By Jock Collins
Australia is one of the world’s four major settler immigration nations since 1945 along with Canada, the US and New Zealand (ABC News)
Immigration is once again a hot political topic, with the NSW and Federal elections imminent.
It has again been linked to population pressures and congestion in Sydney and Melbourne and the perennial strong borders mantra that has dominated federal politics since the 2001 election.
On Wednesday Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a new population plan that included 23,000 new visas for skilled workers who are willing to migrate to regional areas, a significant jump from 8,534 last year, along with a cut to the permanent migration program.
The carrot is that if these skilled workers stay in regional cities and towns for three years they will be eligible for permanent residency — the aim of most temporary migrants.
At the same time new measures designed to attract more international students to regional universities were announced: the carrot here is that they will be permitted to stay and work in regional Australia for 12 months after they graduate.
Increasing immigrant settlement in regional Australia makes sense, but it won’t solve the problem of congestion in Sydney and Melbourne.
The headlines from the announcement were along the lines of “PM to cut immigration”. That invokes an anti-immigration populism, but it is disingenuous and misleading.
Let’s look at the data.
The migration cut is very small
The announcement of a target of 160,000, a 30,000 cut from 190,000, over the next four years is really no change to current immigration policy: last year 162,000 permanent immigrants arrived in Australia
There is nothing to see here if you dismiss the need to be loudly anti-immigration in the current populist political climate.
The real headline of Morrison’s announcement should be: “PM refuses NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s push to cut new immigrant numbers in NSW by half”. But this is not the political message Mr Morrison wants to send.
The data shows why immigration figures highly in Australian political debates.
With 28.2 per cent of Australia’s resident population born overseas, Australia’s per capita immigrant population is exceeded only by Switzerland and Luxembourg among OECD countries.
In Sydney, Melbourne and Perth more than 60 per cent of the population are first, or second-generation immigrants, with Sydney the fourth greatest immigration city in the world today.
Muslim immigration is a small percentage
The horrific events in Christchurch have also put the ethnic/cultural/religious composition of immigration intake into the spotlight.
Since 1945, Australia and New Zealand — along with Canada and the USA — are the world’s four major settler immigration nations. Australia ranks 11th — behind New Zealand at seventh — in per capita annual permanent immigrant intakes.
Yet it is misplaced to single out the Islamic community — as much of the public debate on immigration tends to do. Muslims comprise only 1 per cent of New Zealand’s population and 2.6 per cent of the Australian population. Australia and New Zealand are hardly being overwhelmed by Muslim immigrants.
While Australia’s immigration net has progressively drawn in people from all corners of the globe, the British and New Zealand immigrant populations have been the largest.
In declining order, the other top 10 source countries of Australian immigration in terms of the ethnic “stock” of immigrants living in Australia are: China; India; Philippines; Vietnam; Italy; South Africa; Malaysia and Germany.
In recent years, immigrants from India and China have passed British and New Zealand immigrants which had long ranked at the top of the immigrant intake.
Economics trumps nation building
In order to understand how Australia’s immigration policy works it is important to make the distinction between those admitted under the permanent immigration program and those admitted under temporary migrant visas.
Each year the Australian government sets the permanent immigration targets and once set the government announces what proportion will be accepted from visa categories including skilled (such as business migration), family or humanitarian immigrants.
The big trend over the past two decades has been to cut dramatically the relative size of the family reunion component and increase the skilled component.
Immediate economic return seems to have replaced the goal of long-term nation building when setting Australian immigration policy parameters.
We’ve seen more refugees — and the sky didn’t fall in
One big change in recent Australian immigration policy — receiving little fanfare from the Prime Minister — was the increase in the annual humanitarian (refugee) intake from 13,750 to more than 18,000.
In addition, then PM Tony Abbott in 2015 announced an additional one-off intake of 12,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict. Most of these arrived in 2017 and were Christians from Syria and Iraq.
This meant an effective doubling of refugee intake in 2017. The sky didn’t fall in. While the service providers to newly arrived refugees were stretched, they coped well.
The Akhal children on their first day of school in 2016: recent research with these newly-arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugee families suggests they are settling well in Australia. (Supplied: Heaton Public School)
Moreover, recent research with these newly-arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugee families suggests they are settling well in Australia. Finding a job and getting family members accepted as Australian refugees are the key issues that they face.
Coming by planes, not boats
Asylum seeker policy, mandatory detention and offshore processing of boat people on Manus Island and Nauru will play out loudly in the forthcoming federal election campaign.
However, record numbers of asylum seekers are arriving by plane on tourist visas: In 2017-18 there were 27,931 asylum applications, but no boat arrivals.
Three times more temporary immigrants
The other big change in Australian immigration policy has been the shift from permanent to temporary immigration.
Over the past two decades or so temporary immigrants — international students, working holiday makers and temporary skilled migrants — have increasingly outnumbered permanent immigrants with an increase in temporary migrants from around 700,000 in 2013-4 to more than 800,000 by June 2018.
Today temporary immigrants outnumber permanent immigrants more than three-fold.
This dramatic switch in Australian immigration policy has been largely undebated as the oxygen of public and political immigration discourses has been exhausted by the boat people issue, numerically a tiny component of Australia’s recent immigration history.
Moreover increasing evidence of widespread exploitation of temporary migrant workers, including wage theft with estimates that up to 50 per cent of temporary migrant workers may be underpaid in their employment suggests the government has dropped the ball on the largest component of current Australian immigration.
Jock Collins is Professor of Social Economics at the University of Technology Sydney Business School.