Getting to the dark heart of our asylum seeker hysteria


It’s a utilitarian moral proposition of startling simplicity: any ill-treatment of asylum seekers is potentially justifiable in terms of the hypothetical lives not lost. The ends always justify the means.

In framing the asylum seeker debate this way, however, we forget a more obviously compassionate alternative: we could just let more people in through the official — and safer — channels.

Which brings us, I think, to a deeper possible explanation for our fevered fear of asylum seekers.

For all our wealth, Australians seem afflicted with a scarcity mentality.

For all our abundant plains to share – in theory and melody – our actual supply of hospitable land, and water to irrigate it, is much smaller than a casual glance at a map may reveal.

The vast majority of us cling to the coastlines – three in four of us finding homes in four major coastal capital cities.

Living in such close quarters requires careful management. But in our major cities, successive state governments have comprehensively failed to plan ahead.

As a direct result, most Australians are forced to do battle with worsening traffic congestion, crowded schools and hospitals, and – until recently – spiralling house prices.

This more structural concern was famously voiced during the 2013 election campaign by the Liberal candidate for the suburban Sydney seat of Lindsay, Fiona Scott.


Asked about asylum seekers, Ms Scott told an ABC TV reporting crew touring her potential electorate that: “Yeah, it’s a hot topic. It’s a hot topic here because our traffic is overcrowded.

“People see 50,000 people come in by boat,” she elaborated. “That’s more than twice the population of Glenmore Park, where we just were.”

Ultimately, the Abbott government swept to power at that election on a promise to «stop the boats» – which it did. But it had less success in addressing the critical infrastructure constraints of our capital cities. Fuelled in part by continued rapid population growth, those cities continued to swell, propelling housing affordability to the centre of the political debate.

State governments eventually came to the party, announcing vast urban infrastructure projects which are nearing fruition – albeit disappointingly slowly.

But, even as the property boom ran out of puff last year, concerns about population growth continued to dominate the political debate, culminated in NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian calling for a drastic cut in her state’s immigration.

As state and territory governments resolved to share population plans, Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested the total annual permanent migrant intake could be cut from 190,000 to 160,000.

But things have changed over summer – and quickly – amid headlines of rapidly falling house prices.

The Coalition is running a scare campaign that Labor’s housing tax changes will accelerate those price falls.

But the truth is, if you really wanted to run a wrecking ball through the property market right now, cutting immigration would be a pretty good place to start.

As part of its election platform last year, the New Zealand government did just that, and property prices have felt the hit.

Back in Sydney and Melbourne, double digit price falls are already widely predicted.

We discovered this week that new dwelling investment is off sharply and foreign buyers are noticeably absent.

Housing turnover is as low as it has been since the early 1990s.

Rents are falling, too, in some areas, as a vast supply of new rental housing hits the market.


As policy makers watch nervously to see how households will respond to this housing correction, debate about curbing population growth has fallen – understandably – silent.

Morrison has, however, promised a population policy.

But with both the property market and the wider economy more delicately poised, a new mood of caution is appropriate. Instead, Australian politics returns, with seeming inexorable predictability, to its old punching bag: asylum seekers. A policy designed to evacuate current detainees with complex medical issues from Nauru has opened the floodgates on asylum seeker hysteria again. It remains to be seen how voters will respond.

If our asylum seeker obsession is simply a rational response to our more practical problems of a lack of critical urban infrastructure and housing, then those concerns may be alleviated somewhat by falling home prices, record state infrastructure booms and new housing supply.

But if the Coalition’s ferocious new scare campaign on border security strikes a chord, it may perhaps become clearer that our asylum seeker hysteria is, after all, driven by something much deeper and more primal.

And ugly indeed.

Jessica Irvine is a senior writer.

Jessica Irvine is a senior economics writer with The Sydney Morning Herald.

Most Viewed in Politics





You may also like...