Is Green Australia the new White Australia?

18/08/2010

Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP
Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Bishop of Parramatta.
Just a week out from the election the ABC joined the debate over population with a program called Population Puzzle and a follow-up Q&A. An example of what’s criticised in the commercial media as “cash for comment”, the show was financially underwritten by its star, the anti-population campaigner Dick Smith.

Endorsing the ALP’s shift away from “Big Australia” towards a smaller “Sustainable Population”, the national broadcaster gave Mr Smith a platform to dump on growth capitalism and its insatiable appetite for imported skilled labour. Greens leader Senator Bob Brown was as trenchantly anti-population as ever, while the Opposition, though more pro-population, joined the auction to be the party toughest on migrants and refugees.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, keeps telling us that Western Sydney is already suffering particular “stress” or “congestion” from population. With roughly two-thirds of the extra 1.7 million people projected for Sydney by 2036 expected to make their homes out West, we are told that we are already over-populated.

But how would we know?

All parties now want to slow Australia’s immigration rate and “get tough” (or even tougher) on asylum seekers. Incredibly, some people also want to reduce Australia’s family sizes – already among the world’s lowest.

A range of interests, prejudices and genuine arguments collide here: the perennial fear of newcomers; a view of human beings as “pollution” of an ideally people-free environment; fear of a boat-borne “Asian invasion”, complete with people smugglers, queue-hoppers and terrorists; anti-capitalist and anti-development feeling; Malthusian nightmares of people over-breeding and over-consuming resources.

There is also: the sheer costs and complexity of providing for ever-expanding cities; evasion of responsibility for urban planning and infrastructure; annoyance with peak hour congestion and other symptoms of rapid city growth; the ongoing climate apocalyptic; and anti-family and anti-child attitudes.

There are some serious issues here, as well as prejudice and paranoia. Slogans and spin driven by such passions are no basis for sound policy.

It is a paradox that in this “nation of migrants” anti-immigration feeling is never far beneath the surface – nowadays a surface coat of green paint. There is a similar paradox in the rhetoric about the need for population control in the world’s least-populated continent.

Hostility to “population” is hostility to people – people in the abstract, rather than particular people, and especially to babies, especially poor people’s babies. While contraception and abortion have allowed the West to enjoy a copulation explosion at the same time as a population implosion, there are still too many people around for some.

Whether it’s green Australia instead of white Australia, or sustainable population instead of population control, Australia is again said to be “full” or to have nearly reached “carrying capacity”.

Yet the fact remains: Australia has close to the lowest population density in the world. Most of our country by far is uninhabited or barely so. By the standards of Manhattan we could all fit into the Canberra area and leave the rest of the country as farms and national parks. Not that everyone wants to live as cheek-by-jowl as New Yorkers.

My point is simply: Australia – including Western Sydney where I live – is nowhere near population overload. Our problem is a lack of appropriate planning, infrastructure and services to match our population.

Christ’s entry test for crossing the border into heaven was this: when I was hungry, lonely, a stranger, desperate, did you welcome me? (Matthew Chapter 25).

Australians can be proud of how hospitable they usually are to newcomers and grateful for the ways those newcomers have enriched us.

To close the borders of our country to all but a favoured few (with the right skills) would diminish us not just economically but culturally, morally and spiritually.

To close the borders of our homes to all but a favoured few babies is also impoverishing. Australia can allow and should support larger family sizes than the present rate of one or two children per family.

Governments, churches, business and the community must play their part in addressing the big infrastructure shortages in the cities, as well as providing incentives for decentralisation.

It is not beyond human wit to find ways of doing this without destroying ecosystems, running out of water or being trapped in carparks called motorways.

It is not beyond human compassion to find “room at the inn” for more than the few who are here already. Election-time talk of population downsizing only excuses ongoing selfishness and neglect.

Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP is the Bishop of Parramatta, NSW.


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The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me.Luke 4:16-21 (Mass of the Lord’s Supper)

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