Having to argue that “I’m not a racist” is normally a damning indictment. But, I suppose, people should be allowed to complain when those damn foreigners come here and mine our minerals, take our jobs, or buy the housing stock.
Every weekend in Sydney, young Australian couples are turning up at auctions excited at the prospect of finally owning their own home, only to find that other bidders are wealthy foreign buyers with money to burn.
Last year, median house prices in Sydney rose by a crazy 15%, in some suburbs by up to 27%. Cash pouring in from China is one of the principal drivers and this flood of unregulated investment, coupled with other factors driving up Sydney house prices, are slowly changing the city’s social fabric in a way that will be felt for generations to come. Couples planning families can no longer afford to buy in the suburbs where they grew up, where they have built friendship networks or where they work. Forced further and further west and south, they are progressively cut off from their old neighbourhoods.
Watching weekly auctions, one real estate agent from northern Sydney told the Australian Financial Review that some Australians were “sick of going to auctions and being outbid by Chinese buyers paying above the odds.” Anecdotally, the Herald recently reported an auction for a Chatswood apartment at which all 16 registered bidders were ethnic Chinese. At another auction in Eastwood, all 38 registered bidders were Asian, according to the estate agent John McGrath. The property sold for $1m above the reserve price.
So why am I providing publicity to what you’d think is obviously a One Nation pamphlet? Because the author was Professor of Public Ethics Clive Hamilton writing in The Guardian Australia.
The Guardian’s editor has had to issue this statement:
This article generated strong response when published on 18 February 2014, including concern about racist undertones in its original headline “Wealthy Chinese buyers are making Sydney’s housing problem worse”.
The author and Guardian Australia disclaim any racist intent. Both are conscious of Australia’s racist past. Neither believes that legitimate issues for public debate – here, housing affordability – should be avoided simply because the discussion may be viewed through the prism of that past.
However, Guardian Australia accepts that where a reasonable person could infer racism in an adverse reference to any national or ethnic group. Guardian Australia must be especially vigilant to ensure that the evidence underpinning such content is solid. We have concluded that in this instance we were not vigilant enough. With assistance from our engaged readership, we have found that evidence originally cited in this article was not solid enough to support the original headline, which is now amended.
The author acknowledges that he erred in his reporting of Foreign Investment Review Board data. The secondary source on which he relied conflated figures for residential and commercial investment and overstated the increase in investment from China in 2011-12. This has been corrected. The author stands by his basic thesis, which refers to investment over the last two or so years, though he recognises there is as yet no public FIRB data to support it.
Two pieces of anecdotal evidence from real estate agents also appeared to support the original headline, but on closer examination they are not strong enough to do so. The author was not at fault; in the editing process, Guardian Australia itself did not draw sufficiently precise distinctions between references to Asian buyers in the housing market and those who are ethnically Chinese. Nor did we distinguish properly between ethnically Chinese buyers from abroad and those ethnically Chinese buyers who are local and may, of course, be several-generations Australian. The amended article paraphrases more precisely what the estate agents were reported by other media to have observed.
As various contributors to the comment thread for this article show, the causes of fluctuations in housing prices are several and varied. Foreign buyers, and among them Chinese investors, may be a greater or lesser cause from time to time. Guardian Australia has concluded that, on the evidence presented, it was wrong to imply through the original headline that wealthy Chinese buyers are disproportionately a factor compared to any other national or ethnic group.
The author stands by his opinion, as he is entitled to. Guardian Australia believes it must correct the evidence base underpinning that opinion and label it less emphatically in order to give readers assistance in weighing it and to avoid any inference of racism.