Geoffrey Blainey, immigration and conservatism then and now

Scott Morrison’s comments on Muslims recall the glory days of 1980s conservatism when many conservatives (and some nervous lefties) believed that they had found a xenophobic master key to public opinion. John Howard’s musing on ‘Asian’ immigration were the high or low point. Labor government and Bob Hawke in particular wrapped themselves in the banner of multiculturalism and now this seems to be repeating (maybe Labor did learn something from 2010 election in NSW after all). Morrison’s intervention also displays a potential flashpoint on the right between establishment conservatives and populists (think Sean Hannity v Glenn Beck), from the the view of the left they may both seem equally objectionable but there is an important difference, the former want conservative electoral victories the later wants more. In government John Howard could appeal to both but it is more difficult in opposition, if a proposal for a constitutional acknowledgment of the indigenous population wins the support of the Coalition leadership it is likely to be opposed by the populist right. Conservative intellectuals dreamed of Pauline Hanson and Sarah Palin but eventually found them to a political nightmare.

A leading figure of 1980s popular conservatism was Geoffrey Blainey. Today he is largely remembered for his immigration interventions that culminated in the unfortunate All for Australia. It is interesting to consider his other interventions in the broader context of the immigration debate. Recently working on an overview of Australian history and reading many of the classic historians including Blainey. I read Eye on Australia a collection of his 1980s writings. In part they are typically insightful and imaginative and often generous in spirit but…they speak for the pessimism that afflicted many Australians after the end of the long boom. He notes that some of his students feared 30% unemployment due to new technology (9). The discussion of Asian immigration echoes these themes, they are presented as a threat to the jobs of the unskilled, and although it is never explained how they were going to take these jobs, were they to be paid less? Were they more subservient? (29) but too many of them are also unemployed and taking houses from the homeless ‘Australian Australians’(231). He displays the usual slippage to evoking public opinion rather than your own (29). City dwellers are remote from export industries (42, 186) Canberra exports nothing and public service pensions are too high (257). Blainey’s view of international competition is a crude version of  the ‘pop internationalism’ that Paul Krugman criticises(264).

Blainey presents multiculturalism is an unpopular elite conspiracy but it supported by Labor governments for ‘electoral purposes’ (47) this apparent contradiction is perhaps resolved by his complaint that it is too easy to become a citizen.  There are references to declining living standards but they are not linked to an analysis of productivity (60). Although there are references to negative impact of economic regulations on entrepreneurs (69). He is doubtful about the economic prospects of China (104). Japan will become a first rank military power (106). The macroeconomic analysis is confused he complains that the Hawke created too many public sector jobs and put pressure on the balance of payments (111) one reference to financial deregulation (113). There is a 5 to 1 chance against a devastating nuclear war (119). Australia is ‘cringing’ towards Japan(157) (if we switched Japan and China his analysis might seem more insightful). There’s some unpleasant political point scoring for example on the fitness of Bill Hayden’s wife for vice-regal duties (174). Overall the most notable omission is tariff protection I found no reference to the protection question dispute its central role in economic policy debate, and as an object of neo-liberal critique, even if I missed one or two it is still a notable absence. Blainey’s business friendly neo-mercantilism was free market only in a fairly limited sense. It’s an ongoing pattern on the right. It’s understandable he was a hero the right but if you were an orthodox economic liberal a work such as Maddock’s the Australian Economy in the Long-Run offers more. A broader  lesson:  historians should steer clear of direct political interventions in which they claim the status of historians. Blainey reminds us that the 1980s new right were not the principled economic reformers of current mythology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>