This came at the very end, when presenter Tony Jones announced the panelists for next week (which include Bob Carr and Tim Flannery). Jones also announced that the topic will be Australia’s population growth rate which he described as the highest in the developed world. Jones has boldly broken one of the strongest taboos at ABC and SBS TV news. Admissions that both Australia’s population growth rate and also its per capita immigration rate are exceptionally high by OECD standards have been rare indeed in recent decades —even though these are points that leap out from the ABS statistics, and would be among the most obvious pieces of information that any competent researcher would pass on to a presenter or producer contemplating a segment on population or on immigration. (Very high immigration is of course the main driver of Australia’s population growth). The environmentalist Ralph Bennett described trying to get one ABC team to mention these points, and being told “You’re trying to get us to break a whole set of small-l liberal no-nos”.
I cannot say that that this suppressed information was never the starting point of any segment on immigration or on population growth on ABC or SBS TV news programs, because one cannot keep tabs on all programs; and in the age of search-engines like Google it is unwise to assert that something never happens. But I know how strongly most ABC and SBS presenters repressed attempts by interviewees to make this point. (It was only rarely that one was allowed to mention it on ABC radio.) This is one reason that Dick Smith recently referred to ABC News as being dominated (on immigration and population) by a group of “well-placed bigots”—a conclusion also reached by myself and William Lines, with much documentation, in our chapter on ABC Bias in the book OverloadingAustralia.
By refusing to concede/mention that Australia’s immigration rate was bizarrely high, and our population growth rate was higher than that of many third world countries, presenters could represent the current rate as perfectly normal or natural and simply the way things were. No disquiet was expressed about Australia’s having embarked on a more extreme experiment than any other developed nation. The old image of Australia as a pioneering nation with “boundless plains” to fill was shamelessly propped up, even though (as Professor George Seddon pointed out) our agricultural frontier effectively closed a century ago. The environmental damage was shrugged off. Evidence that the public dislikes or opposes rapid population growth was also suppressed, or treated as an irrelevance. Hence anyone brave enough to publicly criticise Australia’s sky-high immigration rates could be represented as a naive eccentric with, very likely, some nasty motivation for wanting to criticise immigration. (A favorite trick was to claim that they must “hate immigrants”.) By contrast, business lobby-groups with obvious vested interests in population growth were treated as impartial experts, and no right of reply to their claims was usually offered. Big Australia ideologues like George Megalogenis and Bernard Salt were often mis-presented as middle-of-the-road authorities.
Credible critics of high immigration, most notably the main community group Sustainable Population Australia, were frozen out. In fact they were denied oxygen so completely that if their president or vice-president was interviewed on a major ABC TV news program in the past 20 years, I am not aware of it. Even when Peter Costello brought in his controversial “baby bonus”, no comment from Sustainable Population Australia was permitted on ABC TV News programs. More recently the very reputable Sustainable Australia Party has been almost entirely denied oxygen, even by those ABC TV programs that exhaustively cover every shred of Australian political news. The strong statements of the Australian Academy of Science have also been largely ignored by ABC and SBS.
With the fact that Australia’s high immigration is unusual by world standards suppressed, other distortions became possible. All discussion of the costs of sky-high immigration levels – costs such as traffic congestion, destruction of Australia’s natural environments, the wiping out of koalas around Brisbane, the crushing costs of infrastructure expansion that caused Anna Bligh to sell off the public silver and get booted out of office, the endless destruction of pleasant suburbs in Melbourne Sydney and Perth by bullying high-rise developers, the impossible price of housing, stagnation of wages etc etc – could be turned aside by putting the blame on “bad planning” or “nimbyism” or “government not doing enough”. (No doubt that’s the sort of line that the Property Council’s Jane Fitzgerald will be running next Monday on QandA.)
Now, in a single sentence, Tony Jones has emphatically tossed away thirty years of denial, and admitted the truth. Australia’s rate of population growth is not normal, and is certainly not the result of the rational choices about family size that most Australian couples have long made. It is the result of the power that business lobbies and pro-growth donors have achieved over the Australian government. –
Should we present Jones with a special cake for ending the big denial? But how is the ABC to make up to us for 30 years of intelligent national discussion that we have been denied? And note Jones’s exact phrasing: Next Monday on QandA, a close look at our booming population. Australia now has the fastest rate of population growth in the developed world, but are we equipped to deal with 39 million Australians by 2050?
There are two potential fudges here: first, the pretence that Australia’s rate of population growth has only recently become exceptional, and second, fatalism, i.e. the pretence that sky-high immigration is inevitable (or is divinely ordained, or is determined by the labour market, or can’t be reduced because our immigrants are refugees). Don’t be surprised if the producer and panellists have tricks like this up their sleeves.
Still Jones has made a start to row back from decades of Big Australia propaganda. Let us hope that he and his producer will soon start to include representatives from Sustainable Population Australia and the Sustainable Australia Party on their panels. After all, rapid population growth is the background cause if not indeed the effective initiating cause of many if not most of the problems their program aims to investigate; and a single program devoted to its effects will be no compensation for decades of neglect and denial of the issue.
P.S. The panellists announced for next week are to include:
Panellists: Bob Carr, Former Foreign Minister; Tim Flannery, Chief Councillor of the Climate Council; Jane Fitzgerald, Property Council of Australia, NSW; and John Daley, CEO Grattan Institute.