Published in The Australian, 12 May 1992.
Anyone who knows Gerry Hand is aware of his sincerity and his integrity. Immigration, thanks to the recession and the evaporation of the post-war consensus that “Immigration is a good thing”, is looming as a significant political issue – and the Opposition’s opportunistic approach doesn’t help the debate focus on some of the crunch issues. In 1992, it is hardly a “plum job” to be Minister for Immigration.
Today, there will be another shift in Immigration policy when Cabinet decides to reduce immigration numbers to 70,000 or 80,000 for 1992-93 compared with 110,000 in 1991-92.
Gerry Hand is likely to “talk tough” about the need to accommodate the concerns in the community about “high” levels of immigration at a time of 10 per cent plus unemployment. I, however, have doubts about the way the policy debate is proceeding.
Increasingly, the debate has focused on the impact of immigration on the current account, living standards and the environment. The noisiest in the ring arguing for change are often those proposing that migrant numbers should be much less than in recent years. People like me, who advocate relatively high levels of immigration, are losing the debate.
Ironically, when the ACTU advocated a few months ago that the 1992-93 intake be reduced to 100,000, it was pilloried in one leading newspaper for suggesting that there be a “cut”. Yet few other national organisations have thought through the issues, debated the competing priorities, put forward to the Federal government a detailed commentary on the issues and suggested actual numbers in each of the categories.
What’s wrong with the immigration debate is not that there is no “sword of Excalibur” to cut apart the array of arguments about what should be done – it is always going to be difficult to decide what is the right policy.
But it is hard to discern what are the core principles underlying Australia’s present immigration approach.
Yet there is a clear need to rethink and to articulate such an approach, otherwise the immigration debate will continue to chip away at the government’s credibility.
Even big reductions in the numbers arriving are unlikely to silence the critics – especially if the average skills and the employability of those arriving drop.
In the past few weeks, I have made statements that are critical of some aspects of Australia’s immigration policy. Specifically, I have suggested that the government’s approach to welfare assistance and to the business migration scheme is flawed. My views are in the context of an approach that argues policies should be more economically focused. But in what way?
First, I would separate refugee policy from immigration. Australia’s generous approach to refugee intakes should continue. Obviously the overriding criteria in that area should be humanitarian.
Second, for immigration as a whole, economic self-interest should be the key factor. The family reunion and skills categories should be retained but new entrants should be chosen competitively, based on their skills, employability, age and language ability.
A market approach together with due weighting to kinship with an Australian citizen should apply, although the latter should be a secondary factor.
Family reunions with non-citizens should be more difficult and some of those arriving at present should not qualify. In addition, I suggest that, apart from refugees, welfare benefits should be withdrawn for five years to new arrivals or until citizenship is obtained, whichever is the earlier.
When I canvassed this view last week, a few people suggested that this attitude was inhumane. However, my idea does not preclude unemployment insurance arrangements and the like. In any event, why should Australian taxpayers continue to fork out hundreds of millions of dollars in such welfare relief?
It is, after all, an issue frequently raised in the community. “Why should they come here and go on the dole?” is a question and an argument that is debilitating to the credibility of the whole program.
At the federal conference of the ALP in Hobart last year, the then Minister for Employment. Education and Training, John Dawkins, circulated a paper proposing that migrant numbers be cut in half. Although I did not agree, Dawkins also observed that one in three immigrants who had arrived in Australia since the beginning of 1990 was unemployed in 1991.
Many of those would be refugees, but many others were in the family reunion and “skills” categories. Accordingly, taxpayers are paying large amounts in welfare, including unemployment benefits, to those persons and their families.
It is unfair to many of those who arrive to experience the scarring effects of unemployment — they should not come. And those with low skills should think twice about being sponsored.
For a small group, welfare benefits are well above the standard of living that they might receive back home. In the past six months, the Federal government has, admittedly, required those sponsoring migrants to Australia to pay money in the form of a bond to cover Medicare and other costs. I would go further.
On business migration, my approach would be that anyone with $1 million to invest in Australia and who does so is welcome. Here I would discount English skills as being so important, although the usual caveats about the honesty of the person would apply.
The 1988 Fitzgerald report argued for relatively high levels of migration targets in the then immediate years ahead. The report also argued for tougher economic selection criteria. “Australia must ensure that a major component of the program selects young, skilled and entrepreneurial migrants with language skills so that a strong positive economic impact is assured,” it said. “It appears that the present selection system fails to deliver these characteristics.”
The authors suggested that Australia’s immigration policies should be consistent and planned rather than regularly chopped and changed. The report also observed: “that the skills profile of some groups of immigrants has fallen, and that social security dependence in some groups is higher than the rest of the populace and… that the median age for immigrants is rising.”
It would be a horrible mistake if, in 1992-93, the same observations could again be made.