Stiffen immigration policies to roll back nationalist tide
Every political pundit regurgitates the old Clinton slogan that elections are always about the economy, encapsulated by the slogan “it’s the economy, stupid”. If only it were so simple. There’s no doubt that if the economy is perceived to be performing poorly, an incumbent government will be in trouble. But even in times of economic prosperity governments can lose elections. The Howard government was defeated in November 2007 when unemployment was 4.3 per cent, GDP growth was 3.9 per cent, all net government debt had been paid off and the government ran a budget surplus.
Last week, the Italian President finally agreed to swear in a curious anti-establishment coalition government of the left and right. The traditional centre left and centre right parties were ignored by voters. The Italian economy is hardly a model of health, but it’s not a disaster either.
A year ago, the ruling party in Germany suffered a severe electoral setback despite the economy motoring along at a steady pace with low unemployment and a budget surplus. And the US economy was already on the path to recovery when Donald Trump and the Republicans defeated the incumbent Democrats for the presidency and in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
And interestingly, in 2016 Britain was, arguably, the strongest-performing G7 economy when the public defied the government and voted to leave the EU.
Forests of newsprint have been felled trying to analyse the cause of these results. You’ll all have your views about the ousting of the Howard government. For those who voted it out, I hope you were happy in retrospect with your decision! Your great-grandchildren will certainly appreciate the debt burden from Rudd and Gillard’s NBN and pink batts bonanza.
The prevailing wisdom is that in Europe, as in the United States, these and other results are caused by public disaffection with globalisation. I wonder who these commentators ever talk to! Punters having a pint of Newcastle Brown in a pub in Sunderland – a strong Brexit voting city – are hardly sitting around saying “the one thing I hate is globalisation”.
By one measure, they love it. Sunderland has a Nissan car factory which produces more cars than the whole of Italy. And people in Sunderland love their mobile phones and tablets as much as the rest of the world. But they don’t like the EU.
Likewise, those Germans who voted for Alternative für Deutschland weren’t despairing about BMW exports or imports of iPhones.
The common link between all these results is the elite’s chaotic and incoherent approach to immigration. It’s there to see in recent polls. Immigration is the number one issue in all 28 EU countries according to a poll in April this year.
This needs to be properly understood. It’s not that the public are opposed outright to immigration. All but a handful of extremists know immigration is necessary and inevitable. All they ask for is for immigration to be properly managed.
Remember the old Howard slogan: we decide who comes to our country and the circumstances in which they come. Well, living in Europe for the last four years has reminded me of the wisdom of managed migration.
The public, wherever they are, don’t want tens of thousands of migrants overwhelming public facilities, creating ghettos, causing social tensions and disharmony. They want a degree of order. They want migrants who can integrate into their societies, respect the local law, get jobs, and engage in the social, artistic and sporting lives of their countries. They can’t do that if they don’t speak the local language, don’t take up jobs and abuse the generous welfare safety net, set up their own shops, schools and sports clubs in exclusive neighbourhoods.
What is more, the publics of many countries have been berated by elites to accept migrants without qualification. In the UK, the government says there are 700,000 migrants who can’t speak English. Bonne chance with that. There are parts of cities which have been totally excised from mainstream Britain and transformed into migrant microcosms. Until recently, the British government has made almost no effort to integrate migrants. That’s also true elsewhere in Europe. Integration for a long time was a dirty word. That’s changing now but only slowly.
In this environment countries like Italy and Germany have seen hundreds of thousands of so-called refugees flood into their countries courtesy of people smugglers. For a while the German and Italian governments told their pesky publics to live with it; it was humane to take anyone who wanted to come. Well, whether you think that’s right or not, a substantial proportion of the public of most countries doesn’t agree. The result has been a political revolution in Italy and a transformation of the political map in Germany. The new Italian government is going to put a stop to illegal migration and Chancellor Angela Merkel has changed tack saying the EU needs a new, tougher border policy. Notice, too, how President Macron is toughening his stance on uncontrolled migration.
Meanwhile, in that land of migrants, this issue is also playing out. It’s the same issue. Americans like migrants as long as migration is controlled. But they don’t like illegal migration. It is, after all, illegal. There’s no doubt that Donald Trump’s uncompromising approach to illegal migrants has struck a chord with many Americans. A sizeable percentage of them like the idea of building the wall, no matter how impractical that may be.
Amidst all this bad news is hope. For a start, leaders are learning. Increasingly they are changing their immigration policies and that in turn will turn back the tide of nationalism of the left and right. Macron, Merkel, Trump and plenty of governments beyond know what we in Australia have known for years: the task is to break the people smugglers’ business model.
And secondly, the fascination of elites throughout the world with salami slicing the public into gender, race, sexual preferences and class is not an idea embraced by the mainstream. They see it as divisive. They want leaders who unite their countries and who embrace the old Martin Luther King idea that people should be judged not on the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. They want integration, not segregation.
Alexander Downer is a former Australian foreign minister and High Commissioner to the UK. He is a fortnightly columnist for The Australian Financial Review.