Vincent O'Grady

Vintage Carr: The shortcomings of his immigration comments

Image: AAP
Image: AAP

Approx Reading Time-10In light of Bob Carr’s recent comments about reducing Australia’s immigration numbers, Vincent O’Grady points out the holes in his argument.


The former New South Wales Premier and Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has once again called for immigration to be cut. He has argued that Australia’s immigration intake should be reduced by up to 50 percent, claiming “we’ve got a third-world style population growth rate.” Carr also added that “if you bring 100,000 people into the Sydney basin every year, the price of housing goes up […] people wonder why their youngsters can’t get houses in the big cities… the answer is we are going for breakneck population growth.”

I have two main issues with Carr’s proclamation. The first is from a policy point of view, and the second is from a personal or ethical position.

Carr is wrong when he says, “I think the Australian people, if asked, would want immigration slowed.” Most Australians think immigrants are good for the economy, and that immigrants make Australia more open to ideas and culture. He is also wrong with his assertions about housing. Well, he is correct to point out that migrants tend to live in the eastern cities — Melbourne and Sydney, mostly — but he is wrong about how they live and what influence their presence has.

The most recent census data shows that migrants in Australia tend to live in and around inner-city areas near universities (because many migrants are students). Beyond this, they are likely to live in communities with an established migrant history, and in newer outer suburbs. Furthermore, migrants aren’t living in low-density suburbs — on the quarter acre blocks Carr is desperate to preserve for Australian-born homeowners — but, rather, are living in high-density areas; that is, migrants tend to live in units, not houses. Australian-born people are the most likely to be living in detached residences, while the statistics for various migrant groups tend to reflect the nature of housing preferences in their home countries.

And what about pushing Australians out of the housing market? Recent evidence shows that older migrants tend to be slightly more likely to own their own homes, while younger migrants are likely to be renting. So, just like Australian-born people, then. Of migrants pushing up house prices in cities, a recent study from the United Kingdom suggests “that a 1% increase in the migrant share the population in an area reduces house prices by almost 2%.” Immigration thus has a negative impact on housing prices.

What Carr identifies, if anything, is not actually a problem with immigration, but rather a potential problem with urban governance, planning and infrastructure. A key problem is that immigration policy is set at a Federal level, while the provision of urban infrastructure and other services that impact immigrants usually occur at the level of State and local governments. There are questions of adequate forecasting and the ability to meet demands, issues of inter-governmental communication and the perennial issues of vertical fiscal imbalance. It is quite possible, with a bit of imagination (which Carr obviously lacks) to meet the infrastructure and housing demands of a growing population without closing the door on immigrants.

My second problem with Carr’s statements is that they are, at the most basic level, incredibly selfish. Let me begin by quoting from Pope Francis’ Laudato si’, from May 2015. He writes:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health.” Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognised that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.

Immigration control and population control are related, I think, or at least there is a family resemblance in the arguments of these two groups. Carr echoes claims by the likes of Dick Smith and other “stable population” advocates, who believe that most problems are made worse by the addition of more people. It seems like an intuitive argument: globally, on average, humans each need about one hectare of land and water to produce what they consume. Australians, however, need about seven hectares each. We live unsustainable lives, and if more people live like this, we will soon enough run out of natural resources.

What Dick Smith and his ilk seem to not realise is that they are asking the wrong questions: it’s not “How many people are sustainable?” but rather “How can any number of people live sustainably?” They assume that their current lifestyles are a given, and so does Carr when he says, “We can go the way of other cities so that the basic unit of housing is a unit in a high-rise tower, but I would rather think a lot of Australians would believe we’ve lost something of ourselves.”

Francis provides a devastating rebuke of this sort of thinking. To emphasise the point, I will repeat it: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised.”



Vincent O'Grady

Vincent O'Grady is a freelance writer based in Victoria. He studied history and religion at Monash University, and is a long-time observer of history, politics, and culture in Australia and abroad. He can be found on Twitter at @v_ogrady.

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