The government’s ‘Australians first’ rhetoric is a response to hardening community attitudes over immigration and job security. By Mike Seccombe.

Migrants targeted as refugee panic founders

On November 29, 2004, when Malcolm Turnbull rose to give his first speech to parliament, he spoke as a proud internationalist and passionate advocate of a big Australia.

He called for an expanded immigration program, which he described as “essentially a recruiting exercise conducted in the national interest of Australia”. He wanted to attract to this country “as many of the world’s enterprising and energetic” as we could. He lauded Australia’s diversity of cultures.

How times have changed. These days, he leads a government that seeks political capital by making it harder for foreigners to settle or to buy real estate here, and that stresses integration and “Australian values”. Whenever immigration is mentioned – and it’s mentioned a lot – there is always a “but” attached, as was the case a month ago, when Turnbull announced the government was “abolishing” 457 visas for foreign workers.

“We are an immigration nation, but the fact remains that Australian workers must have priority for Australian jobs,” Turnbull said. “… So we are abolishing the 457 visa, the visa that brings temporary foreign workers into our country. We will no longer allow 457 visas to be passports to jobs that could and should go to Australians.”

And: “We are putting jobs first, we are putting Australians first.”

Gone is the sloganeering about “jobs and growth”, which doesn’t chime with the lived experience of the punters. Gone, too, is the optimistic talk about agility, innovation and disruption – it only scares people. Quite evidently, the electorate does not think this an “exciting time to be Australian”. The message is more sombre and defensive. It’s Australians first. Australian jobs first, Australian families first, Australian values first. Any combination of those words will do.

And, unusually for political slogans, it is utterly bipartisan. Labor is hammering exactly the same message, in exactly the same terms.

Labor was doing it first, in fact, although it has honed its pitch over recent months. At last year’s election, the party campaigned on the message “We’ll put people first”. In November, when Bill Shorten spoke to a private member’s bill that would have greatly tightened the rules around 457 visas, he spoke of the need to put “local workers first”. Now, every utterance is more specific: those “people” and “locals” must be Australians.

It’s fair to say the behaviour on both sides has been pretty crass at times, and nowhere more so than in Labor’s infamous, now-withdrawn “build Australian first, buy Australian first and employ Australians first” television advertisement.

The question is: why this sudden, bipartisan outbreak of nativism?

Pauline Hanson thinks she knows. Within minutes of Turnbull’s announcement that 457 visas were being scrapped she sent out a triumphant tweet: “The government will deny their tough talk on immigration and plan to ban 457 visas is because of One Nation but we all know the truth!”

She may be at least partly right. For more than a decade, ever since the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, with its 438 rescued asylum seekers, steamed into Australian waters and John Howard’s election calculations, issues of immigration and border security have been worked for political advantage. Whether in government or opposition, the Coalition parties have installed their most ruthless operators – Peter Reith, Philip Ruddock, Scott Morrison – in the portfolio, with the aim of keeping it at the front of the public mind.

But the asylum-seeker issue no longer has the political bite it once did. The Scanlon Foundation, which since 2001 has produced Australia’s most comprehensive analysis of attitudes to immigration, makes the point clearly in its latest “Mapping Social Cohesion” report.

It notes that in 2012 and 2013 12 per cent of survey respondents considered asylum seekers arriving by boat to be a major concern. Then Morrison “stopped the boats”, and public concern dropped sharply. By 2016, just 4 per cent of people still cared much about asylum seekers. Furthermore, half of those expressed “sympathetic concern” over the poor treatment of detainees.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the current immigration minister, Peter Dutton, to keep alive public hostility to asylum seekers, it is no longer a positive for the government.

The Liberal Party has a fundamental problem when it comes to politically exploiting the broader, non-asylum seeker aspect of migration, and this also is identified by the Scanlon Foundation through its surveys. The party is closely tied to the business community, which supports a large immigration program “not only as the means to meet labour demand but also as an engine of economic growth”.

Yet, it continued: “… among Liberal supporters there are also many who do not welcome the social change that comes with a large and ethnically diverse immigration intake”.

In short, Liberal supporters don’t much like foreigners, but they tolerate them for the labour they offer. And that explains a lot about the Turnbull government’s recent announcements about visas. Although they say they have “abolished 457 visas” the changes will not actually do much to stem the flow of foreign workers into the country, but will churn them through more quickly and make it significantly harder for them to become permanent residents.

Still, the very fact that the government has suddenly decided to elevate the issue of foreign workers – after years of dismissing Labor’s calls for action – tells us a lot. It suggests the government is getting very bad news from its focus groups.

Tony Mitchelmore, qualitative researcher and communications strategist for Visibility, conducts lots of focus groups. He has done them for Labor in the past, but these days his clients are corporate. He sees plenty of reason for the government to be concerned.

For at least the past 18 months, according to Mitchelmore, people’s attitudes have been hardening against immigration. It is not, however, a Hansonite world view they express, he says.

“It is not generally racist. There may be a small segment of people who have racist or xenophobic views, but essentially it’s parochial. It’s about job insecurity.

“The mood is, ‘Why give jobs to foreigners? Give them to us.’ ”

Behind that simple message, though, is a broader narrative, built by these workers from their understanding of the whole economy.

For some years now, says Mitchelmore, his focus group members have worried that “the mining boom’s over and things have stalled – we can’t compete with Asia, manufacturing industries are closing, what’s going to keep the place going?”

He says: “It’s about unemployment, underemployment, the casualisation of the workforce. And more recently it’s the fact that wages have stagnated and the cost of living’s still going up.”

Which is to say these workers have identified most of the problems the board of the Reserve Bank is worrying about, except they identified them earlier.

Another person who does a lot of focus groups is Rebecca Huntley, head of research for Essential Media. Her take on the “Australia first” rhetoric is that it “taps into something ugly, but also into much of which is justifiable anger”.

She says: “There’s a lot of anti-corporate sentiment out there. One thing all kinds of workers have reflected on in the work I’ve done, ever since the global financial crisis, is the general lack of employers investing in the people they have.

“People tell me that as soon as the GFC hit, all the training budget went, as did any kind of skills development in current staff, or graduates coming out of universities – any investment in the long-term prospects of the workforce. And it was never picked up again.

“They feel like a disposable workforce.”

Huntley says a common view is that employers prefer a foreign workforce because they are perceived to be “more passive, less likely to be unionised or to know their rights”.

“And there’s anxiety about declining standards,” she says. “One focus group I was conducting with electricians last year – there were lots of first and second generation migrants in this group – what they said was, ‘We don’t blame these people. We think they’re being short-changed, too. But no one’s investing in their training, no one gives a hoot if they electrocute themselves or do a bad job.’

“So there’s an interesting solidarity there. There’s a sense that we’re in permanent cutback mode, that someone’s making money, but it’s not us, and it’s not the 457s.”

People talk about corporate profits, tax dodgers and “the general idea that employers will do whatever they can to get around obligations”.

The same sentiment, Huntley says, leads them to say, “Yeah, let’s have a bank levy. Fuck the banks.”

Professor Andrew Markus, social researcher in the arts faculty at Monash University, who compiles the annual Scanlon report, says he has yet to pick up the resentment the focus groups appear to be showing.

“There’s a standard question that’s been asked going right back to the 1950s,” he says. “‘Do you think immigration is too high or too low?’ And we haven’t picked up an increased level of concern over the last four surveys.

“Immigration is never going to be extremely popular. The lowest level of negativity towards immigration is 35 to 40 per cent. That’s quite a large number. The fact is, though, that it hasn’t shifted.”

He notes, however, that two things do shift sentiment. One is increasing unemployment. The other is when immigration levels become the subject of political debate.

When he was preparing his latest report, in July 2016, the current, intensely nativist political debate had not begun. Nor had Australia experienced two successive quarters of wage growth below the rate of inflation, as it now has. When I ask him whether the combination of these factors, along with chronic underemployment and casualisation of the workforce, could produce a sudden significant shift, he answers with another question:

“Well, it’s a new phenomenon, isn’t it. The political parties do their research, so what they’re saying now indicates they are picking up a level of concern.”

One thing on which he is in full agreement with the focus group researchers is that opposition to high immigration is not primarily, or even significantly, an expression of racism or xenophobia. He refers to research the Scanlon Foundation did back in 2011.

It presented respondents with four commonly advanced arguments in favour of immigration and four arguments against, and asked which of those arguments people found more persuasive.

By a large margin, the most persuasive anti-immigration arguments were deemed to be that it made cities too crowded and had a negative impact on the natural environment. The third most persuasive argument was that immigration increased unemployment. Only 10 per cent of respondents were very concerned that it increased cultural diversity.

Conversely, the best-accepted arguments in favour of immigration were, in order, that it increased economic growth, militated against the ageing of the population, increased cultural diversity and helped provide for the future defence of the country.

Those results are interesting for a couple of reasons. First, because they show pretty nearly the same number of people supported immigration for cultural reasons as opposed it for cultural reasons. And second because one of the major reasons that people supported immigration – that we needed more people because our population is ageing – is quite misleading.

It annoys Katharine Betts, adjunct associate professor of sociology at Swinburne University of Technology and vice-president of the Australian Population Research Institute.

As she explains, you bring in younger migrants, but then those migrants age, just like the rest of the population. So it defers population ageing for a few years, but then you have to bring in an even bigger number of young migrants to offset a bigger ageing population.

“That’s a Ponzi scheme,” she says.

The notion that high immigration adds to the economic wellbeing of the citizenry is also questionable, she says. Of course, bringing in more people makes the economy bigger. But the relevant measure is not the size of the pie, it’s the size of the slice each person gets.

Australia provides a great case study. The last time this country had a recession, according to the commonly accepted measure of two consecutive quarters of economic contraction, was in 1991 – the “recession we had to have”. The fact that we haven’t had one since has been claimed by both Labor and Coalition governments as evidence of their good economic management.

But they can claim that only because they focus on the headline number for gross domestic product – that is, the size of the pie – without factoring in population growth – the number of people taking a slice.

When you look at GDP per capita our world-beating economy suddenly seems much less impressive. We’ve gone negative several times.

A measure that most economists consider to be even better, though, is one called real net national disposable income per capita, because it better reflects not only the per capita share of income but its buying power.

Last year, economists at Commonwealth Bank produced figures showing that on that measure Australian living standards had been going backwards for most of the past decade. This is remarkable not only because it included an enormous mining boom, but because it coincided with record levels of immigration and population growth.

Through the ’90s and early 2000s, Australia’s population growth averaged about 1.2 per cent a year. Then, in the latter years of the Howard and early Rudd governments, it zoomed up, peaking at well over 2 per cent. Since 2006 it has averaged about 1.75 per cent.

“We’ve got population growth of 330,000 to 350,000 per year. A million every three years,” says Jenny Goldie, of Sustainable Population Australia. “Approximately 45 per cent is natural increase, and the rest is net migration.

“I really don’t think most people understand how big the immigration program is. I think these surveys, where they endorse it, are taken in ignorance.”

Goldie helped found the organisation 29 years ago and has been trying ever since to persuade people Australia should move to zero net migration. That is, we should bring in just enough people to replace those who die or move overseas. Given Australia’s current reproduction rate, that would mean about 60,000 to 70,000 people a year.

Goldie and her organisation would not select immigrants based on race. They support increasing the humanitarian component of the program and significantly increasing Australia’s foreign aid budget to the UN agreed target of at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income, with 4 per cent of that devoted to family planning. They are an environmental organisation focused on the belief that to be sustainable the world needs fewer people consuming fewer resources.

But ultimately, Goldie thinks, it will not be the politics of altruism that changes people’s minds on immigration, any more than One Nation’s politics of race, or the politics of crass nativism. It will be the politics of unaffordable housing, of gridlocked traffic, of “things grinding to a halt”.

Maybe she’s right and this time, after 30-odd years, people will begin to seriously debate the issue – not of racist anxiety, but of how big an Australia we should be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Migrants targeted as refugee panic founders".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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