Crowd cover

It’s an old, persistent lie: that traffic is a race issue, that failing infrastructure is the responsibility of migrants rather than the governments that build it. Said often enough, it allows politicians to blame congestion on people who look different. This is a useful trick and it’s one Scott Morrison is playing.

It was reported this week that the Morrison government will “launch a powerful inquiry into Australia’s migration program, opening the door to further cuts in immigrant numbers and moves to push more migrants into the regions to take pressure off congested areas in Sydney and Melbourne”.

The joint migration committee ordinarily assesses visa laws and matters of so-called border security. Its inquiry into roads and other infrastructure is an explicitly political one. The prime minister intends it to be.

Before the election, Morrison promised to cut immigration. He accepted it was a factor in economic growth, but said he was hearing something else from voters. “The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments. I hear what you are saying. I hear you loud and clear.”

During the election, Morrison announced congestion funding in the same speech that he announced a cap on refugee numbers. Accidents are rare in his career and this was not one of them. He was in Homebush and John Howard was with him. “We’ve got our borders and the budget under control,” Morrison said. “We make decisions about who comes here based on what’s in Australia’s interests.”

In 2013, the Liberal candidate for the neighbouring seat of Lindsay, Fiona Scott, said asylum seekers were “a hot topic here because our traffic is overcrowded”. She said: “Go sit on the M4. People see 50,000 people come in by boat – that’s more than twice the population of Glenmore Park.”

Tony Abbott said her comments had been taken out of context, then repeated them. He said she had “sex appeal”. She won the seat and he won government.

“Obviously when you’ve got something like 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat that’s a big number,” he said. “We have all sorts of pressures that are created.”

Congestion is a significant issue. Infrastructure Australia estimates it will cost the country $38.8 billion a year in lost productivity by 2031 if the government does not build better transport systems. Equally, Australia’s economy is dependent on immigration for growth.

For all the government rhetoric on race, migration figures are seldom cut. It was John Howard who doubled average immigration, while stoking fear of Asia and Islam. These rates have continued under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments, as has the use of racism for political gain.

This is the heart of the issue. We are not having a consequential debate on population – that would require consequential politicians. Instead, we are letting our roads and schools and hospitals fail, and looking for a marginalised group to blame instead of the elected representatives who are actually responsible.

We have been doing it for decades. Our entire torturous refugee policy is based on this: punish a small group of migrants who are economically inconsequential and pretend you are addressing the reasons it takes too long to drive to work. In the confusion, you can ignore the basic obligations of your office.

Morrison likes inquiries. They are an excuse to say one thing and do another.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Crowd cover".

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