Treasurer Josh Frydenberg conspicuously avoided any mention of the government’s 30,000-a-year cut to immigration numbers in his first Budget speech.
The government has framed the cut — which brings the permanent overseas migration cap down from 190,000 to 160,000 a year — within a broader infrastructure agenda “to better manage population growth”, as Mr Frydenberg put it in his speech.
In addition to roughly $15 billion worth of “congestion-busting” new roads and rail lines, the government has announced a suite of spending measures “to ensure population growth is sustainable”.
In its announcement, the government said the cumulative reduction of 120,000 permanent migration places over four years was “designed to reduce pressure on Australia’s major cities” as more infrastructure is put in place “to manage long-term population growth and settlement across Australia”.
Skilled migrants will be encouraged to settle in regional areas through the introduction of two new visa classes, at a cost of nearly $50 million over five years.
The Skilled Work Regional (Provisional) visa and the Skilled Employer Sponsored Regional (Provisional) visa, which replace the existing 187 and 489 visa subclasses, will allow skilled migrants to live and work in regional Australia for five years.
The new visas include a pathway to permanent residency at the end of three years. In 2022, a permanent residence visa for regional Australia will be introduced.
Domestic and international students will be encouraged to study in regional Australia via $94 million worth of scholarships over four years.
Meanwhile, an extra $64.2 million will be spent on “new social cohesion measures” to “foster belonging and break down barriers to social and economic participation for Australian immigrants”.
Finally, the government will spend $23.4 million to establish a Centre for Population to “inform and co-ordinate the development of population policy across government”.
Opinion polls over the past two years have repeatedly highlighted the divide between public opinion and politicians on the issue of immigration.
A 2017 survey by the Australian Population Research Institute found 74 per cent of voters said the country does not need more people. Last year, a Newspoll found 56 per cent of voters believed the existing immigration cap of 190,000 a year was too high.
An Essential Media poll found 64 per cent believed the level of immigration over the last 10 years had been too high. Similarly, a Lowy Institute poll found 54 per cent of Australians believed the total number of migrants coming to Australia each year is too high.
Late last year, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian weighed into the population debate, saying she wanted NSW’s annual net overseas migration slashed by 50 per cent back to Howard-era levels of about 45,000 a year.
“It’s time to tap the brakes and take a breather on immigration levels to this state,” she told The Daily Telegraph. “I’m the daughter of proud immigrants myself, but it’s clear that successive federal governments have allowed the rate of immigration to NSW to balloon out of control.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten last month said he didn’t have an issue with the “not exactly earth shattering” policy but slammed the government for the timing of the announcement in the wake of the Christchurch attacks.
“We know there is a bigger debate going on in Australia at the moment and it’s the reaction to Christchurch, to the murder,” he said.
“That wasn’t done by a refugee and it wasn’t done by a first-generation immigrant. It was done by an Australian man, and I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d express the term an Australian homegrown terrorist, going to New Zealand.”
Fuelling the debate is the growing number of experts who have warned the government has been leaning on high immigration numbers to mask underlying weakness in the economy.
ABS figures show the Australian economy actually shrank by 0.1 per cent and 0.2 per cent in the September and December quarters respectively, when population growth is stripped out.
Australia last recorded a so-called “per capita recession” in 2006.
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