The curious fact about the recent population controversy is the absence of any historical context. Since the early 1970s immigration has been a theme of conservative campaigns in Australia, before then it was Labor that wrapped itself in the banner of White Australia. The conservative critique of immigration came direct from Britain where the Conservatives had mobilized against non-white immigration from the Commonwealth. In the dying days of the McMahon government some Liberals hoped that immigration could be turned against Labor. John Edwards wrote in 1973:
In the third week [of the campaign] he [McMahon] began to attack the Labor Party immigration policy more heavily, inferring that Labor would accept so many Asian and African migrants that the population balance would be upset
However fear of Whitlam after 1972 encouraged conservatives to mobilise on economic issues against Labor’s perceived waste and economic mismanagement (rather like the US today), and Malcolm Fraser’s own values steered the right away from immigration. Yet once in opposition the Liberals were drawn to immigration like a moth to the flame. There is persistent belief that immigration is a massive vote-changer (a belief oddly shared by many fearful left wingers). The recent population controversy is the latest version of this campaign and it is occurring under Tony Abbott whose political roots in conservative Catholicism should incline him against such an appeal. The population controversy is embarrassing for many on the political right. Their preferred response is to evade the close linkage between anti-immigration sentiment and conservative activism, and to suggest that opponents of immigration are from the left. Chris Berg:
the Greens are instinctively hostile to anything that increases consumption within our territorial borders. More immigrants, economic growth, new products, cashed up bogans buying plasma televisions, anyone buying anything – whatever it is, they’re against it.
This is a pattern among the more intelligent conservative activists, embarrassed by their side they somehow end up blaming the left for the things that conservatives do: remember the argument that Pauline Hanson and her supporters had no agency of their own but were blind reaction to Paul Keating? A recent example on the ETS is Dennis Shanahan: although the Liberals voted against the scheme they were not responsible for its defeat. Personal responsibility for everybody except for us.
Certainly we can find Green opponents of population growth such as Clive Hamilton but do they speak for Green activists? Light on this question is shed by the Australian National University election and candidate surveys (available from ASSDA). The 2007 ANU survey of election candidates finds that 77.4% of Green candidates considered immigration to be good for Australia’s economy compared to 85.7% for the Coalition and 89% for Labor, however 32.2% of Green candidates strongly agreed immigration was good for the economy more than either Labor or the Coalition. However the Greens had the highest percentage of candidates who believed that immigration was bad for the economy: 4.3% vs. 1.3% for the Coalition and zero for Labor.
However more detailed questions were asked of voters in the ANU Election Survey. Here Green voters stand out as the most sympathetic to immigration, only 17.7% thought immigration levels were too high compared to 36% of Labor voters, 46.3% Liberals and 63% Nationals. 29.8% of Green voters wanted more migrants compared to 6.5% for the Liberals, 18.2% for Labor and 4.1% for the Nationals. Does this suggest a division among Green activists between a pro-immigration majority and small but committed anti-immigration group?
What drives anti-immigration sentiment? Overall I would argue that there are two distinct currents of environmental concern among voters, one ‘green’ concerned with wilderness preservation and post-materialism, the other ‘brown’ concerned with over-popualtion and resource depletion. Popular anti-immigration sentiment picks up on the later. Some of the popular concern about the greenhouse effect tapped into these concerns: a shaky foundation on which to build a progressive political movement.