Immigration rates a serious challenge for the Coalition
by Ross Fitzgerald
Stephen Harper, the former Canadian conservative prime minister, has been in Australia talking about politics and leadership in the age of disruption. Harper is the first senior political practitioner, as opposed to commentator, who has tried to make sense of where the conservative side of politics is headed in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit.
For eight years, until 2015, Harper ran an orthodox centre-right government cutting taxes, balancing budgets, signing free trade deals and maintaining high immigration. But he accepts that this won’t work any more. The Reagan-Thatcher free-market formula has almost entirely lost its political appeal. Sensible economics is still important because governments can’t keep spending money they don’t have, but voters are less interested in being told how government is the problem than in how government can make their lives better.
In his book, ‘Right Here, Right Now’, Harper notes: “A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. They are not doing well in the world that we conservatives created after the Cold War. And they are not doing well, in part, because of some of the policies we conservatives have advocated.”
He argues that globalism is not working for a great many people in the West and that conservatives have a choice: “We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying … Conservatism is successful over time because conservatism works. We have to make it work for the mass of our citizens once again.”
Middle-class anger at a political class that seems more interested in self-serving political games than in the wellbeing of the public is probably more muted here than North America — we haven’t had 30 years of comparative wage stagnation or seen manufacturing migrate to China on the same scale. Those who make or break governments expect sound economic management but mistrust a free market orthodoxy that sees bank chief executives paid millions while exploiting customers.
Free trade is one area where the new dynamic is at work, although possibly less so than in the US because tariffs were largely dismantled here by Labor governments in the 1980s. The other area is immigration. Under the pressure of stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and congested cities, immigrant societies are starting to turn against immigration, especially high rates of uncontrolled immigration because, for them at least, it’s souring the Western dream.
This is particularly relevant for Australia. Thanks to the Abbott government, illegal migration has stopped; but thanks to four-year visas that foreign students and allegedly in-demand skilled foreign workers can more or less automatically qualify for (and that often turn into permanent residency), legal migration is effectively out of control. Instead of nation-building, immigration has become a revenue racket for universities and a way for lazy businesses to get out of training staff.
This is what’s driving the rapid drop in support for migration detected by poll after poll, including by the respected Lowy Institute. It found that, for the first time, most Australians think immigration is too high and that the number of those opposed to today’s rates of immigration rose 14 points in a year.
Since former prime minister Tony Abbott called in February for immigration to be cut to John Howard-era levels, there has been a swelling chorus of support for change, including NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. At first, the federal government attacked its former leader. Subsequently, it has talked about a cut to the permanent intake (even though the overall level of permanent and medium-term migrants is at a record level) and making more migrants move to the country, but the policy remains unchanged.
Our politicians know that business leaders instinctively want higher immigration because it means more customers and more workers, putting upward pressure on prices and downward pressure on wages. But they also know that the people who vote for right-of-centre parties think that too much migration has put their living standards under pressure and that their country has lost its way.
A key question is which way will the Liberal-National Coalition jump: will it back business (its traditional supporters) or back its voter base?
On the evidence so far, there’ll be more talk than action. Although Scott Morrison has indicated some downward direction with regard to immigration, most likely he will be caught dithering between the beliefs that characterised centre-right parties a generation ago and what voters expect of them now.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, 28 November, 2018, p 14.