The working class possesses a clear and brutal logic on the issue of immigration. They know the more there are of ‘them’ competing for jobs the less the wages will be for ‘us’. It’s a survival instinct that has driven Australian history since colonisation.
Time and time again, opinion poll after opinion poll demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Australians favour hard-line and inhuman policies when it comes to immigration. An Essential Media report taken on August 2nd last year found that 64% of respondents approved of Tony Abbott’s plan to cut immigration from 300,000 per year to 170,000. This is a clear cut case of raw numbers – less people coming in means less people competing for my job. But public support extends to more visceral forms of state violence against (potential) migrants. Another Essential Media report from October 25 2010 found that 53% of respondents disapproved (29% strongly disapproved) of the federal government’s decision to move children and their families out of detention centres and live within the community while their cases were being processed.
There are really only two broad ways you can respond to what this polling says about our fellow Australians. Firstly, you could write them off as unthinking racist idiots who are incapable of participating in a fully functioning democracy. Secondly, you could acknowledge that such depth and breadth of feeling (whether ethical or not) must be based on some common lived experience, and work out how this prevents us from being a better society. The first reaction is the easiest – it involves less thinking and less action. Unfortunately, it has also been where what remains of the Australian Left has been stuck for the last few years. It’s seductive because you get the satisfaction of knowing that you are a more caring person that your fellow ignorant citizens but without the burden of being able to meaningfully change the status quo.
The second is harder because once you take this pill it takes you on a challenging journey where nothing ever looks the same again – kind of like a crappy boring version of the Matrix (think the second and third films in the trilogy). Let’s take the first step. Immigration is an important determinant in setting wage levels. Imagine how much a warehouse worker or a cleaner would get in Australia if we had 100 million more people in the economy? In fact, I would posit that since the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s immigration has become an even more important factor in setting wage levels. Once capital and the flow of goods were regulated to protect Australian jobs. Once wages were fixed centrally – there never used to be a labour market in Australia as one would traditionally define it. Vulnerable migrants entering the workforce would be paid at the same rate as everyone else, allowing greater participation in Australian society and lowering the threat that immigration played to setting wage levels. Once this social compact died so did working class acceptance of humane immigration policies.
Consciously Australia moved to a more ‘competitive’ society. The dark side of this is that workers now have to compete in a labour market – and workers in this country are smart. They know where their interests are. As long as we live in the current structure more workers means less money. As long as there is no realistic prospect of structurally changing the economy then continued immigration will be seen as an ongoing threat. Look at it from another angle – it’s always the spokespersons for capital that support high levels of immigration – these people are smart, they where their interests are.
If we truly care about our fellow people (in Australia and around the world) we need to build a system that rewards the better angels of our nature. The only solution is to build a system where working Australians can earn a decent living without having to compete on a labour market. The rest is just posturing.