The bogus arguments for a “a Big Australia”
I attended one day of a two-day Productivity Commission Roundtable on sustainable population in Canberra. I was relieved that before this gathering of economists the Chairman of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, emphasised that he wanted attention to quality of life, a concept difficult for economists to grapple with.
I’m not sure the economists responded.
The papers were, however, of a high quality. There was probably a preponderance of enthusiasts for the now discredited notion of a Big Australia. One contributor devoted his paper to questioning the accuracy of those opinion polls which, with monotonous consistency, demonstrate that Australians are not supporters of a Big Australia.
Nothing I heard altered my view of the economics of immigration. Among my conclusions, unaltered by the roundtable:
• High immigration does not benefit the existing population. Indeed this point was actually confirmed in the discussion. The House of Lords Select Committee (2008) inquiry into Britain’s high immigration policies said it all: “We have found no evidence for the argument, made by the Government, business and many others, that net immigration – immigration minus emigration – generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population.”
• Immigration worsens skill shortages, it doesn’t relieve them. When a skilled worked is imported he or she brings dependents. The family adds more to the demand for housing and infrastructure than the skilled worker contributes to the supply.
• High immigration causes hothouse activity in the housing sector and exacerbates the demand for infrastructure, putting upward pressure on taxes and government borrowings. And in turn, high immigration simply adds to more demands for imported labour to ease acute skill shortages caused by over ambitious targets.
• High immigration does not alter the age profile of the population. As the Federal Treasury said, “Migration cannot stop the aging of our population.”
Let me declare an interest. I am a Patron of Sustainable Population Australia. I like liveable cities. I like coastal national parks. I like people but have reservations about the species. I think the last thing the planet needs is an increase in human numbers.
The roundtable was held in Old Parliament House in Canberra now the Museum of Australian Democracy. What a revelation this is! A great teaching resource. A veritable inland sea of political and social nostalgia. You are struck by how small were the two parliamentary chambers and the meeting rooms for the government and opposition parties. I was surprised the press gallery has become part of the museum’s space and struck by how cramped and confined those corridors are.
From the age of about 16 I wanted nothing more but to sit on those green benches in the old House of Representatives chamber. One of the lessons in life is that the things that mattered so much end up mattering so little.