Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sustaining Immigration in a Sustainable Future

You may not know this, depending on where you are and what sort of news you pay attention to, but Australia is in the thick of another election campaign. With the Ruddbot shunted off to the political wilderness and Australia's first female prime minister jockeying to stay ahead of those who'd love to see her time in office be short, politicians are coming out of the woodwork to argue about what should be done. Whether or not it will be done is, of course, dependent on how much faith you have in the democratic process.

One such issue, and one that has been rather politically charged over the course of Australia's history, is immigration. Recently Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative Liberal Party, announced his party's intention to cut Australia's annual immigration rate to 170,000, down from 300,000 in 2008. The headline in the Brisbane Times specifically mentioned "unsustainable" immigration levels, which at first made me think that a political party had seen the light and would be fine-tuning their immigrant acceptance numbers in line with an environmentally-sound development policy. Most of Australia is a desert, after all, with the population disproportionately clustered around the few centers of agricultural productivity.

Well. Turns out they're not using "sustainable" in that context, because the Liberals want Australians to have more children - "one for mum, one for dad and one for the country." Considering the love/hate relationship Australia has traditionally had with regard to immigration - from the White Australia Policy to the apex of One Nation in 1998 and a more modern spate of "FUCK OFF WE'RE FULL" bumper stickers - it's not much of a surprise to me. But that doesn't change the fact that Australia has come to its current prosperity by exhausting the resources of an old and sunburned continent, and that the models of development that held true in the twentieth century cannot be blindly followed as gospel in the twenty-first.

North America didn't get to be what it is today by turning all the ships around at the shore.

What this feels like to me is an expression of attitudes that are commonplace in throughout the world, particularly in continental Europe - the idea of immigrants as some strange "other." Australia is one of the relatively few immigrant societies in the world, since the local natives were unable to prevent the Europeans from stealing their land out from under them - even more so in Australia than elsewhere. Nevertheless, immigration is valuable. The mix of cultures, backgrounds, and ideas produced in an immigrant state lends a dynamism that I think will be vital in the years ahead. Look at the example of Toronto - today one of the most vibrant cities on Earth, but sixty years ago a backwater provincial burg dominated by the Orange Order.

Australia's Treasury has estimated that, if current trends continue, in 2050 its population will stand at thirty-six million, up from 22.3 million in 2010. I'm doubtful whether or not the Australian continent could support that kind of population. Already it's planning large-scale pipeline water transport, and its electrical generating infrastructure is disproportionately based on dirty coal. Immigration should be made sustainable, sure, but what it shouldn't be made as a scapegoat - slashing immigration but spurring an increase in natural population growth does nothing to solve Australia's potential support problems. A country that cuts itself off from the world does so out of fear, and if Australia's leaders believe Australian culture is so fragile that immigrants could replace it wholesale, to me that speaks to how well they'd be able to deal with problems ahead.

Given its climate, I tend to think of Australia as a canary in the coal mine for the future of the developed world. We should all pay close attention to the problems it faces, and the avenues it explores to solve them. We may need to be making similar decisions ourselves a few decades down the road.

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