Government priorities, not immigrants, are to blame for city congestion

The announcement on 7 August that Australia’s population has hit 25 million was greeted in many quarters with a loud wailing and gnashing of teeth. There are, we are told, too many immigrants. 

The obsession with immigration has long been the calling card of hard-core racists, who never saw a brown face they didn’t dislike. This time, however, along with the usual chorus of hate from the Hansons of the world, more respectable voices are joining in. For example, National Australia Bank chair Ken Henry told the Australian on 4 August:

“It’s time for a well-informed dialogue about the current challenges and future opportunities of population growth. While there is strong support amongst business for population growth … the broader community is, rightly, concerned about job security, housing affordability, congestion in our cities, worsening environmental pressures, as well as access to quality transport services, water, energy, healthcare and education.”

And one of the paper’s contributors, Chip Le Grand, argued:

“The impact of population growth is felt by everyone who lives in Sydney, Melbourne and, increasingly, Brisbane and Perth. Unaffordable housing; overcrowded trains; gridlocked roads; waiting lists for childcare places and elective surgery; finding a park; queuing at the supermarket checkout: the cumulative effect is a feeling of being pressed for time and cramped for space, a collective tightness of breath.”

Australia’s population has been growing by 1.6 percent a year over the past decade, about double the rate of many other OECD nations. But there’s nothing unusual about this; the figure is lower than in any year between 1948 and 1973. In 1950, the rate was twice as high. 

The difference is that population growth back then was matched by an unprecedented expansion of social infrastructure.

Today, the growth is an indication of the success of the Australian economy in attracting large numbers of international students, skilled workers and so on, not a portent of disaster. This is why the main push-back against the population alarmists has come from big business and their spokespeople in parliament, academia and the public service.

The problem is, their vision for a Big Australia has nothing to do with fulfilling the needs of working class people – immigrants and citizens alike. They see only dollar signs on all of us: dollars for the Treasury, dollars for developers and retailers, dollars for universities and more.

The congestion and environmental damage that the alarmists have latched onto are not caused by immigrants; they result from a total lack of planning and from letting the market determine political decisions.

The real causes of urban dysfunction

That the roads are becoming more congested and travel time to work, school and university is getting longer is the result of cars and roads being given priority in transport policy. 

Funding for public transport, particularly in the medium and outer suburbs, has lagged behind growing need. Student numbers at universities have ballooned over the past three decades, yet the public transport options for students and staff to these huge work sites have not kept pace. New regions have developed, like the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, where transport options other than cars are woefully lacking.

Train, tram and bus services have been privatised, putting a public service at the mercy of the corporate bottom line. Trucks are used to shift goods around the country because rail freight has been sacrificed. Decades after it was first flagged, there is still no inland rail route between Brisbane and Melbourne. 

Congestion is not the result of inadequate resources. Heavily subsidised toll roads have been built in every major city. But almost nothing has been done to expand the rail system, which is the key to moving people quickly and efficiently.

In the last 20 years, Melbourne has grown from 2.9 million to 4.9 million people, and governments have done little more than add a couple of train stations. The total number of trips per year is only 240 million.

Compare that with Guangzhou (Canton), China. In 1997, the city had no metro rail service at all. Ten years later, for a population two to three times as large as Melbourne’s, there were eight lines and 144 stations carrying 1.2 billion people a year, five times as many as Melbourne’s system. By 2020, there will be 15 lines. 

Or take Madrid, Spain, a city of 6.5 million, which has a metro system carrying 1.5 billion passengers per year – four times more journeys than Sydney’s system. 

Immigrants are not to blame for Australia’s ridiculous lack of investment in public transport. If the train systems were taken back into public hands and massively expanded, we could fix the congestion. 

Nor are immigrants to blame for housing becoming unaffordable for many younger Australians. State governments and local councils have aided and abetted rampant speculation in land, handing over prime sites to property developers with few requirements that they contribute to the public utilities and transport servicing them. 

Speculation in property has been encouraged by a tax regime that slugs the pay cheque of every worker while giving away money hand over fist to property investors via negative gearing and discounted capital gains tax. A roof over one’s head, a fundamental human right, has been turned into a sphere for speculation.

Then there is the broader urban infrastructure of places where people work, go to class, seek medical attention or look for places to relax. Look around your city or town. You can quickly see the many ways that life is made more difficult because the profits of the few have been put ahead of rational urban planning. 

The money is there to sort out the problems, but it’s been given over to big business in tax cuts or to the military, now enjoying a $200 billion bonanza in public outlays on warships and drones. 

Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and is now enjoying its 27th year without recession. But what good is coming out of this rosy economic picture for the bulk of the population? The money has been taken from the have nots and squandered on the haves.

Finally, immigration is not responsible for environmental degradation. Simply shifting people from one part of the planet to another clearly does not affect global phenomena like climate change. 

It is not the fault of immigrants that farmers engage in widespread land clearing in water catchment areas or that cotton growing is encouraged in the Murray-Darling basin, depleting water availability for other users and risking the entire ecosystem of the river. 

Immigrants are not trying to push through the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin in central Queensland. And it is not immigrants’ fault that the shift to renewable energy is so slow or that Australia has seriously under-invested in recycling plants.

There is no shortage of technical know-how in the CSIRO, in our universities, in the collective knowledge of workers, to develop solutions to the pressing problems of life in Australia.

The thing that holds us back is the dominance of the profit system, which creates chaos and dysfunction for everything it touches. The problem we face today is not too many people but too many capitalists.