Charade Must End, And Both Sides Of Politics Know It

Perhaps now Labor and the Coalition could come clean with voters. Both sides of politics intend to grow Australia with immigration – to continue the 200-year project of population expansion. This project is as important today as it was during the Victorian gold rush. They just don’t want to admit it.
Treasurer Wayne Swan announced in last week’s budget an increase in immigration of 16,000 people; three-quarters of those will be skilled migrants sent to regional areas.
That’s on top of the government’s new Enterprise Migration Agreements. The agreements allow large mining and infrastructure firms to negotiate tailored guest worker schemes for foreign labour, as long as they implement training programs for local workers too.
Sure, in the scheme of things, these changes will only modestly increase immigration levels.
But they’ve been announced by a government that spent the 2010 election talking about how they planned to slow population growth, blamed skilled migrants for undercutting wages, and promised to “take a breather” on immigration.
The increases have been embraced by an opposition that ran even harder against population during the campaign. Supporting the government’s migration increase last week, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said it was necessary if we were to avoid inflation.
Last year Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott fell over each other trying to appeal to voters convinced that traffic jams and refugee boats were two sides of the same problem.
Labor announced an inquiry into sustainable population, plainly hoping it would calm those who hated Kevin Rudd’s ”Big Australia”.
The “stable population” types welcomed the opportunity to present their misanthropic views on closed borders and reduced birth rates. Green groups proposed population limits too, prioritising the Australian environment above the well-being of potential migrants.
But the government must have known that business lobbyists would call for higher migration during the inquiry. The likely final result would be an expansion, not a reduction, of foreign skilled migration.
The government released the inquiry’s report on Friday. It simply says that skilled migrants should be sent to targeted industries and regions, and that governments should plan better.
The ”small Australia” rhetoric of the 2010 election was just for show. So let’s give up the charade. Australia needs more migrants; our economy is begging for them.
The enormous mineral projects in Western Australia and the North need mass labour if we’re going to continue to rely on the resources boom to underpin growth. The Chinese demand, which Treasury hopes will save the federal budget, will only be met with new workers.
The National Farmers Federation reckons agriculture needs at least 100,000 more workers now that the drought has lifted.
Booming global demand for resources, and booming global demand for food – a government that did not make policy changes to meet those demands would be negligent.
Could we try to fill all these positions with existing Australian residents? Well, the unemployment rate is in the fours. There aren’t many Australians available.
But the more troubling answer to that question comes from another proposal in this budget – the $1700 bonus for apprentices if they complete their training. That seems perverse. Do we really have to bribe people to qualify for jobs that offer high wages?
There is, of course, a powerful moral argument for accepting more immigrants. Migrants do more than just help our economy. They travel here for work to support themselves and their families. That’s the moral dimension – people should be free to build a better life, as long as they don’t harm others in the process.
Migrants do not steal jobs from locals who want to work. The economic literature on that question is unambiguous.
Nor is infrastructure the problem immigration sceptics claim. Migrants pay taxes. Competent governments should be able to deploy those taxes for transport and services. When incompetent ones – read New South Wales – do not, that’s not immigrants’ fault.
All these points are as true for unskilled migrants as much as skilled ones. A far-sighted government would look at expand-ing the unskilled cohort. The economy could easily use them.
Immigration is overwhelmingly more effective than foreign aid at boosting development in the Third World. Migrants send money back home. Globally, the amount of cash remitted to the developing countries is more than total global spending on foreign aid. And it goes directly to those who need it.
So for Bob Brown to describe economic migrants this week as “queue jumpers” is obscene. The Greens’ support for humanitarian programs is laudable; their opposition to immigration in general is not.
Throughout Australian history, the “population problem” has been about how we will people the continent, not whether we should. And despite the aberration that was the 2010 election, it still is.