Painting by XR rebel Sue Michael
Since the Liberal Party, in 1996 under the leadership of John Howard, increased Australian immigration levels, the number of immigrants to Australia has steadily increased with bipartisan support, climbing from 70,000 a year in the mid-nineties to 180,000 a year under Abbott and Turnbull. This increase is largely a result of increased intake of skilled migrants – our humanitarian refugee intake has not increased, hovering around 15 to 20 thousand each year with very little fluctuation. Such increases in skilled migration, if continued into the coming decades, will contribute to Australian population levels reaching 40 million by mid-century. While this policy has been generally endorsed by both major parties, with strong support from the multicultural left, it has been opposed by Pauline Hanson and other elements of the nationalist and xenophobic right who promulgate vile forms of ethnic scapegoating. The validity of the policy has also been criticised from an economic perspective that suggests it produces overall economic growth that favours property and retail industries, but not growth per person, which is stagnating, as well as impacting housing affordability, traffic congestion and exacerbating the degradation of the environment.
While Pauline Hanson has become infamous due to her opposition to our immigration policy, what is less known is that former Greens leader Bob Brown also opposes it. Brown is concerned that human global population growth over the last half century, combined with unmitigated economic growth, represent serious problems on a planet of finite resources. Brown has also argued that the current rate of skilled migrants should be reduced. This is based on his belief that by accepting such migrants into Australia, we rob their home countries of skilled individuals that they desperately need. While reducing our intake of skilled migrants he also argues for an increase of our very low refugee intake – that is immigration based on humanitarian not economic considerations. Brown is a rare exception on the political left when it comes to this issue – for example, reducing immigration in Australia is generally rejected by the environmental left, some going so far as to argue that a Green anti-immigration position is cover for far-right populism. While this is no doubt a valid argument, I would like to turn the question around: why would the environmental left in Australia support policies that were first introduced by the Liberal Party and which have been supported by successive Liberal governments as well as the business community and capitalist class?
Contemporary Australian environmental activism finds itself in an unusual situation when it comes to governmental immigration policies and the carrying capacity of Australian ecosystems, which are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Further, our population will not be able to expand to 40 million – which is close to double our current population of 24 million – without further land clearing, strain on water systems, habitat reduction and increased risk of species extinction. Australian forests have been devastated since the country was colonised in the 18th century – a process that has accelerated on the coastal periphery in the last sixty years. While factors other than population are involved in this trend, perpetuating the current intake levels is likely to put significant strain on native flora and fauna as suburban sprawl expands, habitat is cleared and building materials are required for such sprawl. Significantly, Victoria recently undertook illegal clearing of endangered forests to supply building materials to hardware and office stores. We have to ask the ourselves the serious question: would the rapacious clearing of Australian habitats that has occurred since colonisation, and the consequent extinction crisis we are now dealing with, be exacerbated by a Big Australia of 40 million? To refuse to broach the issue for fear of giving succour to jingoistic and xenophobic nationalists, seems to me both morally irresponsible and intellectually myopic. Further, by not having a serious discussion about these issues we ensure they are pushed to the fringes, becoming the sole province of the far right. Additionally, by carving out a space for mainstream Australians to discuss the population issue from an ecological perspective, we may actually deprive the far right of polemical oxygen.
Those who oppose reducing our current immigration intake, should also consider the fact that the open border policies that have resulted in the free movement of labour around the globe, have been central to the neo-liberal project of global capitalism. This point has been made by the US Democrat Bernie Sanders, who has rejected open border policies from a leftist perspective, claiming it is a Koch brother’s idea. Consequently, the question should not be if the Green case against a Big Australia is cover for right wing populism, but rather why would the environmental left become ideological bed fellows with the Koch brothers and the Australian Liberal Party?
There is a long tradition in Australian ecological thought of opposing Big Australia policies. For example, during the 1980s Judith Wright – poet, activist and founding member of the Australian Conservation Foundation – argued against increasing Australia’s population beyond the carrying capacity of the land. Wright was not opposed to migrants per say – but she was opposed to increasing our population to the detriment of the environment. This issue was linked to her concern over Aboriginal land rights, and the differing conceptions of the environment evident when comparing the colonialist and Aboriginal views of nature. As she argued, the colonial mentality sees nature as an expendable resource whereas the Aboriginal belief is that human life is intimately bound up with the land’s well-being. If we do increase our population to 40 million by mid-century, such an expansion of the settler population will undoubtedly have adverse impacts on the land’s well-being – particularly if the last two hundred years of colonisation are anything to go by.
Australia could follow Brown’s suggestion and dramatically reduce our skilled migration levels while increasing our humanitarian intake. Given climate change is predicted to produce a global refugee crisis, this would be a morally sound response if undertaken within the constraints of the land’s carrying capacity and the need for habitat preservation. Further, as Slavoy Zizek has argued in Against the Double Blackmail, the current global refugee crisis is in large part a crisis of capitalism and the colonisation of Africa and the Middle East by Western powers – a crisis he believes will be exacerbated by climate change. Those parts of the globe that have not benefited from – who have in fact been the victims of – imperial expansion and global capital accumulation are flowing into the very liberal democracies implicated in their pauperization. Given Australia has one of the highest per capita emissions rates, it seems incumbent upon us to take responsibility for how climate change impacts other parts of the globe.
Some of the solutions to these problems may involve international efforts to support uptake of renewables in countries most subject to climate change, thereby creating employment and cheap energy for the globe’s energy poor. This could assist in creating more robust socioeconomic conditions more capable of dealing with the climate crisis. Such initiatives, as part of a Global Green New Deal, could also result in the overhauling of existing multilateral institutions governing the global economy as well as making reparations to less developed countries. It has also been argued that global overpopulation, which puts strain on ecosystems through deforestation and habitat destruction, could be addressed through empowering women. Economic empowerment and education tend to reduce fertility as well as wealth inequality and over consumption – reductions that would be beneficial in countries where overpopulation is a problem. We also need to radically restructure global legal frameworks, enabling the prosecution of corporations for crimes against humanity, including the crime of ecocide – particularly when it adversely impacts communities most vulnerable to the climate and extinction crisis. Australia could support such initiatives as part of a planetary effort to address the social, political and ecological consequences of the climate and extinction crisis. And this could all be done while jettisoning our current immigration policy, phasing out coal, reducing habitat and species loss and rewilding Australia for future generations.