Our immigration intake quietly cut (my final Fairfax column)

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There’s a certain irony in Prime Minister Turnbull and Home Affairs Minister Dutton having different recollections about whether they had discussed cutting immigration. It’s being quietly reduced anyway.

If the current trend in the way Dutton’s department issues visas holds, immigration is being cut by about 20,000 – the figure Dutton either did or didn’t discuss with Cabinet colleagues,

The number of permanent non-humanitarian visas 2016-17 came in nearly 6,400 short of the government’s target of 190,000. (https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2017/November/Behind_the_Numbers_-_the_2016-17_Migration_Programme ) Last financial year’s shortfall is four times the total shortfall over the previous decade.

And this year’s gap is shaping up to be substantially greater. “Invitations” to take up the main independent points-based permanent visa over the first nine months of the year are down by about half on the previous corresponding period.

In 2016-17, the government planned to issue 43,990 of these subclass 189 visas and did issue 42,422. “Invitations” aren’t exactly “visas”, but they’re a good proxy.

The ABC reports the government is allocating visas that previously mainly went to overseas Asians to New Zealanders who are already Australian residents. (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-13/how-dutton-slowed-immigration/9646602 )

If the dive in invitations holds for the year’s final quarter, permanent immigration will have been cut by about 20,000 – the figure about which the always-helpful Tony Abbott suggests Malcolm Turnbull has “his knickers in a twist”. (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-11/abbott-attacks-turnbull-over-immigration-report-denial/9640784 )

Most of these subclass 189 visa migrants come directly from overseas, as opposed to those who transition here from temporary visas, and thus the reduced numbers will show up in the headline net overseas migration (NOM) numbers.

Another impact on NOM is working its way through the system from both the rhetoric and actions by the government in making it harder and less desirable to obtain temporary work visas. As previously reported, applications for 457 visas were down by a third in the first half of the year – and that was before the more restrictive two-tier temporary work visa system started last month. (https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/australian-unis-hit-the-panic-button-as-government-pulls-foreign-student-pin-20180228-p4z23b.html )

The latest NOM figures are for the year to the end of September. They totalled 250,100 – representing close to one per cent of the Australian population. If the trend of subclass 189 visa invitations and temporary visa applications hold and international student visas are either steady or dip, NOM could be headed down to around 200,000.

(There’s a reasonable argument that the current NOM is overstated by about 20 per cent anyway, (https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/populist-drum-beats-wrong-numbers-drive-our-migration-debate-20180404-p4z7qk.html ) but we’ll stick with the ABS definition for consistency.)

At that level, NOM would be running at about 0.8 per cent of the population – not far off the average over the entire post-war period. And NOM includes the humanitarian element at a time when the outlook for genuine refugees – unable to live anywhere in their country of origin, unlike white South African farmers – remains bleak.

Meanwhile the anti-immigration chorus grows, tempting one side or the other of politics to explicitly break bi-partisanship.

As this is my last column for Fairfax Media, let me break my general rule about getting into a reader’s correspondence. I’ll leave the writer anonymous, but she specifically criticised our immigration levels on the basis of increasing the population meant we’d have to increase electricity generation and our water supply.

I replied that they were two reasonable and common environmental concerns. Both are infrastructure issues. Yes, we will have to invest in more infrastructure of all kinds as our population grows, just as we have had to invest in infrastructure for a couple of hundred years as Australia’s population has grown. On those two particular issues, there were both narrow and broad answers.

Environmentally, Australia has passed the time of burning more coal for more electricity. We’re going to be burning less coal and increased gas-fired generation is likely to be a passing phase as well. Other countries have not. If greenhouse gas is the point, it’s likely more people here rather than there should actually mean less CO2 as we achieve carbon neutrality.
For water, Australia actually has plenty – so much that we don’t bother to recycle it. We don’t even bother to use much grey water for our gardens. I was in Cape Town last month. Yes, our major cities will have to get serious about water one of these days. Desalination is expensive – it’s what politicians reach for in a hurry when facing a crisis after failing to plan for the future. We shouldn’t blame population growth for political failures.

Beyond the obvious cities and despite the usual cliché about being the second-driest continent after Antarctica, we have plenty of water that we chose not to exploit. Drive the length of the east coast and you’ll rarely be far from a river.

For the broader answer, the bigger picture, Ross Gittins’ Easter economics column started with the biblical question, “who is my neighbour?” (http://www.rossgittins.com/2018/04/what-would-jesus-do-about-tax-and.html ) It is a very challenging question.

How broad is your view? Is it of your street, your suburb, your city, your state, your country or your world? Environmentally, only the world view makes sense. Certainly that’s the case with climate. Australia is blessed with more wealth, resources and talent than most countries to handle the environmental challenges of population.
Who benefits from a bigger population? Over my lifetime, we all have. Beware nostalgia’s distorting rosy glow. We have more choices, more vibrancy and, per capita both on average and individually, more wealth. Yes, we have a couple of cities that are feeling growth pains at present, but neither is gargantuan and, time and again, it’s the vibrancy of big cities that provides productivity and creativity growth.

Beyond the bare numbers, I am regularly refreshed by the enthusiasm of new Australians. There’s a quote I like from a fellow Queenslander, the artist Lloyd Rees, dead these many years. He once said he felt sorry for people who were born in Sydney because they never saw it with fresh eyes. We skippys tend to be like that with Australia.
Most migrants see this country with fresh eyes and get stuck in, enlivening and enriching us. Their children also outperform, though their grandchildren tend to be as slack as the rest of us. Fortunately we have another crop arriving each year to fuel the process.

You have to be brave to migrate, to leave everything and everyone behind, to desert your local knowledge and family and contacts to have a crack in a foreign land. Such people end up lifting us all.

And finally, maybe I’m a little odd, but I like to share good things. I think we have a great deal to share with good people. I have a broad view of who my neighbour is. I’m wary of people claiming exclusive title to this land, as if they have personally done something to deserve it, other than being born lucky. And please don’t say “our forefathers earned it” – they stole it.

When we are so rich and blessed with this country compared with most people in the world, not to welcome people would seem rather churlish.

So I try to keep some perspective about our infrastructure challenges. I’ve hoped that keeping perspective was the underlying theme of what I’ve written about on these pages over the past decade

Along the way I’ve had some fun – the Bingham Code (https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-bingham-code-the-11-rules-frequent-flyers-need-to-abide-by-20171030-gzapa7.html ) and the PM from Snowy River, (https://www.smh.com.au/video/video-business/video-businessday/the-pm-from-snowy-river-20170317-4rtpr.html ) for example. Sometimes it’s been a privilege to try to quickly put into words what people may be feeling, when Gough Whitlam died, (https://www.smh.com.au/business/we-dont-mourn-gough-whitlam-we-mourn-ourselves-20141021-1195kc.html ) after another American massacre. (https://www.smh.com.au/business/president-obama-was-wrong-australia-is-not-like-the-us-20151002-gjztja.html )

And I’ve finished with some kind words from readers and two cherished accolades: Judith Sloan has rated me as Fairfax’s worst columnist and Mark Latham was delighted I’d been sacked.

Thanks for reading.

(Filed for Fairfax Media April 13, published April 17 https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/australia-s-migrant-intake-is-already-being-cut-20180417-p4za0o.html )

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