Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Immigrant nation

Australia’s history is one of immigration. Many came, ironically given the current political debate, by boats. As the debate over illegal immigration swirls, it’s maybe timely to remind ourselves how we all got here in the first place.

Before anyone gets a head of steam up, you shouldn’t take this opinion piece as any sort of endorsement of illegal immigration, nor am I na├»ve enough to think that being ‘soft’ on the current illegal immigration issue will do anything to solve the human crisis of people drowning at sea. Nor will it deal with the criminals who put them there. But given I technically arrived in this country by boat in 1975 from Hong Kong  (aboard the SS Chittral as I recall, since scrapped), I have something of a personal, as well as historical interest (I studied Australian history at University) in the topic of immigration.

Black fellas

The first immigrants to Australia, ancient history suggests, were what we now call Aboriginal Australians. The evidence appears to say they arrived by boat or maybe by land bridge from what is now called Indonesia. If some walked, they did so because the ice age lowered sea levels to the point this may have been possible but boats seem the most logical explanation. The rising seas after the ice age made the passage more problematic so those who got here before that big melt, stayed largely uninterrupted. That was roughly 50,000 years ago, or maybe 20,000, depending on who you believe. No one was writing much of anything down back then, so we’ll never really know. Safe to say it was a bloody long time ago.

White fellas.

Also arriving by boat came the white fella. The Dutch or Portuguese may have ‘found’ Australia before Cook, but Captain Cook gets the credit for landing here in 1770. The black fellas argue to this day that the white fella arrived ‘illegally’ and took their land. Terra nullis – the idea that Australia was unoccupied – was really a case of “to the victor the spoils.” So along came the white fella, the boats, and the convicts, followed by free settlers. Australia as we know it today with borders and government, was born.

The yella fella.

News of the discovery of gold in the early 1800s in various parts of Australia spread quickly around the world. Border controls, not being what they are now, meant prospectors from all nations were keen to have a crack at the underground loot. Americans, leaving the US gold fields, were among those arriving here in number but nothing like the Chinese immigrants who came in their droves. Gold fields in Victoria, NSW and northern Queensland (around Cooktown) hosted very substantial populations of Chinese immigrants, who mainly weren’t all that welcome. Some of the black fellas ate them (said of some raids around the Cooktown fields) while the white fellas detested their pigtail hair, opium dens and basically just the culture clash posed by the Chinese presence. There were race riots in the late 1800s that made the Cronulla riots of recent history look tame by comparison. But over time Australia started to get used to Chinese laundries and the many other benefits – material and cultural - brought by the Chinese and things started to settle down, at least as far as the Chinese were concerned.

The wogs, dagos, spics and others

World War One denuded Australia of a huge chunk of its working adult male population. We limped through the aftermath, including the depression, only to find ourselves in World War Two. The post war environment was one of rebuilding, and without sufficient labour and with huge volumes of allied European peoples whose lives were basically destroyed by the war looking for a new start, Australia opened its doors. Italians, Greeks (Melbourne is still to this day said to be the second biggest Greek city in the world), Spanish, Egyptians (and including a healthy dose of more Poms) all arrived by boat to help settle and develop post war Australia. The legendary Snowy Mountains scheme owes much to these immigrants. Their customs (including their food) soon found their way into the Australian heart.

The Vietnamese.

Another war, this one in Vietnam, didn’t end so well (do any of them?). Vietnamese people looking to escape the intolerable injustices of the post fall-of-Saigon era, sought escape, and did so in their droves. They also took to boats and for a time, Australia had its first modern era experience of illegal immigration in the late 1970s. One famous illegal ‘boatperson’ (as they were called) is Ahn Do, now a popular comedian and recipient of ‘Young Australian of the Year.’ His book, “The Happiest Refugee” is a must-read account of his early life and struggles through to his love for his adopted country.  Many others also made their lives here and - after some initial race tensions  - largely found their way into the Australian culture, becoming a part of it in the process. Food seems to have a big role in this, and before long, Vietnamese food was overtaking Chinese as the preferred dine in or take away option, and rivalling the pizza brought here by the Italians. Fish and chips was by now a poor third or fourth. Or fifth.

And now the rest.

Wars seem to be followed by waves of people wanting to settle here, and the troubles of the Middle East and Africa are no exception. We’ve already accepted substantial numbers of legal immigrants from troubled African states like Somalia or Nigeria but we’re also prominently in the news now for trying to deal with an illegal trade in people, mainly from Afghanistan or other Indo-Sinai regions. It’s a human tragedy and the solutions are not easy but we are a big country with a long history of immigrants, both legal and illegal, so no doubt it’s something we’ll deal with sensibly and humanely. 

For what it’s worth, it’s my view that the majority of people so desperate to get here today will, just like the waves before them, only make us a better people.

It might, in the midst of this torrid debate we’re now having, be worth thinking about the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour, past which literally millions of immigrants sailed on their boat laden arrival to the new world:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It didn’t do America any harm. I think ultimately we’ll manage too.

PS: Maybe we already have our own version of the sentiments expressed in the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. They include this:

“We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.”

It was written in 1987 by Bruce Woodley of The Seekers and Dobe Newton of The Bushwackers. You can get all patriotic and watch it on line here.  For my money, it ought to be our National Anthem. And no mention of being ‘girt’ by sea either.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The forgotten people

Sir Robert Menzies wrote his speech ‘the forgotten people’ about middle class Australia in 1942. Much of it remains relevant today, especially for the generation of new housing buyers who seem increasingly disregarded in public policy debates.

It occurred to me recently that with all the various lobby groups and government agencies involved in the planning and delivery of new housing, the needs of the actual homebuyer seems frequently overlooked or plain ignored.

The home builders have the HIA, general builders have the MBA, developers the UDIA, owners and developers the PCA, the planners have the PIA, architects have the AIA and so it goes. Each group lobbies for the interests of its members, not for home buyers. Home buyers themselves are largely without a voice. They are the new ‘forgotten people’ in a debate about government financing requirements, infrastructure deficits and industry capacity to pay.

It’s reached the point that, despite much hand wringing about the housing affordability issue in Australia, government discussion papers and industry responses to them frequently – it seems to me – overlook the end user. Affordability often doesn’t rate a mention. Discussions about infrastructure levies, for example, seem to revolve around government claims that they haven’t sufficient funds to scrap the levies while industry responses seem to revolve around their own financial difficulties posed by the levies.

But a $30,000 levy, for a young couple on a combined $70,000 per annum (for example) is a very significant amount of money. It’s added to the cost of a new home, and they are asked to pay for it, or borrow to pay for it through their mortgage. This inescapable point is so widely overlooked in the many discussion papers that you begin to suspect it’s deliberately not a focus. It would be a difficult position to justify if it was.

Then we had some recent debate about raising the rate of GST. Some industry groups support this. But as GST only applies to new housing (not established or second hand stock) such a move would only widen the gap in tax treatment which is heavily distorted by taxing new supply only. The GST on a new $400,000 home is $40,000. An increase to 15% would raise it to $60,000. A big $20,000 increase for the young home buyers.  Big enough to write off their chances of entering the market with a new home. But unless I’ve missed it, proponents of raising the GST level have not commented on what this would do to new housing.

Ditto the ongoing debates about urban growth boundaries and the regulator’s desire to limit choices for detached housing in favour of higher density models. The debate swirls around issues of planning ideology, environmentalism, and growth ‘management’ (a byword, in my book, for excessive control). Despite clear evidence of the price impacts of growth boundaries on the cost of new land for housing, the proponents simply disregard the financial impact on young home buyers.

In all of this, the hapless generation of new home buyers are without a voice. Many don’t even know that up to 40% of the price of their new dream home where they’d like to start a family can be sheeted home to taxes introduced in just over a decade. They wouldn’t even know that someone could buy a multi million dollar established home in an upmarket area and pay less tax than they are being asked to.

But onwards we plough, disregarding the irrevocable damage we are doing to society by reducing a generation’s ability to buy and own their own home. The social and economic consequences of a generation of renters in their old age is something, it seems, we can all worry about in years to come. After this election certainly. And after the next one too probably. Let’s wait until it’s too late.

There is no home buyers party at the coming federal election. Housing has barely rated a mention (Sydneysiders with existing stakes in the market, for example, are happy watching prices rise so why make it an issue?) But we have Katters and Greens and Palmers and a host of other minor parties, and the major parties also, and none of them, so far, seem to acknowledge the magnitude of this problem let alone are they ready to articulate meaningful and workable reforms that can actually make a difference for the forgotten people in this debate.

Menzies had it right when he said:

“I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race. The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.

I have mentioned homes material, homes human and homes spiritual. Let me take them in order. What do I mean by "homes material"?

The material home represents the concrete expression of the habits of frugality and saving "for a home of our own." Your advanced socialist may rave against private property even while he acquires it; but one of the best instincts in us is that which induces us to have one little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours; to which we can withdraw, in which we can be among our friends, into which no stranger may come against our will. If you consider it, you will see that if, as in the old saying, "the Englishman's home is his castle", it is this very fact that leads on to the conclusion that he who seeks to violate that law by violating the soil of England must be repelled and defeated.

National patriotism, in other words, inevitably springs from the instinct to defend and preserve our own homes.”

Where is that patriotism now?