In 2001 the ALP folded in the face of a populist Liberal Party campaign tying concerns over boat people with fear of terrorism. It was then that the term “dog-whistle politics” came into common usage, referring to a political message sent in coded language so that while it was not overtly xenophobic it would be heard and understood by voters susceptible to such divisive politics as speaking to their prejudices.
In 2010 it has been a Labor PM, Julia Gillard, who has most systematically utilised the dog whistle, first by retreading ground well-established by Howard (the “stifling” of debate by political correctness, “understanding” the anxieties of voters over insecure borders and the need to toughen the state’s assault on “people smugglers”). But now she has decided to broaden the debate to one of “sustainable population”.
This has in part been driven by desperation to distance herself from any unpopular aspect of the Rudd agenda, in this case his enthusiasm for “a big Australia”. But it serves two other functions.
The first, which I explored in my last post, is to create a smoke and mirrors debate to distract from her lack of a political agenda that could in any sense offer hope for ordinary people’s futures. Poor public transport? Blame it on too many people. Inadequate infrastructure? Ditto. Environmental problems? Same again.
But Gillard’s other problem has been the rise of the Greens vote on the back of left-wing and environmentally focused dismay at Labor’s inability to deliver on the promise of the 2007 election. The sudden disavowal of a climate strategy by Rudd was the most significant driver of his collapse in standing. Population, especially when linked to the meaningless word “sustainable”, was a way to dog-whistle to both the Right and the environmentally-conscious Left.
The fact that “overpopulation” is a ludicrous conceptual framework for Australia’s social, economic and environmental problems is irrelevant. In an era where mainstream politics has lost all sense of coherent ideologies and visions driving policy choices, at least fear of the other presents a unifying theme, and one where “tough” politicians can be seen to act.
While Gillard has tied herself in knots trying to also play to pro-immigrant anxieties, the effect of the population debate since it emerged late last year has been to unleash anti-immigrant feeling in previously unlikely places. Today you can read progressive environmentalists try to save the population issue from the racist Right, but only by being blind to the migrant-bashing being espoused everywhere you look in the mainstream and new media.
That the Left is confused on the issue is the most worrying aspect of this debate. The often very sensible Richard Denniss has weighed into it today by blaming the problem on a growth-obsessed corporate sector. But his op-ed reeks of pessimism that any positive change will come on infrastructure and environmental problems. Rather the implied first step is cutting the migrant intake. Not one word of warning about the anti-immigrant backlash being encouraged by this atmosphere.
In a more valiant attempt, Tim Hollo recently had a stab at defending the Greens’ confused line of late. The Greens have on one hand spruiked their well-deserved anti-racist credentials on asylum seekers but on the other called for cuts in skilled migration and suggested there is a global population “crisis”. Bob Brown has been particularly inopportune with public suggestions that skilled migrants from poor countries should stay where they are in order to help their own people. In a controversial internal policy backgrounder produced in Brown’s office earlier this year was the following:
1. What is the optimal population size for Australia?
No one knows the answer to this question – that is why the Greens have moved for an extensive national inquiry to establish a coherent national population policy. Let’s become better informed, let’s not allow false accusations of racism prevent us from having a proper debate. [My emphasis]
One of the key problems disorienting the Left’s response has been the recourse to instrumentally pro-business defences of immigration, along the lines of “it’s good for the economy”. Well, apparently so was neoliberalism. In fact, some who should know better have been taken in by market libertarian arguments about how free movement of people is equally as good as free movement of capital. Shouldn’t the Left be defending the free movement of working people ahead of the free movement of capital?
The other problem has been the flipside of this, seeing it as purely a moral issue around the rights of refugees and the “legal obligations” of Australia. This is what has allowed Greens Senators to speak in one way around refugees and in another around skilled migrants without hearing the dissonance. This also misunderstands the domestic nature of this debate: it is about taking a realistic feeling many people have that they have been abandoned by economic restructuring and displacing it on an external other (whether people on leaky boats coming to carry out terrorist acts or skilled migrants coming to take our jobs).
If the Left cannot start to posit an systematic (rather than piecemeal) agenda for social progress and tie it to a critique of how the major parties have reneged on such a vision, then the use of the dog-whistle will continue to exert a powerful attractive effect in a climate of political alienation and despair. Worse, it will open an ever larger space for the open and unrestrained racial politics of the far Right to gain a hearing it has for so long been denied.