Throughout Australia’s history, overseas migration has featured prominently in public debate, sometimes seen as a positive, sometimes as a negative, but never far from the agenda. The trouble is that media headlines and political catchphrases all too often misrepresent the facts. In the extreme, political players exploit fears relying on nothing but anecdote: Australia is overpopulated, they say, and immigrants are stealing locals’ jobs, robbing young people of their future. Resources are too scarce, they say, to support a larger population.
There’s no denying the fundamental nature of the transformation we’re going through. But unprecedented change doesn’t have to be a crisis. The stakes in this Choose Your Own Adventure story are high, but we do have options. We’re not inevitably bound for doom and dystopia. There are desirable futures on the horizon, but to reach them will take work – preparedness, planning, responsiveness – and we have to act now. We have to work together, too, because this story belongs to us all – a gift bestowed on us by the past, to be built on today, for the benefit of the future.
The present preoccupation – obsession, really – with population size and growth fails to address the real and immediate problems Australia faces. A potential demographic disaster of dystopian magnitude is on our horizon, moving towards us, and sooner or later it’ll slam into us. Population ageing and wealth inequality pose serious risks to a fair and equal future for all Australians. As a nation, we’ve chosen to look away. Perhaps it’s too hard to think about. But the longer we look away, the less time we have to act.
Our politicians are particularly good at looking away, and persuading us to keep looking away, too. They’ve become experts at finding ways to distract us, with their talk of congestion, crowded schools, long waiting times for hospital beds, and threats of terrorism. Politicians of all stripes attempt to misdirect our attention in this way, like waving sparklers in our faces to distract us from the searing bright asteroid hurtling towards us. Such distractions are not only unhelpful; they’re actively harmful.
Whether we like it or not, Australia is changing, and so is our climate. Those are facts we have to accept. But confronting fear isn’t as scary or impossible as it sounds. One important step is to change the language we use to talk about these issues. Some might argue that it’s actions, not words, that really matter. But it is words that shape our attitudes, and our attitudes determine our actions. The Australian political elite manufacture fear with negative language: terms like ‘big Australia’ and ‘mass migration’ are tossed about, fuelling an unhealthy and unproductive obsession with population size, yet the words ‘big’ and ‘mass’ are never defined. They naturally incite fear, giving the impression that population growth is out of control and that our numbers will continue to expand endlessly. But Australia’s population isn’t out of control and endlessly expanding. Nothing could be further from the truth. Meanwhile, the real issues that could in fact lead us to the brink of demographic disaster – an ageing population and falling birth rate – are overlooked. Accuracy matters.
An important step is to focus on the potential that change creates for innovation. When facing a crisis, it helps to remind ourselves that humans have survived enormous and even catastrophic change in the past and often emerged stronger as a result.
The message here is that innovation has always been the solution to our problems in the past, and it will be the solution to our current and future problems too.
We’re innovators, and innovators thrive in a crisis. The demographic and climate crises we’re facing are a double whammy, but I’m confident we’ll rise to the challenge. It’s time to get past our fear of change – to embrace immigration wholeheartedly, making the most of the new perspectives it brings, and to find new and better ways to live together on this oldest and driest of continents. It’s time to stop clinging to the past, to give up the myth of a ‘white Australia’, and turn to a better, more inclusive future.
Liz Allen's book The Future of Us: Demography gets a makeover will be published by NewSouth in April 2020.