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.