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Population gold

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Thursday, 5 August 2010

Those of us who normally vote Labor will remember with bitter angst the 2004 Federal election campaign, and, in particular, Julia Gillard’s Medicare Gold policy. Given that Medicare Gold’s architect is Australia’s current prime minister it’s perhaps time to look at where she might really take us on the issue of population. Kevin Rudd was unashamedly a fan of a big Australia. But Gillard has aggressively back-tracked from that stance.

There are some uncomfortable facts on population.

First, Australia really only has five cities of which four are over-crowded and expensive. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in particular lack the infrastructure to adequately service their existing populations much less their projected future populations. The question of housing affordability is also particularly difficult.


The second unfortunate fact is that Australia has a demographic time-bomb in the shape of an ageing population and a diminishing taxpayer base.

Third, the size of the population places a burden on the environment. This can be managed. Though it’s worth noting that politicians, including Gillard, who were content to do nothing on the environment where an emissions trading scheme (ETS) was concerned, are now willing to act on “sustainable populations”.

This brings us to the fourth uncomfortable fact: that the population debate masks a race issue for some parts of the electorate.

The rightward shift on asylum seekers, with which Gillard was acquiescent, and which it now appears that she will pursue, was targeted to the battler voters in the marginal electorates. Similarly, the crackdown on foreign students was a nod to this group. There is no point pretending, or even being polite about it, what scares a small group of the battlers is the influx of non-white migrants into Australia.

It is obviously a live issue in outer Western Sydney enclaves such as Camden. But many migrant groups such as the Indians, the Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Greeks, Italians, etc, are known for their hard work and their valuable contributions to Australian culture. The recent success of many Asian migrants in terms of their academic excellence is a positive development. Gillard might not remember, but two of the Australian doctors in Bali in 2002 who provided assistance to victims immediately after the bombings were Tamils. That might be something for Gillard to think about if she plans extending the processing ban on Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

Most Australians are not racist. But unfortunately there are a few racists in the community and it would appear that Labor is scared of them. Perhaps scarred by Labor’s experiences in 2001, particularly Howard’s cutting line on the “Beazley backflip”, Gillard has engaged in a bit of dog whistling. Though, I must say that with Medicare Gold and the Education Revolution cost blow-outs in mind, I would think that the right kind of migrants are people whose children can count.


Gillard’s put-downs of a big Australia, the sight of her on a navy patrol boat, the briefly touted and rather disastrous Timor solution and her pointless remarks on “political correctness” could all be capable of dual interpretations - both innocent and sinister. Either way, dog-whistling is actually quite racist on several levels - it very unfairly stereotypes Anglo-Australians and creates unnecessary boundaries in the community. It might satisfy a few but it does little for sound policy development. However, it does rather neatly display the dreadful contempt that political party operators have for the common voter - think about who the dog is in the dog-whistling scenario.

Gillard has thus far resisted the temptation to play peacemaker and to reach out and bring communities together. As Education Minister she was mostly conspicuously and embarrassingly silent on the attacks against Indian students.

It actually would be relatively easy to bring the battlers and the migrants together, as both groups actually share a lot in common, such as a desire to fit in and to move ahead. What the battlers fear is that increased competition for jobs and housing may make them economically vulnerable and that they may lose their place in Australian society. This is a fear that needs to be alleviated by genuine communication and sound policy. It should not be played upon for personal benefit.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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