Why hasn’t the politics of immigration in Australia gone feral?

By Lorenzo

As one contemplates the rise in anti-immigration parties in Europe, and the fraught politics of immigration in the US, it is very striking how little political angst Australia’s very high level of immigration has caused. True, the nationalist One Nation Party recently scored 4 Senators in the 2016 Federal Election, but that was on 4.3% of the national vote.

With the collapse of socialism as a serious alternative to capitalism, and the consequent convergence in the economic policies of the (centre-left) ALP and the (centre-right) LNP Coalition (part of a wider pattern across Western democracies), there has been a floating “not them” vote in Australian politics which has latched on to various vehicles over the years: this is just another iteration.

The ALP and Coalition still scored almost two-thirds of the Senate vote, and over three-quarters of the House of Representatives vote: that the result was so close said much more about the Coalition campaign and incumbent PM Malcolm Turnbull‘s Premiership than something deeper.

So, the question is why does Australia’s high immigration levels (much higher than the US, for example) cause remarkably little political angst?

The why can be understood by focusing on three individuals.

Talking it out, thinking it through

The first is Arthur Calwell (1896-1973) Immigration minister from 1945-49 in the postwar Chifley Labor Government. A good Labor man, Calwell was a staunch advocate of the White Australia policy (famously saying, over a wrongful deportation case, that “two Wongs don’t make a White“).

Calwell was the primary political architect of Australia’s postwar immigration policy. The crucial element being that Australia had a serious and open debate among migration policy: it was not an ad hoc response to various pressures, but a considered (and publicly debated) national strategy.

There were considerable adjustments along the way (notably the abandonment of White Australia) but, as the original political architect of Australia’s postwar immigration policy, Calwell openly embraced the notion that Australia would deliberately look beyond the British Isles for migrants, famously coining the term New Australians. The Australian national identity was set up as something people not only could join, but were being deliberately recruited to join.

Because it was a deliberate national strategy, over time, Australian pragmatism was applied to the operation of the strategy. Including sensible things such as interpreter services and seeking to have a broad range of migrants selected by criteria that suited Australia’s national interests.

Moreover, the key elements were debated in a period when views could be much more openly expressed on such matters. One of the aspects poisoning the politics of immigration in contemporary countries is the willingness to point-and-shriek (racist! xenophobe!) at anyone who expresses any negative concerns about immigration. It inhibits many people from expressing their concerns, drives the politics of concern over immigration towards those more willing to put up with the abuse (typically, the more ideologically passionate) and seriously inhibits responding intelligently to issues about patterns and operation of migration.

It is not that Australia is entirely immune to this deeply pernicious trend, it is that much of the key issues regarding migration were thrashed out before the rise of the use of the rhetoric of denunciation (racist! xenophobe! Islamohpobe!, etc) to poison public debate. And such rhetoric, and the pointing-and-shrieking that goes with it, does poison public debate; not least because the point of said rhetoric is to block engaging with the concerns of those subject to the rhetoric of denunciation. (As, by definition, “racist” and “xenophobic” concerns are not morally legitimate.) Identifying such “moral untouchables” also identifies them as people not “fit” to take part in the national conversation, so not “fit” to have a say in public policy.

Avoiding economic stress

The second individual is Bernie Fraser, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) 1989-96. It was while he was Governor that the RBA adopted the monetary policy of:

keeping underlying inflation between 2 and 3 per cent, on average, over the [business] cycle

which has resulted in Australia having avoided a recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth) since 1993. Having an economy which has produced steady economic growth without a major crisis makes it much easier to avoid immigration and migrants becoming a focus of resentment and concern.

But Australia having a thought-out migration strategy should also get credit, as importing migrants with relatively high level of human (and other) capital means that the labour/capital balance of the Australian economy has not shifted against labour, allowing (along with targeted welfare policy: indeed, the most downwardly redistributive [pdf] welfare policy in the OECD) Australians in general to share in the benefits of economic growth. This a balance that, for example, the US has spectacularly failed to achieve. (See this post on a paper on differences in average competence of migrant flows.)

Pro-migration folk often point out that migrants raise domestic demand for goods and services. That is true, but that still leaves open who supplies that demand and with what return. Importing lots of low-skill workers reduces the return to resident low skill workers (due to reduced relative scarcity) but increases the return to capital (due to increased relative scarcity). Badly structured migration flows can increase inequality in a society and adversely affect the interests of significant numbers of resident workers. (Historical demographer Peter Turchin puts together a striking model incorporating such effects here.)

Yes, increased population means a larger economy. But what matters much for political effects are the per capita effects, particularly the distribution of benefits. The US, for example, has managed a pretty stable rate of overall per capita economic growth during both high and low migration periods. But it is not likely to be entirely a coincidence that is after the post-1965 broadening in the number and sources of migration that US economic growth became increasingly decoupled from wage growth. During the later C19th, the level of migration was so large, that the average height of US-born men fell, a strong indicator of negative effects on their standard of living from mass migration.

Increasing diversity in a society also makes it harder to reach agreement over contentious issues,* hence it is important to have migration policy itself be well grounded in broad interests. Particularly as there is good reason to think that the content of the migrant intake matters for a country’s longer term prospects. It is, after all, deeply paradoxical to claim both that (1) migration has major effects on a country and (2) that any concern over those effects are somehow morally illegitimate. Pretending that all migrant inflows are wholly beneficial to everyone may make for good Virtue-signalling, but it pretty dumb as a public policy position. Just as it striking for people who tend to be obsessed with “bad ideas” to suggest that the cognitive baggage migrants bring with them doesn’t matter.

A sense of control

The third individual is John Howard, Australian PM from 1996-2007, whose government had to deal with the second wave of “boat people”.

Historically, Australia’s migrant policy has, due to Australia’s geography as an island-continent, not had to confront people coming other than by commercial travel (via ships, later also planes). While visa over-staying can be an issue, it is a not very public one and applies to people already specifically accepted for (at least temporary) entry.

There have been two significant waves of “boat people” coming by (essentially black market) transport to Australia. One was after the Vietnam War, as the victorious North Vietnamese drove the Chinese minority into the sea and others fled an oppressive (and economically-repressive) regime. The Vietnamese boat people, part of the Indochina refugee crisis, caused political friction: particularly as many folk were invested in the notion of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese as “national liberators” and the continual exodus of desperate people was, to say the least, confronting. (The boat people were often sneered at by “progressive” folk as “economic refugees”.)

Faced with a series of boat arrivals, Australia pro-actively accepted refugees, seeking to discourage the flow of boats. Moreover, it was a local regional crisis (Vietnam is closer to Darwin than is Hobart), Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War generated some sense of obligation and Australia had previously accepted many refugees from Communist rule in Europe. Australia took in 185,700 Indochinese refugees, more than any other Western countries except Canada and the USA.

The second significant wave was of boat people from the Middle East. This was not a local regional crisis (indeed, Middle Eastern boat people had to travel long distances to specifically target Australia), was generated by a region with endemic conflict and was (since Middle Eastern boat people were overwhelmingly Muslim) inevitably tainted by jihadi violence. Precisely because Australia is a high migration country, there are real dangers to social and political cohesion in migration becoming a fraught issue.

The Howard Government decided that it would do whatever was required to retain border control, using the famous line “we will decide who will come to this country”. It is worth quoting from Howard’s 2001 campaign speech:

It is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It’s about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations.

But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

Australia would remain a high migration country, but a high migration country as a deliberate national strategy. More specifically, confronted with a populist-nationalist challenge (such as the previous One Nation surge), the trick is not to steal the insurgent’s policies, still less adopt their framings (that just suggest that they have things right); the trick is to steal their issues while incorporating them in your framings. In this case, easier to do as migration was already established as a national strategy.

An open border approach is a no-say approach–no say on the part of the existing electorate, the existing citizens. And if there is an approach which more or less guaranteed to cause politics to go feral, it is make significant numbers of voters, significant numbers of citizens, feel they have no say. An open border approach also undermines the very elements which make for a successful migration policy–keep the intake diverse (no “lumps”), keep the labour/capital balance from shifting against labour. (There is also the issue of black market transport being unsafe, leading to drownings at sea.)

Avoiding triggers

The key feature is to stop the politics of migration triggering authoritarian responses within the citizenry. The very diversity of Australia’s migration policy is helpful in this, as it is less likely to develop problematic migrant “enclaves”. Given the wide range of sources of migrants, so every migrant group is a relatively small minority, there is a much broader interest in “fitting in”.

Conversely, importing large “lumps” of particular migrants can be both more confronting to the existing residents and creates more possibility of developing oppositional cultures. Thus security forces in Canada, Australia and the US, where Muslims are still small minorities, are successful at breaking up local jihadi plots, because they get cooperation from within the Muslim communities. Security forces in Europe have less success, because the significantly larger Muslim communities provide more “cover” for jihadi networks.

In considering the politics of migration in specific countries, how prone local political cultures are to triggering such authoritarian responses will vary, as will what the local triggers are. This complicates cross-national comparisons. Generally, however, it is those pushing social change who are most likely to trigger such authoritarian responses, as their policies and rhetoric act to undermine existing social equilibria. Hence, for example, the behaviour of the local Left being so important in whether, and to what degree, authoritarian political responses were triggered in the interwar period. In our times, the penchant of the Virtuous for insisting upon great respect for other cultures, but contempt for Western ones, is very unhelpful.

More specially, considering the places where migration policy has become fraught, it is clear they violate all the above-identified general principles. There is a lack of a sense for many citizens of having a say, there are identifiably large (and problematic) “lumps” of migrants and a lack of preservation of the labour/capital balance.


Conversely, Canada, which also has a large migration policy without its migration politics going feral, has a very similar approach to Australia. The Trudeau Government’s approach to Syrian refugees–women and intact families only–is very much the policy of a country which thinks through migration policy, which takes it seriously.

But a lot of folk don’t care what works, they only care that they seem Virtuous. Worse, the politics of migration going feral suits them fine–it gives them so many more citizens to feel morally superior to and a greater sense of moral urgency for their favoured moral concerns.

If any concern about the extent and content of migration intake is subject to point-and-shriek, then migration policy is likely to tend towards the stupid (as relevant factors will not be seriously considered) and migration politics to the feral: another “triumph” of Virtue over fact and function.


* Demographer Peter Turchin’s simple model includes a “cultural” factor, using the minimum wage as a proxy. The more diverse the society, the less “social solidarity” policies are likely to operate.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. I am Not Trampis
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Calwell said two wongs do not make a white in response to an interjection from an opposition member whose names was WHITE!

  2. Vern Hughes
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    An excellent overview of the issues, though the article fails to offer an answer to its own question: why has there been so little ‘political angst’ about our high level of immigration?

    My answer is that there has, in fact, been a lot of angst about this, but it is not ‘political angst’. The burden of accommodating high levels of immigrants in Australia has fallen disproportionately on working class communities in unfashionable suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. These communities have responded with ‘exit’ rather than ‘voice’. When their suburbs begin to be dominated by one ethnic group, the native residents move to another suburb. At least, that has been the traditional response fromh the 1950s to the 1990s. There are signs now that house pricing is erecting tougher barriers to this exit strategy.

    Why has the exit strategy prevailed? In short, the angst in working class communities runs up against safe Labor incumbencies, which are highly resistant to political voice. Once large numbers of migrants began dominating safe Labor electorates (a process which occurred in a very rapid period of time), Labor accommodated this new reality by absorbing ethnic leaders, allowing them to set-up mini-fiefdoms, and allocating them local and state governments seats).

    A case study. Footscray is one of Labor’s safest seats and one of the most ethnically concentrated (not necessarily most diverse) localities in Australia. It has hosted a successive series of ethnic ghettos – Croatian, Macedonian and Greek, then Vietnamese, now Horn of Africa. There is not much diversity, because the ethnically dominant group establish enclaves, until the next group of arrivals come through. The traditional native Anglo working class has simply exited. They have relocated en masse to Hoppers Crossing and Wyndham in the Werribee region, with whole streets of white Anglo working class people transplanted. Did this transplantation occur without angst? No, there was plenty of angst involved in the loss of community and sense of home. But the pragmatic side of Australian working class life took the form of accepting that there was no possibility of a political revolt against the Labor machine, and they voted with their feet.

    Schools bear the cost of these transitions in working class communities. My first son caught the tail of the Macedonian ghetto in Kingsville, before the Vietnamese ghetto arrived. That meant that his first year of school, at Kingsville Primary in 1993, involved a year of sitting quietly at the book of the classroom, doing nothing, because the teacher spent the year teaching the majority Macedonian kids to speak English. The minority English speaking kids and their parents experienced a great deal of angst about this. But politically, Labor and Liberal politicians didn’t want to know. They wanted to celebrate ‘wonderful multiculturalism’ from the safe distance of their leafy English-speaking streets.

  3. Barry
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    There is a scale of percentage of Muslims in a population that displays the expected problems that occur.
    Up 5% there is not a lot of trouble with crime and Jihadi activity. As the percentage rises the problems increase.
    At 20% no go areas develop, Malmo in Sweden and Paris are examples, with police only entering in force.
    Most non muslim businesses close and women are harried on the street for not being “covered”.
    Demands for Sharia Law arise with unofficial courts being established. National law is ignored and criminal activity increases in the lawless areas, but spreading into other suburbs from a base that is secure from police.

    Jihadi activity is much higher.

    It is not till a percentage around 10% that anti muslim parties become active and attract larger numbers of members. Note the political changes now occurring in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Sweden.

  4. Paul
    Posted September 21, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Australia has always had high immigration. We are used to it so pay little attention to it.
    How ever with the state of the world as it is. If groups that are imported do not assimilate then we potentially have problems. With people come belief systems. You import those with the people, it’s unavoidable. If these people form groups of like minded individuals they can be used as a fighting force by outside influences.
    The US has used this tactic. Look at Cambodia for example. Fund the minority group and it will destabilize the ruling party. The minority group only hold power because of the funding. Shut off the funding and you shut off the group. So you have the group at your beck and call.
    Immigration can be used as a military tool. Don’t think anybody would use it. Think again.

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