• The trouble comes when a national crisis that shapes the lived experience of millions is linked to the myth that makes immigrants the scapegoat for our woes. (AAP)
Dick Smith’s recent comments about housing affordability reflect Australia’s corrosive habit of using immigrants as a scapegoat for the country’s woes, writes Neha Kale.
By
Neha Kale

24 Feb 2017 - 4:45 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2017 - 4:47 PM

It’s been a banner moment for the kind of public figure who likes to style themselves as the voice of reason while airing frankly questionable views.

In a recent column for The Guardian, Lionel Shriver, the American author who last year called for the dismissal of cultural appropriation as a concept (while wearing a sombrero!) hints that publishers who screen books for cultural sensitivity are being manipulated by “marginalised groups”.

Last week, Michael Sukkar, Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, helpfully suggested that a highly paid job is the first step towards owning a home. And last Tuesday, Dick Smith, the legendary electronics entrepreneur and philanthropist, told Sky News that the lack of affordable housing in Australian capital cities is the consequence of the mass influx of immigrants that pour into the country every 12 months.

If you ignore the fact that actually no, Dick, a house with a backyard isn’t so much a fundamental right as it is a very specific fantasy manufactured by Western notions of entitlement and ownership... 

“The main point that's driving our unaffordable housing is about 200,000 immigrants come in a year,” he said.

“That's five jumbo loads a week that go out empty. You can't drive in Sydney at the moment. The housing prices are enormous. The most fundamental right is to get a house with a backyard. Young couples can't do that anymore, purely driven in 95 per cent of cases by the enormous population increase, mainly driven by ridiculous immigration."

If you ignore the fact that actually no, Dick, a house with a backyard isn’t so much a fundamental right as it is a very specific fantasy manufactured by Western notions of entitlement and ownership — one also premised on the wilful erasure of Indigenous occupation — Smith sort of has a point. According to the January 2017 Demographia International Housing Survey, Sydney is the second priciest city for housing in the world and Melbourne is the sixth least affordable with mortgages respectively demanding 12.2 and 9.5 times the median income.

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And while my generation has become increasingly resigned to renting and enduring the ritual humiliation of lining up for house inspections and impressing our moral character on real estate agents who see us as fiscally incompetent, living precariously on an ongoing basis takes a serious toll.

Unsettled: Life in Australia’s Private Rental Market, a February 2017 report by The National Association of Tenant Organisations, found that 50 per cent of renters had been discriminated against while applying for a property and February 2014 statistics by the Tenants Union of New South Wales revealed that long-term renters were subject to higher levels of anxiety.

Blaming immigration for the housing crisis also lets us exonerate ourselves from divisive policies such as negative gearing, that reward not hard work or even the simple need for a roof over your head, but the guile to identify loopholes and use them for financial gain. 

The trouble comes, though, when a national crisis that shapes the lived experience of millions is linked to the corrosive myth that makes immigrants the scapegoat for the country’s woes. Aside from the fact that economists have confirmed that housing affordability is the result of supply issues such as taxation of new housing, infrastructure funding and planning bottlenecks, Smith’s use of language — “jumbo loads”, “ridiculous immigration” — conjures the pernicious image that immigrants are faceless hordes whose motivations don’t spring from individual dreams and circumstances but some collective desire to game the system.

It’s the reason that Pauline Hanson rallied supporters in the nineties by warning that “we’re being swamped by Asians”. Our failure to quash this rhetoric like the pathogen it truly is happens to be a big part of the reason why she’s back.

If you’ve ever wondered why the idea that expats also buy houses doesn’t conjure the same wholesale panic associated with immigrants acquiring real estate, it’s because, in Australia, our use of the term immigrant is always ideological, always a threat to white supremacy, always coded non-white.

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Blaming immigration for the housing crisis also lets us exonerate ourselves from divisive policies such as negative gearing, that reward not hard work or even the simple need for a roof over your head, but the guile to identify loopholes and use them for financial gain. 

A 2013 report by the Grattan Institute found that $36 billion in tax concessions a year subsidised those who already own property and a further $7 billion went to investors who employed negative gearing as an investment strategy. In contrast, tenants on low incomes received $3 billion a year in rental support.

Ultimately, Smith will never know the pain of sacrificing everything you know to move to a country where you have zero social or cultural capital, where your presence is only tolerated, never ceded as natural, where your hopefulness is interpreted as cunning and your desire to put down roots always framed as an affront. But then again, it’s simpler to point the finger at a dehumanised other than it is to try to fix everything that’s broken within — unless we start rejecting this impulse right now.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_Kale and Instagram @nehakale.

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