Dick Smith is pretty much the nicest person you’ll ever meet. From helping ban cigarette ads that subliminally targeted teenagers in the ’80s and forking out a quarter-of-a-million dollars for the ransom of an Australian photojournalist kidnapped in Somalia, to buying rows of houses for The Salvation Army, Smith has made a career out of helping other Aussies have a fair go. A recent Galaxy poll of the top 10 people most trusted to do what’s best for the country put the former electronics retailer and entrepreneur in the number-one slot, ahead of magic-pants Hugh Jackman at number two and battle-hardened Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove in third place.
Yet, for myself and millions of others who grew up glued to the television in the 1980s, Smith was more than a do-gooder. He was a man’s man; a real-life Biggles who completed the first solo helicopter flight around the world, and the first person to fly a hot-air balloon across Australia. Think your photo wall of happy snaps from Bali is cool? Smith’s is as big as a mural, made of poster-size colour prints that wallpaper the inside of a hangar that holds a kick-arse, six-seater chopper on his sprawling property in Sydney’s north. “Now I use it to fly to the airport,” he says. “Takes six minutes.”
At first, Smith is exactly as he appears on TV: an intelligent, down-to-earth, loveable larrikin with a spring to his step that belies his 73 years of age. But within minutes of sitting down to discuss his cause célèbre – a radical cut to immigration to Australia — it appears Smith is nuts. Not ha-ha nuts like an old uncle who grabs your girlfriend’s arse and shoots off racist gags. I mean dangerous-nuts like Donald Trump. Because, much like him, Smith has entrenched opinions forged in the 1950s about how the world should be. And like Trump, he has millions of dollars to burn on cheesy TV and newspaper ads to push his opinions onto an assuming public.
For the past few months, Smith has campaigned tirelessly to slash immigration from the current record levels (net overseas migration in the 2016–17 financial year was 257,000 people). And it’s not because he doesn’t like Muslims or refugees. He says he’s pro-migration, but it’s all about the numbers. Smith points out that Australia’s population growth rate of 1.6 per cent is quite high compared to the global average of 0.3 per cent for developed countries. He says our net migration rate is more in line with that of Afghanistan and the poorest countries in Africa.
Smith is proposing net migration be limited to 70,000 per year – a figure in line with the long-term average. He says eight out of ten voters agree with him, and he promises to spend millions on ads until one of the major political parties adopts his agenda. “All my decisions are based on scientific evidence,” he insists. “And the evidence shows that, when it comes to wealth per capita, eight of ten of the most successful countries in the world have less than 10 million people. Common sense says just about every problem we have is harder to fix with more people.
“What I’m saying is that infinite growth in a finite world is impossible. At the current rate, we’ll have 100 million people by the turn of the next century, when my little granddaughter is still alive. And I’m concerned she’ll look back and say, ‘My grandfather Dick Smith was supposed to be a person of influence. He must have known that 100 million people in Australia would result in many people not having jobs. Why didn’t he do anything about it?’”
Dick Smith Foods commercial
Smith has said his piece and now it’s time for me, in my capacity as a journalist, to challenge his position.
I begin by questioning his claim that migration is responsible for rising property prices in Australia. I show him a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that concludes migrants have minimal impact on housing prices. I present figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that show 70 per cent of migrants in Australia either live with friends or rent, and others that show Australians are living longer than ever before.
I go on, sharing mainstream economic theory that explains how record-low interest rates, investor-friendly tax concessions such as negative gearing, and the undersupply of dwellings over the past decade are responsible for high property prices in Australia. If migration has had an impact, it’s been marginal. But before I’ve even finished, Smith explodes like a jack-in-the-box.
“LIES! They’re all LIES. I can’t believe it! You’ve been conned by the GREEDY. Their greed is UNLIMITED! Remember when [former Foreign Minister and NSW Premier] Bob Carr said to the billionaires, ‘When will enough be enough?’ And I said to Bob, ‘Never. Their greed is unlimited. They know you cannot have perpetual growth in a finite world.’ But they lie – that document you have is full of LIES!”
Smith turns and barks an order at the secretaries hiding behind dividers in the room outside his office. “Can you grab him that book?”
A doting middle-aged secretary appears. She hands El dictador a book, which he then hands to me in a manner that suggests it will answer all my questions. Not surprisingly, his name is on the cover: Dick Smith’s Population Crisis. I promise to read it later, along with another book, plus brochures, printouts and reading materials he unloads on me throughout the interview.
Next, I take Smith to task about comments he made that suggest migration increases traffic. Seconds later, I wish I hadn’t.
“CRAP!” he shouts. “If you believe the greedy institutions, we’ll end up with a trillion people here – a TRILLION. But no, don’t close your mind; these people who are writing these documents are DELUDED, because when we get to a trillion people they’ll say, ‘We agree with you, Dick, but we want to make another billion dollars.’”
What Smith might be saying is that population growth is in the vested interests of wealthy industrialists and elites, because it means there are more people to sell stuff to. But his message is drowned in a blithering mess of random facts and figures, disjointed anecdotes without clear beginnings or endings and crazy conspiracy theories. Then he has a go at me.
“Why are you doing this? God, I REALLY feel sorry for you. You have been SO manipulated, I love it! IT’S CRAP. You have been COMPLETELY manipulated. If you think the traffic problem is not coming from population growth, then you have to ask the question: where is it coming from?”
I suggest congestion in Australian cities is a result of poor town planning and shitty public transport. Until now, Smith’s behaviour has been akin to that of a petulant child. Now, it descends into a theatre of the absurd. “Can you grab my pitchfork?” he yells at his secretaries. Moments later, another victim appears holding two plastic pitchforks. She hands them to her boss, who waves them in the air while grinning maniacally at me.
I get it. He’s playing devil’s advocate. But it’s so bloody cringe-worthy, I have to look away. Here’s a man who made the first-ever helicopter flight to the North Pole waving a plastic pitchfork in the air while spewing crap about jumbo jets. “Five jumbos a week that land full here of immigrants and fly out empty. FIVE! How are you going to provide for all of them?” he demands.
“I don’t know,” is all I can muster.
Dick Smith years after his famous Sydney Harbour iceberg prank
THE DICK SMACKDOWN
The following day, I speak with Liz Allen, a demographer and social researcher from Australian National University. Allen refused to comment on whether or not Smith was nuts. But she had some interesting things to say about his methodology and conclusions.
“The idea that Australia is full is somewhat nonsensical,” she says. “Yes, we can look at Sydney and Melbourne and see examples of population pressure. But that is not due to migration – that’s due to infrastructure failure. Australia needs to be smarter about how its people live and commute in the future, and for that we need technological advancements.”
I then ask Allen the million-dollar question: what would happen if we do like Smith says and cut net migration to 70,000?
“There is no evidence to support Dick Smith’s figure of 70,000 as the optimal figure,” she says. “It could very well make things worse because, like much of the developed world, Australia increasingly relies on migrants to offset the adverse consequences of an ageing population. The evidence shows that a net overseas migration of 160,000 to 220,000 per year is the optimal figure. If we cut that figure drastically to 70,0000, we would start to lose the benefits of migration. We’d lose out on a lot of the young people who pay taxes that fund the pension and other kinds of government spending.”
Next, I contact Peter McDonald, a professor of demography at The University of Melbourne and deputy director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research. He’s also the guy the Commonwealth Government hired to lead the research team that figured out Australia’s optimal net migration figure.
“Yes, 160,000 to 220,000 is the optimal range of migrants needed to maximise our GDP per capita over the next 50 years,” McDonald says. “When immigration is within this range, we can balance the population’s age structure, because immigration makes the population younger.
“By cutting immigration to 70,000,” he warns, “it would be a bit problematic for the economy. If you add up the number of family reunion migrations, which are largely spouses, and you add the refugee intake, the number comes to about 70,000. And that means we will have near zero skilled migration and large skill shortages in the workplace.”
Is it possible, I ask McDonald, that he bungled the numbers?
“We’ve done this exercise for the government three times and come up with much the same answer on each occasion,” he says. “It’s the accepted optimal figure.”
BEHIND THE DICK
So what’s Smith’s game? Why is a man who has dedicated his life to developing this country now pushing an unsubstantiated, ill-conceived and downright harebrained plan that experts say will make Australians worse off?
Smith says he’s doing it because he loves Australia. And there’s no doubting that. But what he loves even more is being the centre of attention and terrifying the shit out of his poor secretaries. “Can you grab one of those advertisements we’ve just done? Where’s my story in The Australian?” he yells at another damsel in distress while walking me towards the door.
Smith has always been cheeky and bombastic. That’s why we love him. But on this occasion, he is anything but loveable. His 70,000 net migration figure is a derivative of nostalgia from an age when every Aussie bloke with a job at the power plant could afford a quarter-acre block with a fibro home. Not to mention it’s worlds away from the thankless, fiddly work of serious demographers our government uses to fine-tune immigration policy.
And the saddest part is Smith knows all of this. He just doesn’t care, because the limelight feels good. “I can tell it’s going to be a terrible article,” is the last thing he says to me.