This is an edited version of a paper presented to the Sydney Branch conference on Immigration and the Labour Movement, Women’s College, University of Sydney, 19 September 1999. Bob is a long-time labour movement activist, ALP member and well-known personality on the Sydney bookselling scene. Joining him in the case for large-scale migration was Angela Chan, former chairperson of the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW. Speakers for the negative were Swinburne University sociologist, Katherine Betts, and Canberra ecologist and poet, Mark O’Connor.
My ethical standpoint and cultural framework
In my view the basic ethical outlook of Marxism and Catholic philosophy about the relationship between the human race and the material world are really quite similar, despite the apparent conflict between them, and over the course of my own life, they have both contributed to the formation of my attitude to the migration question. Both ethical systems regard the human species as the highest development of evolution and start with the notion that the interests of human beings are the primary point of departure in judging most ethical questions. Marxists would have it that human consciousness is the highest product, so far, of material development, and Thomists and Catholics would have it that the human soul and humanity are the peak of God’s creation. While both ethical systems would not neglect at all the importance of the rest of the material world, the animal world, etc., they would regard the interests of the human species, viewed as a totality, as the primary point of departure in developing an ethical framework for migration policy. In this, they would both be different for instance, to the ethics of Peter Singer, who would rate the interests of the animal world as being on the same plane as the interests of the human race. The ethical standpoint of ‘deep ecologists’, and people like Tim Flannery, Ted Trainer and Mark O’Connor would, I believe in practice, give a greater weight to the interests of the natural world than to that of the humans that use it.
These two moral standpoints – the Marxist one expressed in the notion of socialist internationalism (‘The unity of labor is the hope of the world’), and the other expressed in the idea that all humans are brothers and sisters under God – have been the major defining ideological influences, in the evolution of the labour movement in Australia. The eventual triumph of the notion of the unity of the human race in the labour movement, which is really the flowering of the ethical views of both streams, is the main ideological reason why the labour movement’s attitude to migration has ultimately been so dramatically changed in the 20th century from British-Australian racism, to non-discriminatory migration and multiculturalism.
In Australian cultural terms I am an atheist of mainly Irish Catholic cultural background. All the original ancestors of the human population of Australia, including the indigenous population, are migrants. The migration history of Australia has been one in which, from the beginning, indigenous Australians, the Irish Catholics and the secular working class of British origin, initially convicts, were in constant conflict with the British ruling class of the new colony. I’m mainly descended from the Irish and I identify totally with the conflict against the British ruling class in 19th century Australia, in which my ancestors participated. From a cultural point of view, from where I come, every additional wave of migration that has contributed to the undermining of the cultural hegemony of the British ruling class is an unambiguously good thing. I celebrate a healthy, plebeian, popular Australian nationalism, which is necessarily, and has been historically in conflict with the reactionary British Australian nationalism of the Australian ruling class. The desperate nostalgia of someone like Miriam Dixson about the passing of what she calls the ‘Anglo-Celtic core culture’ produces in me a certain bitter and wry amusement. I celebrate the passing of that culture. It wasn’t my culture at all.
The new, diverse and cosmopolitan Australian culture, in which we all have a stake, has produced, and is constantly reproducing, a robust modern Australian culture of great diversity and strength, which I enjoy and celebrate. Many of the most stimulating features of this modern culture are the product of, in particular, the post war waves of mass migration. Even the unquestionably important contribution of the civilized and humane strand within the British cultural tradition, as exemplified, say, by a scholar like Manning Clark or a writer like Patrick White, only really comes to full fruition within the framework of a healthy multicultural Australia, cleansed of the bigoted ethnocentrism of the old British ruling class Australia. Anyone who has lived, as I have, from 1937 to now, has only to reflect on the claustrophobic cultural atmosphere of British Australia in, say, the 1950s, to understand what I mean in this context. It is hard for any young person now to even imagine the tension created in a cinema in, say, 1960, if you didn’t stand up for ‘God Save the Queen’.
The most conservative forces in society, who hark back nostalgically to the useful cement provided for the preservation of class privilege by all the ridiculous and unpleasant cultural impedimenta of ‘British Australia’, are at the centre of the sporadic attacks on multiculturalism. Their political motivation in these attacks is obvious – as, to be honest, is mine, in defending multiculturalism. Cultural diversity and multiculturalism incorporated – as they are – into a new modern, plebeian Australian national identity, represent a far more civilized human environment for us all to live in. Those who disagree with me can try to reverse these developments, but I don’t rate the prospects of their success very highly. We have already gone a very long way in this very healthy direction.
I don’t have to spend too much time in celebrating the immense advantages produced by all our mass migrations. They are obvious and they are most strikingly noticeable in the global city of Australasia, Sydney, where we are holding this conference. Despite the Sodom and Gomorrah wailings and gnashings of teeth about Sydney that you get from the Miriam Dixsons, the Birrells and the Katherine Betts’s, the extraordinary and workable cultural diversity of Sydney is the small model of what life will be like throughout Australasia within the next 20 or 30 years. The constant Jeremiad of the Monash anti-migrationists over the last 25 years about ethnic ghettoes, particularly in Sydney, is proving to be just the anti-migration propaganda that it always was. These so called ethnic ghettoes are, in fact, constantly changing form and, in practice, in Australia, particularly in Sydney, there are very few ‘unmeltable ethnics’, to use Michael Novak’s term from the United States of 30 years ago.
While multiculturalism battles to preserve the useful aspects of discrete ethnic identities, in the Australian context, the evolving Australian national identity, which is quite real, remains the major cultural force into which the other ethnic identities tend to feed and blend, and the discrete contribution of the individual ethnic identities is constantly renewed by the continuance of migration. This whole process is accelerated by an increasing amount of exogamy (intermarriage with other ethnic groups). The striking feature of modern Australian society is the way the repeated predictions, of communal strife, are completely contradicted by the current reality of Australian life. The further you get into the diversity, say, in the heart of Sydney, the smaller the amount of noticeable ethnic conflict. We are well over the hump, so to speak, in these matters. Large scale violent ethnic conflicts just won’t happen in Australia. Most of us are now rather too civilized and we – in this context, just about all of us – will beat all xenophobia and racism, even that disguised as nostalgia for the ‘Anglo-Celtic core culture’ back into its cave whenever it shows its ugly head.
The benefits of past migrations
Up until the Gold Rush, Australia was mainly a brutal penal colony of British Imperialism but, paradoxically, quite a few convicts stayed in the colony after their release because in many ways, even then, the colony was a better place to live than Britain. The origins of the convicts were relatively diverse. Although most of them were drawn from the English urban underclass around London, about 20% of them were Irish and almost 50% of the smaller number of women convicts were Irish Catholics. Over the whole period of convictism, there were about 1% black convicts from West Africa and the West Indies, and there were also about 1,000 Jewish convicts. The Gold Rush saw the commencement of mass migration, both from Great Britain and Ireland, and China and Germany, and later in the century, a large forced labour component, the ‘Kanakas’, from the South Sea Islands.
The Gold Rush and the accompanying shortage of labour produced a situation of a high price for labour in the Australian colonies, making settlement in Australia very attractive. These working class migrants contributed to the development of the country and were the beneficiaries of the high price of labour. From the point of view of most of the participants in these migrations, Australia was a much better place economically than where they had come from. Much historical research has been done on letters from Australia back to Ireland from migrants, and the overwhelming majority of these letters speak of the better standard of living in the new country than in famine ridden, British-pillaged Ireland, and the Irish were particularly motivated by the possibility of taking up land in Australia. Even the South Sea Islanders who had been blackbirded to Australia, and the Chinese who had been at the bottom end of the Australian social ladder, were very reluctant to leave after the imposition of White Australia in 1900.
The migration to Australia was always much more heterogenous than British-Australian mythology allows. In the early 20th century there were constant chain migrations from Russia, the south Slav lands, Italy, Greece and Malta. This was despite occasional brutal outbursts of racism against these migrations, the worst example of which was the forcible deportation of 6,000 Germans and south Slavs after World War I. A large number of Jewish people migrated to Australia just before World War II, escaping Fascism in Europe. Many prospered here, and collectively they made a remarkable contribution to Australian social and intellectual life.
Some areas in Northern Australia, such as the Cairns area, the Townsville area, and particularly the Northern Territory, always maintained a much more diverse ethnic and cultural mix than many other parts of Australia, even despite the ‘White Australia’ policy. For much of its history, for instance, the Northern Territory had a larger proportion of people of Asian origin and mixed race origin than whites. A recent article in Labour History by Julia Martinez underlines the complex interplay between the racial composition of the population in the Northern Territory and attitudes in the labour movement that contributed to the undermining of the ‘White Australia’ policy, even on a national scale.
After World War II another wave of mass migration commenced, including Baltic people, Eastern Europeans, Greeks and Italians and Dutch people. They participated in building the Snowy Scheme and developing modern Australia. In the ‘60s and the ‘70s more people came from Arab countries and Turkey, and they, too, contributed to the development of Australia.
There are now 300,000 people in Australia of Indochinese origin who are here because of our interference in, and the American intervention in, the civil war in Vietnam. Though most of them came here as refugees, they too have contributed to the development of modern Australia. Historically Australia has been a haven for refugees from many countries, including now, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovars and East Timorese. They too, have contributed to the development of modern Australia.
The last wave of migration has been a very varied migration from Asia, which has pushed the number of people with some Asian background up to 1.4 million in the last 15 years. This migration has included both hard working poorer people, highly trained young people and energetic business migrants bringing modest packages of capital with them. This Asian migration is particularly obvious as a major factor in economic development which has acted as a buffer against depressed economic circumstances in other spheres, and has particularly contributed to development in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and to reducing unemployment in these cities. The striking thing about all these more recent migrations is that they have coincided with an obvious reduction in racial and cultural tensions, compared, say, to the 1950s.
The Myth of the ‘New Class’
Opponents of migration and other reactionaries have recently dusted off this quite old construction to stigmatise supporters of migration and multiculturalism as members of an egregious elite, different to the popular Australian ‘yolk’ who, it is claimed, are atavistic and racist to the core. This desperate theoretical construction is both inaccurate, as a sociological description of modern Australian society, and rather ineffective as a call to arms. For a start, when examined, it is clearly a nasty ideological construction. Nearly 20% of the adult population, including school teachers and nurses, now have degrees, and half of them are women. Do they all constitute members of the ‘New Class’? The idea is absurd. When pressed, the new class ideologues redefine it a bit to say that maybe the ‘New Class’ only consists of people in the media and the bureaucracy who favour migration and disagree with them, which makes the construction even more absurd sociologically speaking, and underlines that it is only a sort of bizarre point scoring aimed at stirring up perceived popular animosity to people with degrees. The problem with it as a call to arms is that a significant majority of the industrial working class, for instance, at whom it is presumably directed, are recent NESB migrants themselves, and very unlikely to respond to this call to arms for the obvious reasons.
In reality, political outcomes in bourgeois democracies like Australia are decided by a complex interaction between various aspects of the popular will and the special interests of the ruling class expressed through their manipulation of the media. What comes through in the media is much more an expression of the interests of the tiny elite who own the media than any independent expression of opinion by a so called ‘New Class’ of media workers. In the upshot in elections, the electoral behaviours of the population is decided by a multitude of factors, and ‘public opinion’ is actually a product of the push and pull of assorted interests and pressure groups in society. It is even possible that, influenced by right wing populist hysteria about migration, expressed through the tabloid media, that a majority of electors might wish for a reduction in migration. When they come to voting, however, many factors influence their voting behaviour.
This underlying ‘British’ Australia cultural egotism surfaces repeatedly in Katherine Betts’s book. Her ingenious use of the notion of ‘markers’ in relation to the so-called ‘New Class’ is very revealing. In her view, implacable hostility to racism, and any sympathy with multiculturalism are evidence either of membership of the ‘New Class’, or special interests by reason of NESB background. She also indicts her so called ‘New Class’ for an ‘anti-national’ animosity towards wars and militarism, and associates this with ‘New Class’ attitudes on racism and migration. I wonder what Ms Betts makes of the almost total transformation of the bulk of the ‘New Class’, including myself, into advocates of immediate military action to protect the Timorese against the vicious Indonesian Army.
The actual industrial working class is largely of NESB background. The nudging 20% of the population who now have degrees and the 700,000 students are by definition infected by this ‘rampant cosmopolitanism’. The actual audience for Betts’s now slightly eccentric ‘New Class’ theory is really quite small and declining further all the time.
The economic effects of migration
The most coherent, energetic and persistent anti-migrationists, the Robert Birrell Monash group, who tend to make the ideological running for other opponents of migration, have two lines in relation to the economic effects of migration. The two thrusts are, in fact, quite contradictory. One line of argument, which they share with people like Ted Trainer, is a general, currently rather popular, polemic against the idea of economic growth. They argue that economic growth, which migration fuels, is bad for us. Well, there’s a tiny element of truth in this line of argument. Some economic growth is bad and should be fought on a case by case basis. For instance, wood chipping of old growth forests is quite antipathetic to the interests of the human race and the environment. Much economic growth, however, whilst it should be made more civilized and reorganised in a rational way is desirable from the point of view of most humans on the planet who don’t yet have sufficient access to all kinds of material goods to make their life potentially better. The arguments of ‘deep ecologists’ like Ted Trainer, against all economic growth are, in practice, poisonously hostile to the aspirations of most human beings for sensible improvements to their conditions of life. The use of this kind of argument by comfortable, affluent anti-migration academics in a rich ‘First World’ country like Australia, I find thoroughly repellent, and I’m fascinated that the Monash group have used that kind of argument repeatedly since the 1970s.
The other line of argument is more or less the opposite of the first one, and it is that migration is bad for the economy because it diverts resources from unstated better uses to the construction of infrastructure for the migrants, and that much of the labour is used in a manufacturing economy which is being scaled down anyway because of globalisation and the destruction of tariff barriers – which the Monash group explicitly applaud. They even argue that because migration diverts resources to the provision of infrastructure for new migrants, it reduces the average productivity of labour, and those in the housing industry and manufacturing are attacked as having a vested interest in migration. Viewed in any sensible way, all these economic attacks on migration tend to undermine and contradict each other, but anything goes in the war against migration. It’s fascinating to do a review of the six or seven books of essays produced over the last 20 years by the Monash group. As one of their lines of economic argument after another are demolished by changing circumstances they work very hard to find a new economic angle.
There is now a fairly considerable body of concrete and comprehensive analysis and description of the economic effects of migration, the most recent example of which is the work of Bruce Chapman in Canberra. The general conclusion of almost all economists, conservative or left wing, with a few exceptions, is that migration is either more or less neutral in relation to economic effects, or, in most circumstances, a positive stimulus to economic development and is even a positive in relation to reducing unemployment, for instance. Empirically this would certainly seem to be so. The cities in Australia like Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, which are the hot spots for migration, are also at the lower end of the unemployment statistics. The cities like Melbourne, Newcastle, Adelaide and Hobart, which are stagnant as far as recent migration is concerned, are at the higher end of the unemployment statistics.
The argument about Australia’s ‘carrying capacity’
Another line of argument advanced by the anti-immigrationists is a much more powerful and potent argument, even, with many people who are opposed to overt racism and regard themselves as civilized. It is expressed in the viewpoint of the organization called ‘Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Society’ and in the political outlook of the conservative electoral formation, the Australian Democrats, who advocate zero net immigration. The most well known, popular advocates of this point of view are Tim Flannery, author of The Future Eaters and his disciple Paul Sheehan, the author of Amongst the Barbarians. Other people who write about these questions and claim some expertise in the field, are the poet Mark O’Conner, the CSIRO scientist Doug Cocks, Ted Trainer the ‘deep ecologist’, and obviously also the Birrells and Katherine Betts.
Their essential argument is that Australia is a supremely devastated, overwhelmingly arid continent, that we are already overpopulated and that if our present rate of population growth – the historically general 1.5%-2% per annum that has been the case over most of our history – continues further, disasters will develop in the not too distant future. In one article, Flannery advances the argument that we should reduce the population from 19 million to 12 million. One wonders whether that includes an offer of voluntary euthanasia on his part! This line of argument involves a very considerable playing with figures. Cocks and Flannery, who attempt to quantify it a bit, toss around figures of arable land available in Australia and, while appearing to concede that most estimates of available arable land made by anyone who knows anything about the subject, show that there are still vast areas of unused arable land in Australia, they manage by ingenious manipulation of the figures to argue that this is really not significant because the arable land is in Northern Australia, the water is in Northern Australia and we should be ultra cautious etc. They also continually express animosity to agriculture, which seems to be the hallmark of quite a few modern pseudo-geographers and pseudo-anthropologists. There is a whole school developing of semi-scientific popular journalism devoted to the argument that agriculture is destroying humanity.
All the ecological opponents of migration make a hero of Griffith Taylor, a past Australian geographer who held the view that Australia’s carrying capacity was extremely limited and who was lucky enough, in the 1920s, to make the specific prophecy that Australia’s likely population in the year 2000, would be 19 million people, which has turned out to be almost the exact figure. The anti-immigrationists attempt to imbue him with an almost superstitious reverence because of this totally accidental prediction. They also praise the conservative economist, Bruce Davidson, who conducted a constant polemic in the 50s and the 60s against northern agricultural development, on ‘dry’ economic grounds.
My heroes in this area are ‘boosters’ like lon Idriess, J.C. Bradfield, William Hatfield and Jack Timbery, who advocated various and quite technically feasible proposals for agricultural development, particularly in the immediate post-war period. The Snowy scheme was one product of this kind of outlook. Another vigorous Australian resident opponent of Malthusianism and supporter of Australian development and high migration was the late Colin Clark. He had worked for the World Food Organisation and been a major English university economist, and he conducted a considerable argument with Paul Ehrlich in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. His predictions about world agricultural production etc have generally been confirmed by subsequent developments.
The reality is that the global shortage of arable land and water produces a situation in which Australia cannot possibly afford to indulge the egregious fantasy of Flannery and Paul Sheehan about making our country a big ecological theme park. We will be under constant pressure to develop agriculture to produce more food and we will be under constant pressure for more migration to these shores. From a political point of view, it is much smarter to anticipate these developments by maintaining our historically highish non-discriminatory migration policy, and we will, for obvious reasons of survival, have to improve our agricultural practices and remediate the Australian environment to fulfil our global human responsibilities in relation to food.
Stripped of all the manipulation of figures, the situation is that there is a very large unused water capacity in Australia and also a very large amount of land that could be properly irrigated. The late Jack Kelly, the main economic expert who assisted in the establishment of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, was critical of many initially faultily conceived northern development schemes. Kelly knew an enormous amount about practical irrigation, and also about the economics of irrigation schemes. He did a study of the Kimberleys and the Northern Territory in the 1960s. He was sceptical about the Ord River Dam because it was in his view on too large a scale, and in the wrong place. In his book, Struggle for the North, he located about 50 possible places for smaller dams which could supply water for assorted agricultural activities and livestock uses. Kelly had a particular objection to the way that the big pastoral companies, particularly the foreign owned ones, like Vesteys, had successfully locked up control of the strategic river front grazing lands for extremely nominal rentals, and the way this monopoly control of the strategically placed holdings held back useful agricultural development. He favoured small scale, local, individually owned pastoral and agricultural developments, and his book is an eloquent plea in favour of such developments, and a specific blueprint for where they would be possible.
There are enormous technical and practical problems in such agricultural and infrastructure development, but none of them are insuperable. The real problem is finding the proper balance between these necessary projects and the equally necessary dimension of preserving the natural environment in an appropriate way. In my view it would be possible to develop a gigantic agricultural programme of this sort, at the same time as withdrawing a great deal of marginal land from pastoralism and marginal agriculture. The agricultural future of Australia lies in irrigation rather than pastoralism and marginal agriculture on semi arid lands. Looked at in this framework, the proposition that we could not feed many more people is thoroughly unsound. The intrinsic limits to Australian carrying capacity are still very far off indeed.
The ‘footprint’ of cities
Another argument of the anti-immigrationists is that because most migrants settle in cities, the ‘footprint’ of cities is the problem. There is an element of truth in this in Australian conditions. In Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, due to the relatively unplanned nature of city growth, too much agricultural land was lost to urban development. Even in these cities, however, this could be overcome for the future by a significant change to forward planning for city growth. Further population expansion in Melbourne could be concentrated in the area out towards and past Tullamarine Airport (obviously away from the flight paths) where the land is of little agricultural potential. In Sydney the logical places for further urban development are the sandstone plateaus north of Hornsby and south of Loftus which, in both instances, happen to be on major rail lines rather than further sprawl on useable agricultural land in the far-western suburbs. The Sydney region, Melbourne region and the Brisbane region could be developed into mixed urban and agricultural areas, like many similar areas in Europe and again in Israel/Palestine. Australian society and the environment will degenerate rapidly whether we have more population or we don’t unless we make major and serious changes to our agricultural and urban practices anyway. The real task is the adoption of appropriate technologies, including the highest level of modern agricultural practices in all fields.
For the last 20 or 30 years many thousands of urban Australians have been stirred by a strong desire to go back to rural life, evidenced by the popularity of magazines like ‘Earth Garden’ and ‘Grass Roots’ and the many thousands of people who have settled in rural areas, either individually or as part of collective experiments. Much of this phenomenon has been marked by enormous human enthusiasm but sometimes not qualified too much by careful scientific experiment and inquiry. Nevertheless the existence of this deep urge provides a basis for possible future development in the agricultural area. What is to prevent us implementing all the technical achievements of Israeli agricultural practice in Australia. Other potentially useful techniques are the well tested, Australian invented, P.A. Yeomans water harvesting system, ‘Permaculture’ techniques, and the cultivation of new varieties of food crops for which the markets are now emerging. The possibilities in these areas are very great, and maximum government R&D money should be devoted to such projects. What is so irritating about the Flannery/Cocks/O’Connor view of agriculture is that it is almost totally static, and based on the past. Unless we dramatically improve agricultural practices, the Australian environment will suffer, whatever the population and with appropriate agricultural improvements, increased population will be a positive benefit to the environment. There is no lack of possible technologies to remediate both Australian agriculture, Australian industry and the Australian environment.
A civilized migration policy for Australia for the 21st Century
The population policy I advocate is on the following lines.
No discrimination in immigration on grounds of race, religion or nationality.
(b) A highish numerical objective at the top end of numerical objectives since World War II.
(c) A serious attempt to maintain a humane mix of high income business migrants, skilled migrants and poorer migrants looking for a better life. To achieve the third end, and for basic reasons of humanity, extensive family reunion.
(d) Periodic amnesties for illegal migrants.
(e) The extension of the completely free movement that applies to New Zealand, to the rest of the Pacific islands, to New Guinea (the whole island) and to Timor. The small populations of the Pacific have been the victims of Australian imperialist activities in the Pacific and as a proper moral compensation, they should be allowed the same free access to Australia as New Zealanders.
(f) A very proactive attitude to refugees. The current crisis in Timor and the crisis in Kosovo underline the importance of allowing refugee migration on the widest possible scale when crises arise. Much of the immigration history of Australia since World War II and, indeed, since the Irish Famine in the 1850s, has been based on providing a safe haven for refugees. This is appropriate for a new country like Australia.
(g) This migration programme to be backed up by a considerable commitment to appropriate national development, infrastructure, agricultural development etc, at the same time as a vast public programme to remediate the Australian environment.
Having sketched out the above proposed migration policy, I believe that that is the kind of policy on which both the labour movement, and Australian society as a whole, will settle, and quite soon. The reason that that will be so is the already defined cultural diversity and ethnic mix in the new Australia that we already have, and the obvious political implications of our location in the world. The current crisis in relations with Indonesia, produced by the necessity of defending the right of national self-determination of the East Timorese people, heavily underlines the need for nailing down such a general policy in relation to the question of migration. Only the kind of multicultural, diverse Australia that I’ve outlined can have a reasonable prospect of further development, or even survival, in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century. Such an Australia will have a bright future as a civilized example to the rest of the world about how to handle the migration and population question in a relatively new country in a difficult world.