Whatever happened to immigration — as a political issue, that is? As a socio-demographic issue, of course, immigration has continued on its merry way under the bipartisan Big Australia policy after the temporary COVID breather in 2020 and 2021.
Annual net overseas migration (NOM), defined as permanent and long-term (16 months or more) arrivals, primarily overseas students and backpackers, minus net departures of same, had been around the 190,000 mark prior to the ‘No Entry’ sign being put up on our borders. This plunged NOM into historically rare negative territory, a 1-in-100-year immigration reversal.
NOM has subsequently bounced back to rude health, making up for ground lost during its bout with COVID mania. The Coalition’s final Budget in 2022 baked in new policy settings which plan for a well-above-average increase in NOM, to 235,000 every year from 2024-25 (targets from which the new Labor government has not dissented).
Historically, NOM has been responsible for driving the majority (around two-thirds) of Australia’s total population growth compared to natural increase (births minus deaths), accounting for Australia generally having the highest rate of population growth amongst comparable OECD countries. Of the 34 OECD members, Australia sits second for foreign-born people as a proportion of total population (29 per cent).
Every four years, the new NOM is forecast to add another million people to a country of just 26 million. So it looks like ‘business as usual’ again for the ‘Big Australia’ immigration lobby which includes those from both sides of politics, the overseas student industry, property developers, think-tanks such as the Grattan Institute and peak employer groups, which rather likes a constantly increasing supply of cheap labour.
Not everyone is cracking open the bubbly, however. A large majority of the Australian population have long been opposed to Australia’s excessively high immigration inflow and they remain so today.
All pre-COVID opinion polls (‘quickie’, snapshot surveys by Newspoll, Essential, Lowy, Centre for Independent Studies, etc.) have shown a majority of voters (variously between 55 to 65 per cent) opposed to high immigration-fuelled population growth. Only 10 per cent think immigration has been too low.
Post-closed-borders, Nine Media’s Resolve Political Monitor in February 2022 found that this mood has not shifted following the economic slowdown of the mad COVID policy response – 65 per cent of Australians still want immigration at a lower level than existed pre-pandemic, with only 22 per cent wanting it restarted at the same or higher levels.
The more comprehensive survey, by The Australian Population Research Institute of Oct/Nov 2019, found that 72 per cent did not agree that Australia needs more people, whilst their post-pandemic July 2021 survey found the new government NOM target gets the tick from only 19 per cent of voters, with 42 per cent wanting a lower number and a further 28 per cent preferring nil immigration — net zero, to repurpose a term much in-vogue just lately.
When asked by Essential why they wanted reduced immigration, large majorities of Australians think that ‘increasing immigration levels would add more pressure on the housing system and infrastructure’ (63 per cent) whilst almost half (48 per cent) fear that ‘increasing immigration levels would create more competition for jobs and slow wage growth’.
The TAPRI surveys concur that quality-of-life consequences of Big Australia immigration loom foremost in people’s minds, not least thoughts of further urban congestion (‘Our cities are overcrowded and there is too much traffic’), the cost and accessibility of house ownership and rentals, infrastructure stresses , agricultural and natural environment lost to development, etc.
Most voters, TAPRI finds, are unconvinced by ‘elite justifications for high immigration’ such as immigration being essential for economic growth, including meeting skilled worker demand (only 26 per cent agree that economic health depends on immigration) whilst 61 per cent prefer dealing with skills shortages by raising wages and productivity measures such as improving skills training for locals.
Australians don’t need an economics degree to see the economic downsides of high immigration in their personal lives: it places their jobs and wages at risk, it affects the cost of housing and access to health, education and other services and, whilst it does boost aggregate GDP, it doesn’t move the needle on per-capita GDP (including real wage growth), the practical metric of living standards for your average Australian.
Immigrants are also a drag on government finances because many (particularly elderly parents of immigrants arriving here under the family reunification program) consume far more in government welfare than they have ever or will ever pay in taxes.
The mooted tax-revenue boost from immigration to fund an ageing population also never materialises because the immigrants themselves age and need ever more immigration to fund their own welfare needs in old age. Around and around the mulberry bush we go in a giant Ponzi scheme.
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Some of us and our friends in Australia remember the "Ten Pound Pom" incentive to emigrate from the UK to Australia when phone calls were a luxury and UK emigrants did not see their families for years.