Published in Michael Easson, editor, Australia and Immigration: Able to Grow?, Pluto Press for the Lloyd Ross Forum, Leichhardt, 1990, pp. 69-74.
With a million people from all over the world applying each year to migrate to Australia, it is natural to assume that much of the debate about Australian immigration policy revolves around the limited numbers, out of all those who apply, who are selected. In the foreseeable future this is likely to continue to be the case. But it is also conceivable that at some future time fewer and fewer people will bother to apply to migrate to Australia. It is possible that as Australia decides to sharpen the focus on selecting migrants with economic, professional, trade and vocational skills which are in demand in this country, that it may become harder and harder to attract such people to Australia.
Perhaps it is possible that the startling situation reached at the end of the 1930s will one day be repeated; at that time Australia’s population was in decline due to the net migration of people to Britain. At that time many began to wonder whether Australia would sink into international obscurity with a declining population and a relatively stagnant economy.
The purpose of this brief chapter is to speculate about some of the opportunities that are available now, especially with regard to immigration from North East and South East Asia. In doing so some comparisons and analogies will be made with the situation as it was before the Second World War.
Half a century ago it was hardly obvious that Australia would succeed in attracting the migrants it did in the postwar era. The great Australasian economist A.G.B. Fisher wrote in 1938 that:
Broadly the statement that any ‘British subject’ of white race who desires to settle in Australia, and who can show that he is not ‘likely to become a charge on the public’, is free to enter the country may be accepted as accurate.The Australian authorities have slackened their efforts to attract immigrants, but the cessation, and indeed the reversal of the old stream of migration is due to the fact not that people are kept out of Australia, but that they no longer want to come in.1
A year after those words were published Australia was at war. After that war Australia embarked on an immigration program which was ambitious by any standards. The doubts about whether anyone wanted to come to Australia disappeared as hundreds of thousands of British families, displaced persons and persons keen to leave the aftermath of war-ravaged Europe queued to be accepted for passage to Australia. The drying up in the late 1930s of the source of migrants from Great Britain, noted by Fisher, was one factor influencing Australian authorities to extend the catchment area for Australia’s future population to most of Europe.
W.D. Borrie, the Australian demographer, commented that:
…the imaginative plans laid by the Chifley government to double the rate of population growth to 2 per cent a year, with half of it to come from immigration, and to spread the search for immigrants throughout Europe, met with very little opposition from either Labor’s Liberal and Country Party opponents or from the trade unions. When the state of prewar opinion is recalled, the post-war immigration programme indeed moved into operation with astonishing ease.2
Australians were convinced then of the need to increase the population; more people would make Australia economically stronger and better able to defend herself, or such was the argument. Moreover the younger (than the average of the Australian population) migrant intake would arrest some of the problems arising from an ageing population. Arthur Calwell, the Minister for Immigration and Information argued strongly with respect to the last point that
What is the significance of these tragic figures? Their significance is that the population of this vital, pulsating young country is slowly but inexorably moving into the upper age groups — that Australia, although only 160 years old, is becoming senescent in the midst of a world demanding the fit adaption and vigour of youth.3
Interpreters of Australia’s migration history are familiar with such (timeless) arguments. Indeed the merits of such claims are canvassed in this volume, particularly in the chapters by Fred Argy, David Clark and Peter Walsh.
For the purpose of the argument in this chapter, it is not necessary to simply marshall the reasons in favour of migration for Australia. Relevant to this discussion is whether people will bother to come. And whether Australia is able to seize the opportunity available now to pick some of the best migrants it will ever be able to pick.
The concentration on South East and North East Asia in the argument which follows is partly accidental: however, it is from those places that Australia is likely to obtain an increasing share of its immigration intake; it is from such places that many highly skilled people are nowadays interested in moving to Australia.
As earlier noted with respect to the A.G.B. Fisher article, Australia was not an attractive place for potential migrants from Britain in the late 1930s. Utilising arguments which a mere decade later seemed to describe a remote period, Fisher commented:
This change of attitude is… the result of the comparisons which prospective migrants make between the economic opportunities open to them in Australia and their economic prospects if they stay at home. Australia is relatively less attractive than it was a generation or two ago, and this is partly a consequence of the fact that despite depression the position of the average man in Great Britain has improved.4
Subsequently, to use a Manning Clark phrase, Australia again seemed like a vision of Eden to millions of Britons and other Europeans. The comparisons in the immediate post war period were decisively in favor of Australia. “Who would not want to come here?” was an expression which then and now summarised the attitudes of most Australians.
In the 1990s, for young and talented people in Italy, Greece and many other post-war European source countries, Australia is a less inviting place to move to than it was 40, 30 or 20 years ago. The Fitzgerald Inquiry (CAAIP) on Australia’s immigration policies noted this fact. Hardly anyone bothers to migrate to Australia from Greece, Italy, Germany or Holland anymore. In 1950, the decision to do so was regarded as a normal thing to do – the opportunities for advancement, the economic prosperity of Australia, the ‘safe’ location of Australia, the opportunities for the children were all relative advantages. With the standard of living in Western Europe now so high and in Germany’s case much higher than Australia’s, the economic motive to move is not huge. For over a century migration for many West Europeans was a normal and compelling imperative. Now it is increasingly an unusual, if not an eccentric choice. Only in Great Britain is the urge to migrate to Australia relatively strong. No doubt that is largely influenced by family connections and the reality that, for many Britons, their lifestyle and opportunities are relatively poor by European and Australian standards.
Perhaps the same thing will also be the case for the populations in North East and South East Asia. There is an irony that as Australia debates the need to import talented, enterprising and skilled migrants from this region, that the countries in the region are rapidly developing, reaching and, in some cases, overtaking Australian GDP per head of population. As those countries continue to mature, Australia will become a weaker magnet to attract their talents.
Ross Garnaut commented in his 1989 report to the Federal government on opportunities for Australia in the North East Asian region that:
There is an opportunity now for Australia to recruit to citizenship young, well-educated and professionally accomplished people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea. This opportunity may be open for a decade or less, diminishing as political uncertainties are resolved (one way or the other) and as, as in Europe, rising living standards reduce the attractions of emigration to Australia. There is a strong case for making good use of this opportunity while it lasts.5
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this opportunity is widely recognised as such. Indeed this observation in the Garnaut report seems to have gone unnoticed in the debate about Australian economic opportunities in North East Asia. Is there such an opportunity? Is it worthwhile pursuing? One argument is that as Australians have not succeeded very well in developing trade opportunities in the region, that an injection into Australia of able migrants from some of the dynamic economies of the Asian region may change that situation. Such migrants may be more interested, willing and able to develop trade opportunities between Australia and the countries of their origin. Further, if Australia could increase the number of professionals and highly skilled workers in, for example, the computing, engineering, applied scientific and business fields this, in itself, could assist Australia’s potential to expand its industry and trade in many areas. In any event there are now immediate opportunities to attract extremely skilled migrants in the case of Hong Kong prior to the Chinese government takeover in 1997, and in Taiwan and Korea as they move towards more political liberalisation. That opportunity is likely to diminish or almost evaporate within a decade or so. All of these arguments suggest that an enterprising approach to attracting migrants to Australia would be of value.
In the early 1990s Australians will continue to debate what the population intake should be. As immigration becomes a contentious issue, as doubts are raised about the economic benefits of immigration and as ecological and ‘green’ arguments are voiced as to whether more people are ‘good’ for the Australian environment, arguments concerning the economic and trade benefits of migration will become more important.
The Fitzgerald Committee observed that:
We have the moral dilemma of choosing between one human being and another, but the privilege of having so many of value from whom to choose. And the only responsible way of choosing is on the basis of factors which are economically and demographically and socially defensible and which will give us immigrants who can lead a productive and fulfilling life in Australia, the most appropriate immigrants.6
Given the state of the world, an immigration program which places a high priority on the economic abilities, skills and English language capacity of migrants will attract large numbers of able people from the Asian countries. For many, Australia’s deserved reputation as a non-discriminatory, democratic and free society is a substantial advantage compared to the reality in their homeland. Australia is a land of economic opportunity and a place where freedom means something.
In my judgment the Fitzgerald Committee appropriately argued for more weight to be given to economic factors in determining future immigration intakes. For much of the 1980s Australia was receiving migrants less skilled in English, older than in previous decades and with lower skills than in the 1970s.7 The consensus required to sustain the current (i.e., 120,000 to 150,000) intake or higher numbers, requires that the economic qualities of migrants be considerably higher than that of the previous and earlier decades.
My view is that as many of the countries of North East and South East Asia accelerate in economic and political growth and move towards more open societies the attractiveness of migrating to Australia will gradually diminish.
Australia could potentially benefit from an increase in its population from talented migrants from those societies here and now.
Unfortunately the Australian immigration authorities do not seem to be terribly enterprising. Much of the debate concerning immigration policy in the aftermath of the Fitzgerald Committee Report sought to obliterate discussion of sensitive issues, including those of race and of economics. Too much concentration has been on fairness, rule making and rule administration rather than the larger issues of public policy.8 Hence the approach to the selection of migrants is very bureaucratic; no one is directly solicited; tens of thousands of applications are received each week; how to filter these through the system is largely the stuff of present day government immigration activity.
Opportunities exist in many parts of the globe and, most obviously, in the ASEAN and North East Asian regions to attract very able migrant settlers to Australia. But for how long will this be the case? Ten, twenty, thirty or forty years? Much depends on the economic, societal and political changes now taking place across the globe. The immediate challenge to Australia is whether we are clever enough and able to reach out to the opportunities in front of our nose.
1. Fisher, A.G.B., ‘Migration’ in Kevin, J.C.C. (editor) Some Australians Take Stock,Longmans, Green and Co, London, 1938, p. 229.
2. Borrie W.D., The Peopling of Australia, George Judah Cohen Memorial Lecture, University of Sydney, Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Glebe, 1958, pp 10-11; see also Borrie, W.D. Immigration Australia’s Problems and Prospects, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1949.
3. Calwell, A.A., Immigration Policy and Progress, Minister of Immigration and Information, John Morley Printer, Melbourne, 1949, p. 44.
4. Fisher, A.G.B., op cit; see also Fisher, A.G.B. ‘Present Iarge-Scale Migration Policy’ in Duncan, W.G.K., and Jones, C.V. (Editors), The Future of Immigration Into Australia and New Zealand Angus and Robertson, 1937, pp 63-79.
5. Garnaut, Ross, Australia and the North East Asian Ascendancy, Report to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1989, p. 292.
6. Fitzgerald, Stephen [Chairman], Immigration: A Commitment to Australia,Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra 1988 p 17.
7. Ibid., p. 51; see also Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), The Relationship between Immigration and Economic Performance, Centre for International Economics (Report for CEDA), Canberra, 1988 pp. 8 ff. It is still too early to assess what might be the achievements of the Bureau of Immigration Research (BIR), established in 1989. The BIR is required to examine the economic, social, demographic and other factors relevant to Australia’s immigration program and to make a substantial contribution to public interest and debate on immigration matters.
The economist, researcher, and author, Allan George Barnard Fisher (1895-1976), among other things, was a contemporary of Dr Lloyd Ross (1901-1987) at the University of Dunedin in the 1920s and 1930s (when Ross was involved in the local Workers Educational Association and the University Extension courses) interested me. On a few of my visits in the early 1980s to his home in Hunters Hill, Ross mentioned Fisher as a good friend and as a liberal in debates between them on economic issues.
Long neglected as an original and influential figure in the history of New Zealand and Australian economics, Fisher deserves a monograph or book discussing his ideas. He is referred to in Barry Jones’ book Sleepers Awake! and praised there for coining the idea of primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors of the economy – a once provocative insight. (Though Jagdish N. Bhagwati in Political Economy and International Economics, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 250-252 disputes the concept’s utility and usefulness for understanding the development of political economy and service industries in particular societies.)
Fisher’s career traversed academia in his native New Zealand, as Professor of Economics at the University of Otago from 1925 to 1935, then from 1936 to 1938 as Professor of Economics at the University of Western Australia, then from 1938 as he held the Price Research Professorship, later Professor of International Economics, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, familiarly known as Chatham House, in London. After the War, after a brief stint advising New Zealand governments at international fora, he took on a role as head of research at the International Monetary Fund, based in Washington, D.C. Thus, he played an “important, minor” role in the creation of the economic architecture of the post war world. He was also, sometime, though briefly in the 1930s, an economist with the Bank of New South Wales.
I am not sure how gifted were Fisher’s contribution to economic thought (the research, comparative analysis, and thinking needs to be done), but the quality of his discussion in the late 1930s on Australian immigration policy and resultant issues is striking. That is why I paid some attention to him in this article.