to acknowledge that both Howard are Gillard are democratic politicians trying to win democratic votes by registering democratic preferences.

Perhaps they should re-familiarise themselves with Occam’s Razor. That would spared them the foolish attempt to decode messages that should be sent en clair in the first place.