Housing, ankle bracelets and some other things that have very little to do with immigration

Housing, ankle bracelets and some other things that have very little to do with immigration
  • PublishedJune 5, 2024

In order to understand Australia’s complicated psychological relationship with immigration, the first crucial cognitive step is to throw away the numbers.

The numbers are not helpful. Consider this: 96 per cent of Australians are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. That’s everybody apart from the 4 per cent of the population who date their occupancy back to pre-1788, at which point the total immigration rate to this island for many millennia had been a nice round number: zero.

That number is in the same ballpark as the proportion of Australians who agree that “immigrants are generally good for Australia’s economy”, according to Scanlon’s latest Mapping Australia’s Social Cohesion report.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

A recently landed sentient alien might casually conclude (once, presumably, it had torn its 14 eyes briefly from the spectacle of American democracy stuffing itself into a Cheetos bag and got round to considering Australia) that immigration in this country should be a non-issue.

And it should be. But it isn’t, because that blanket approval of immigration disguises the pulse and seethe of specific issues that blow up from time to time, usually in periods of economic hardship, into which immigrants and refugees are disproportionately and eye-catchingly drawn.

Specific events wrench and pull at our national sentiment, often concerning specific groups. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a close reading of successive Scanlon surveys reveals that the rate of “positive feelings” about Australians of Chinese ancestry fell to 52 per cent in 2020, but in the most recent study, it’s popped back up to 61 per cent.

In 2018, the “very or somewhat negative” feelings about Muslims across Australia clocked in at 39 per cent. In the latest survey, that’s down to 27 per cent.

“Despite very high and growing levels of support for multiculturalism, prejudice remains common in Australia,” Scanlon observes, with economical tact.

Welcome to Australia. Don’t worry: It’s not you, it’s us

We all love multiculturalism, in short, but we do reserve the right to lose our minds every now and again when something in particular riles us up.

Right now, there are two such political hotspots: a) the housing crisis, and b) the crimes allegedly committed by several dozen of the 153 non-citizens who the government was obliged to release following last year’s High Court decision that governments did not have the right to detain a person forever.

These “crises” occupy an extraordinary bandwidth in political debate, especially since the budget. Neither of them is a crisis truly generated by immigration. They are, however, crises that push on the always half-open door of anti-immigrant feeling in this nation of people composed — more than 19 in every 20 of us — of immigrants.

A RedBridge survey of 2,000 voting-age Australians, conducted two weeks ago, indicates that 64 per cent of Australians either agree or strongly agree that “the current rate of immigration is making housing less affordable”.

Is the housing crisis caused by immigrants? No, it is most certainly is not. The housing crisis is caused, and has been for a long time, by our unique national Australian obsession with property ownership, plus serial historic failures of political courage at both state and federal levels which have generated a shortage in housing supply nearest to where the most people work. 

More than 60 per cent of Australians own their own home, and these home owners inspire a pant-wetting degree of obeisance at state and federal levels. 

State governments are loath to erode private property values by approving the kind of high-density housing that is so clearly required in our nation’s capital cities, and federal governments contribute to the problem by maintaining tax breaks for property speculators and periodically pouring petrol on the fire by giving first home buyers cash which drives prices higher. 

The last federal leader to advocate even a partial dismantlement of this system — Bill Shorten — met with a memorable electoral fate in 2019. The one before that — Mark Latham, on his first day as Labor’s shadow treasurer 21 years ago — was shut down inside 24 hours, and now ekes out an existence as an independent, having been sacked from the leadership of One Nation, in the NSW Upper House. (Thoughts and prayers.)

A small trophy of a boat, engraved with the words 'I stopped these', sits on a wood table.
Who could forget former prime minister Scott Morrison, who kept a celebratory memento of his policy to turn away asylum seekers arriving by boat.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

Why do voters think the housing crisis is connected to immigration? Because both major parties have told them it is. 

The Albanese government’s recent budget installed controls on international students, explicitly tying this decision to the shortage of housing supply. And opposition leader Peter Dutton took the rhetoric a step further, promising to reduce overall immigration rates to take housing pressure off ordinary Aussies doing it tough. 

When economic times are tough, the fear in an island nation that new arrivals will be another beak in the trough depriving one’s own children of opportunity is easy to ignite.

Interestingly, the degree of concern about immigration’s threat to the youth of Australia is lowest among the actual youth of Australia. The RedBridge survey finds that over-65s are the most worried about immigrants making housing less affordable — and 18-34-year-olds are the least worried.

The truth is that Australian anxiety over immigration has always been, and continues to be, about the perception of control.

John Howard remains the author of this century’s most recognisable campaign line: “We will decide who comes here, and the circumstances under which they come.” 

A close-up photo of John Howard pointing to an audience, with Australian flags in the background
In John Howard’s 2001 election victory speech, he famously declared: “We will decide who comes here, and the circumstances under which they come.” (Reuters: Mark Baker)

In 2001, he repelled a Norwegian freighter full of refugees and carved great hunks of the Australian coastline out of our formal migration zones, while creating offshore prisons to house refugees from regimes with which we were as a nation actively in combat at the time.

Stern border control remains his brand. And yet, Howard actually doubled total immigration rates over his years in power.

The saga over released detainees isn’t really about immigration either

Why is Andrew Giles – current unhappy possessor of the federal ministry’s most thankless portfolio – in such strife right now? Why is he targeted every day in Question Time?

Is it because the safety of everyday Australians going about their business is noticeably imperilled by the release of 153 non-citizens from indefinite detention last November at the command of the High Court?


It’s about the perception that he — and by extension the government — has lost control. On multiple occasions now, the immigration minister and the prime minister have both blamed various management issues, the wearing and non-wearing of ankle bracelets, the deployment or non-deployment of drones, on the department or on the community safety board that they designed. It’s this sense of diffidence that creates the problem, not the numbers.

For context: To date, 28 of those released under the High Court’s ruling have allegedly reoffended. The current rate at which human beings released from Australian prisons go on to re-enter the criminal justice system within two years is, according to the Productivity Commission, about 50 per cent.

What’s the difference between the bog-standard Aussie-born convicted criminals who are released without comment every single day from prisons having served their terms according to our legislated state criminal codes and the non-citizens whose releases and reoffences command so much attention in Question Time?

The latter are foreigners who can be deported, and the former are locals, who can’t.

There’s no question that the cumulative threat to Australian householders from reoffending Aussies is much, MUCH higher than that posed by non-citizens that the High Court has ruled can’t just be kept in the slammer for ever.

Are the latter more dangerous? More likely to offend? Across the OECD, despite various niche politicians gouging populist careers out of the proposition that increased immigration equals increased crime rates, the evidence says: no, it doesn’t

But the numbers aren’t important here. They never are. It’s the vibe, your Honour.


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