Despite Job Fears, We Must Keep Migration Door Open

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, was right when he noted last week that the first people to cop the blame for an economic downturn are foreigners. In the UK, the “British jobs for British workers” movement is getting more popular and more shrill.

So, until recently, it was good to see that Kevin Rudd’s Government was intent on maintaining – and even increasing – the high migration intake it had inherited.

But Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced on Monday that the Government was planning to reduce the number of skilled workers it lets into the country every year.

ACTU boss Sharan Burrow pretty much gave the game away when she claimed in response that migration had to be restricted to “protect jobs” because of the financial crisis. The union movement has never met an immigration cut it didn’t like.

The idea that one more immigrant equals one fewer job for Australians sounds vaguely plausible. But modern labour markets are far more complicated than that. A national economy isn’t just a fixed number of jobs waiting to be divvied up between all the available workers – it is a constantly changing mixture of opportunities to work, produce and profit.

Let’s be honest: if there were a real risk that immigrants were going to rip potential employment away from red-blooded Australians looking for work, those Australians would be doing those jobs already.

Critics of immigration conveniently forget that immigrants do more than just work – they buy houses and consume products too. Hell, they even pay taxes. Adding more people into the economic mix is a recipe for long-term growth – this is as true when the economy is slowing down as it is when the economy is booming.

After all, there are a lot of things to do in an economy, even during a recession. The whole country doesn’t immediately seize up because a department store reports that their mid-January sales figures are down 17 per cent on last year’s.

So if we respond to the economic crisis by dramatically shrinking our migration intake, we could easily end up in the bizarre situation of having both widespread unemployment and widespread job vacancies. Sound unlikely? Perhaps, but we haven’t seen those laid-off Macquarie Bank alumni hopping on V/Line to pick pistachios in Swan Hill yet.

Sure, there are now a lot of people actively seeking work since the global financial crisis really hit six months ago. But there have been unemployed people since before then, and those jobs in the fruit-picking industry have long been unfilled.

Only when the finance industry’s brightest sparks begin seeking agricultural employment should we start denying farmers the labour force they need – and denying eager migrant workers the opportunity to earn.

Ever since the First Fleet landed, Australia’s most pressing economic problem has been our population size. Our labour force has always been small, our consumer base small, and the size of our national market small. Compounding this has been the fear of an inexorably ageing workforce. But the credit crunch has presented long-term opponents of immigration with an opportunity to flog their favourite dead horse.

Even more erroneous is the belief held by many opponents of immigration that we should limit the entry into Australia of certain non-Western religions because our cultures are incompatible.

The history of migration has surely taught us that individual liberty and equality are quite appealing when seen up close – every migrant group has integrated into Australian society within a generation or two.

What we ask from immigrants to Australia is that they obey the nation’s laws, just like those whose families came over two centuries ago. And we have a shiny, expensive police force to make sure we all do.

Anyway, we have a moral necessity to maintain a high immigration intake.

Much more than foreign aid, charity, Live Aid wristbands, and even the bulk-purchase of fair trade coffee, the most effective way we can help somebody living in the third world to crawl out of poverty is allowing them to move to the first world.

On the one hand, the ACTU’s Union Aid Abroad claims solidarity with overseas workers, but on the other hand the union insists that poor workers in other countries be restrained from doing the one thing that could most comprehensively help them – moving here.

Certainly, the economic crisis is hard.

But blaming foreigners and cutting immigration isn’t going to get us out of it any quicker.