Monday, July 26, 2010

Immigration promise matches reality, not necessarily by design

FIRST Julia Gillard, now Tony Abbott, are leaning on a door that was already closing — and trying to claim the credit for shutting it.

Abbott pledged yesterday to reduce net overseas migration from its peak of 300,000 to 170,000 by the end of his first term. But he didn't tell us that we're already half-way there.

Net overseas migration has plunged to an estimated 240,000 in the year just ended. So far in 2010, net permanent and long-term arrivals (a broadly similar measure) has fallen by almost a third: from 169,000 to 116,000.

Economic consultants BIS Shrapnel predict this trend will continue.

In May, they forecast net overseas migration of just 175,000 this year, and 145,000 in 2011-12.

They might be right, might be wrong. But if they're anywhere near right, the Coalition's policy is simply to promise what's already happening.

Hang on. Who are the people coming here?

Take 2008-09. That year, 530,000 people arrived to live here — either permanently or long term (that is, for more than year). But 231,000 residents left to live overseas, permanently or long term. So net overseas migration was 299,000.

The official migration program set by the government was just 185,000. In round figures, there were 115,000 skilled migrants, 56,500 family members (mostly partners) of Australian residents, and 13,500 refugees. But they were offset by 75,000 Australian residents who left the country permanently to live overseas.

Most of the arrivals were long-term workers and students. Separate immigration figures show that in the year to June 2009, the number of students living here rose by 69,000. The number of long-term temporary workers rose by 24,000, section 457 visa holders by 8500 and New Zealanders by 27,000.

But wait, there's more. The global financial crisis also saw a net 27,000 Australians return home after working overseas. That will shrink ahead.

Why is immigration now falling?

Two reasons. First, the weak job market means there are fewer vacancies for migrant workers to fill.

Second, Immigration Minister Chris Evans has ended the rort of student visas leading to permanent residency, and the rorting of section 457 visas by employers bringing in cheap Asian labour.

What do the latest figures show?

In the December 2009 quarter, after Evans moved on student visas, net migration fell by 28 per cent year on year. For this year, we've only got the net arrivals figures, but they're down by 31 per cent, more than 10,000 a month.

And in 2009-10, offshore student visa grants in 2009-10 also plunged 31 per cent, or by 70,000 — mostly from India and Nepal.

See what I mean? The door is already closing. How narrow do we want to make it?

Australian education is a big export industry: putting limits on student numbers would be ridiculous. So would denying Australians the right to bring in their partners, or closing Australia to Kiwis.

To cut skilled worker migration would hurt industry. To cut our small refugee intake would be heartless.

Demographer Peter McDonald warns that we are blaming migrants for our failure to plan cities properly. I couldn't agree more.


Financial year level % change

07-08   277,300 +19
08-09   298,900 +8
09-10* 240,000 -20
10-11* 175,000 -27
11-12* 145,000 -17


Dec 07 56,000 +11
Dec 08 68,800 +29
Dec 09 49,200 -28

5 months to level % change

May 08 141,550 +26
May 09 168,970 +19
May 10 115,990 -31