Today both Julia and Tony had a day off the campaign to attend the funeral of Private Bewes, who died in Afghanistan.
In lieu of any real election news today, the opposition and the media got itself into a lather about Julia Gillard’s sustainable population argument. They all got up in arms about the fact that she has refused to put a number on the level of population or the level of immigration that would be required. Here’s Peter Hartcher getting all excited about his own prose at the SMH:
Julia Gillard says she wants a population policy, but it's sounding more like a population placebo.
Her opening position is that she does not want a ''big Australia''. She tells us that ''hurtling towards a big Australia is not only undesirable. It is irresponsible.
''If you elect me on August 21, our country will take the path to a sustainable population. I will focus on preserving the quality of life of our Australian sanctuary.''
OK. So what is a sustainable population?
The Prime Minister doesn't want to tell us. She doesn't want to debate the overall size of the population: ''I don't think we should be nominating a number.'' She seems to want to host a debate rather than supply an answer: ''I urge you all to contribute to the national population strategy we are developing.''
All right. Which parts of population policy does she want us to discuss? The birthrate?
No. Gillard says that it is a matter of individual choice how many children we might want to have. No debate there.
She doesn't want to debate that, either.
So if it's not about birthrates, and it's not about immigration, perhaps Gillard knows of some other, secret source of population in the fifth dimension.
It's a broad-spectrum placebo that she can pop into your mouth if you open it to ask a question about asylum seekers or immigration or housing or congestion. This allows her to sound concerned, sympathetic, but avoid anything hard, like a real policy.
So suck on that.
Wow! He writes a whole article on the issue, and only at the end mentions housing or congestion.
Crikey as well was getting in on the act:
When challenged on immigration yesterday, Julia Gillard ducked for cover. Unwilling to even admit the logical consequence of her concerns about sustainable population, that she would have to reduce immigration, she offered a distraction about "issues about water about soil about city planning about infrastructure and services."
Christopher Pyne, as is his want, took thee issue to its illogical conclusion:
“If it's not about immigration, what is it about? Is she seriously suggesting that we are going to have a one-child policy in Australia to reduce the population, or is she planning on handing around condoms to make people reduce our population naturally?"
Yes, he did say it. Just move on; try and forget you read it.
You see when the media and opposition talk about Gillard’s sustainable population policy all they care about is “population”. They completely ignore the “sustainable”. And if they really want to criticise her they suggest it is all a dog whistle about asylum seekers and immigration.
Yet here she was yesterday when asked about asylum seekers:
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, another boat this morning, another policy failure?
PRIME MINISTER: Another boat was intercepted this morning so a boat has arrived. I’ve been advised of that. What this means, of course, is when I’ve spoken to the Australian community about strengthening border protection and how we are dealing with asylum seekers, I’ve been very clear – there’s no quick fix here. There’s no quick fix. We have a long-term solution through developing a regional framework and a regional processing centre. It will take hard work and patience and determination to deliver that long-term solution which would take away the very product that people smugglers sell and I would say too, when you drill into this, I believe Tony Abbott agrees with much of the long-term solution and plans that I have put forward. We continue to be in dialogue with East Timor about a regional processing centre but I’ve been clear to the Australian community, there’s no quick fix here.
Not one mention of population. And in the same press conference she was asked about sustainable population she made no mention of asylum seekers:
JOURNALIST: You’ve talked up the congestion of western Sydney, western Melbourne etc. Can you guarantee that a Gillard Government in the next term will bring in Commonwealth measures that will limit population growth in these areas?
PRIME MINISTER: Our Sustainable Australia strategy is about getting the best of advice from the expert panels that my Minister, Tony Burke, has established. It’s about getting the best of advice about how we can have a sustainable Australia and I’ve said to the people of western Sydney, and I said it to them yesterday and I also say to the people in Brisbane, in Melbourne, people who are living with growth pressures, that I don’t believe we should just keep hurtling along without stopping, taking a breath and getting the policies right.
The policies for a sustainable Australia and yes, they are about infrastructure, they’re about environmental issues, they’re about services like first-class schools, access to a doctor, access to a nurse when you need one and, in pursuit of sustainability, it’s one of the reasons why the cutback announced by Mr Abbott yesterday is so damaging. I mean, I want to invest in infrastructure in communities that are growing because there are jobs there. They’re growing because mining’s growing. They need workers. They need people to come and live in places like Karratha, places like Gladstone – that brings pressure of growth, pressure on infrastructure. I want to invest in that infrastructure. Tony Abbott wants to rip that $400 million away. It’s bad news for Western Australia and bad news.
But then you see, journalists are cleverer than you or me – they know what she really means. They know when she is talking about sustainable population she really just trying to calm people in western Sydney from not getting worried about those filthy immigrants and boat people.
Please. People in Western Sydney by and large when they hear “population growth” like people everywhere else in Australia are not thinking immigration – they’re thinking road congestion, they’re wondering about decent public transport and decent hospitals to cope with the growth, they’re thinking about new schools for all the kids, they’re wondering if it means their commute time will be longer, they’re worried if the influx of people will worsen the housing shortage and increase housing prices, or rent prices, and then there’s the problem of water.
In short they’re thinking about the sustainable part of the phrase – because that’s what they’re worried about right now. Of course to Hartcher these things are all just “fifth dimension” stuff. And to Crikey it is being fellow travellers with Dick Smith and being in favour of a “little Australia”
The media’s obsession with immigration numbers and a population target is like judging the best cook on Masterchef by the size of the meals – there is a lot more to a meal than the size, just as there is actually a lot more to sustainable population than the size of that population. Tony Burke made this point nicely in an interview with Derryn Hinch yesterday:
HINCH: Well yeah, but we're entitled to know something. I mean, you know, Bill Hayden once said 50 million; well that's out the window now. Kevin Rudd said - and he's in favour of Big Australia - 36 million. Some people said 40 million. Now you were the minister under Kevin Rudd. You must have looked at some figures? What's a number? Is it 25, 30, 35?
BURKE: And this is the balance and I just don't want to get into the situation of just offering a glib figure. If we had a population Derryn of only 10 million people, but they all lived where your listeners are in Melbourne, we'd have a massive sustainability problem. And this is where there are parts of Australia that want growth - that can handle growth - where we've never properly quantified in those local areas how much bigger they can go. And there are other areas that are absolutely stretched to the limit. Whether it be through water infrastructure, be it through the pressure on traffic, really a whole lot of issues, or just that urban sprawl's reached the limits of where you'd want to start saying we just don't want to clear this next parcel of land.
HINCH: Yeah, I wonder though, I wonder though if this is a bit of a euphemism here. You've got like - I mean Julia Gillard's a migrant, Tony Abbott's a migrant, Derryn Hinch is a migrant as I've said in my introduction. I wonder when you talk about sustainable Australia, is this just sort of a code, because some people would say - I'd probably look at it myself and say this could be seen as an euphemism for just F-off, we're full.
BURKE: If that were the case then I wouldn't be arguing what I do argue about those areas that need growth. There are significant projects. The biggest example of this are in the mining industry, with significant projects where you'll find areas that really do want to grow they have the jobs available but don't, for example, have the housing supply for the workforce to live there.
The actual population number by itself is actually meaningless – and it would be stupid for any Minister to say one because basically no one knows what is that number. If we added no more infrastructure of services or facilities, then the sustainable population might be 25 million. But if we do build some infrastructure, facilities and add some services – especially in regional areas – then it might be 35 million (or more).
An analogy of how the media is acting on this issue is if the Government were to announce they were going to design and build a safe automobile and all the media and opposition wanted to know was what the top speed the car would be able to do.
The press conference would be like this:
PM: Today I am announcing that the Government will be developing a safe car that will be provided to all Australians.
JOURNALIST: So how fast will it be able to go?
PM: Well I can’t give you that number because there are a number of factors that will determine what is a safe top speed.
For example we will have to weigh up such safety measures as ABS brakes, airbags for driver and passengers, electronic stability control, the size and weight of the car, how many people will it seat, will it be a station wagon or a two seater.
Then there are cost issues such as whether or not it be cost effective to have an intelligent speed adaptation system, should it be 4WD or 2WD, whether or not it will have an anti-whiplash system.
Is it a car to be targeted for rural or city driving? We will also have to consider fuel efficiency and whether it will be automatic or manual drive. And then of course design and aerodynamics will also influence that number. All these things will be considered before we come up with the safest car that is also within the means of the Australian Government to build and which will be most suited for the needs of the Australian public.
JOURNALIST: Uh huh. So… how fast will it go?
And when the PM doesn’t give a figure the media are all over her saying she is designing a car but doesn’t want to say how fast it will go for fear of losing the rev-head vote, or conversely the Sunday-driver vote.
And if pressed and she says: “Well, for example, if we only had the most basic type of brakes, no air bags and we built it to seat 6 people then quite possibly it might only be able to have a safe top speed of 100km/h”.
BREAKING NEWS: GOVERNMENT’S CAR WILL ONLY BE ABLE TO GO 100 KM/H!
It’s the same with the sustainable population. If Gillard or Burke said, “Well if we don’t improve our infrastructure or services we’ll likely only be able to sustain a population of 25 million”. You can bet the headlines will scream “GILLARD SAYS 25 MILLION IS FULL HOUSE”, “IMMIGRATION TO BE SLASHED”, “EMPLOYER GROUPS CRITICISE PM’S 25 MILLION TARGET”, “EXPERTS SAY ONE CHILD POLICY WILL BE NEEDED TO ACHIEVE TARGET”
Conversely if she said that if we were to improve our infrastructure, regional services, and water systems then 40 million might be possible by 2050, well then you know the Daily Tel would be running the next minute with:
“PM SETS 40 MILLION TARGET!”, “GET READY – 20 MILLION PEOPLE ARE COMING YOUR WAY!”, “PM’s TARGET WILL MEAN HIGHER TAXES!”
She won’t set a target because the media doesn't give a damn about the whole argument – they give a damn about scaring the punters or criticising her for dog whistling. TheY criticise her for not stating a number and then as soon as she does they’ll kill her with it – just like they did Rudd and his “Big Australia line”.
The media have been pretty scathing of this election campaign thus far – citing its lack of real meaty policy. And I do agree with them. Many have also bemoaned the decline of a reformist economic policy stance – and I agree with them. Julia for example at that press conference was asked a good question:
JOURNALIST: On sustainability, one of the proposals which has been put forward that actually stands a chance of actually doing something in this area is a congestion tax. I think even Ken Henry may have recommended that. Do you rule out, or would you consider a congestion tax in your next term?
PRIME MINISTER: The Treasurer, Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan, made it clear when the Henry Tax Review was first released publicly that we’ve got no plans, not on the radar to introduce congestion taxes and, indeed, even using those very words, these are taxes that would be introduced at a State level, if at all.
Of course she ruled it out. Had she not, Abbott would have been all over it as another “great big new tax”. And the media would have gone along for the ride.
She only has to look at how the population debate has been handled by the media thus far to know there won’t be any maturity during an election campaign on any practical measures that might be introduced to pay for a sustainable population. And if she has any second thoughts, she only need look at the coverage of the RSPT. Anyone really think that was balanced or mature? The media wants policy so they can beat politicians over the head with it, and then they’ll criticise the politicians for not being able to sell the message properly.
Be bold they say, so we can bring you down!
A while ago I did a Prisoner’s Dilemma of votes on the issue of asylum seekers, well I could also do one on the issue of media. On any economic/political issue a media outlet could play it intelligent and mature and balanced, or it could go the fear and sensationalist route and increase its readership.
The temptation to go that route will always be too great – even for what were once called “broadsheets”. Just think of the Libs bullshit and racist asylum seeker map – did anyone in the media (aside from blogs and Crikey) call them out on it? If there was I must have missed it.
In a democracy, it is said, that the voters get the Government they deserve. Personally I think we get the Government the media deserves.
Once the ALP wins this election the pressure will be on Burke and Gillard to come up with some real-meaty policies to back up their rhetoric – and yes they will need to. But were I advising the ALP at the moment, I’d tell them to keep doing what they’re doing. The times do not suit boldness. Not when there’s fear to create.
Get used to a boring campaign.