Taking the pulse on immigration

| January 14, 2024

The crowd is fickle isn’t it?  Some recent polling on immigration, arguably our most important public interest issue, suggests it is.  But then, like the subject itself, it is complicated because of the rise of groupthink and a much sharper political division in society in recent years.  Perhaps fickle is the wrong word.  I might be wrong to use such a pejorative because I consider changing your mind is no bad thing as long as there is a reasoned argument for doing it.

In this essay I look at some recent polling against the complexity and importance of immigration to this the most immigrant society in the world.

Each year the Lowy Institute conducts a set of polls that purportedly tell us what we are thinking on a wide range of issues.  On immigration, the 2023 Lowy Institute poll tells us that:

“Half of Australians (53%) say the number of immigrants allowed into Australia should be ‘around the same as pre-Covid levels’, up seven points on 2022. A quarter (26%) say immigration should be ‘lower than pre-Covid levels’, a fall of seven points from 2022, while 20% say the intake should be higher.”

The Lowy Institute has conducted this poll over just two years – 2022 and 2023 but other Lowy Institute polls in 2018 and 2022 also indicate strong support for immigration.

In September 2022, the newly elected Labor Government commissioned an independent review of Australia’s immigration policy.  This review was presented to the government in March 2023 and made public in April 2023. This review has formed the basis of a major change in Australia’s immigration policy titled the Migration Strategy, which was adopted and released on 11 December 2023.

In July 2023, another poll by a research company Resolve Strategic suggested our views on immigration had changed significantly since the Lowy poll of only a few months earlier:

“Only 3 per cent of voters regarded the nation’s overseas migration numbers as being “too low”, while 59 per cent said they were “too high” and 25 per cent believed they were “about right” when asked about federal government projections the intake would surge to a record high of 400,000 this year before falling next year.”

Did the report to government influence this dramatic shift in satisfaction with the level of immigration?  Perhaps there are other influences in the ether and, dare I say it, was one or both the polls wrong?  Yet another alternative, that I suggest cheekily, is that Australians really are that fickle.

In considering these possibilities I found myself stepping back from the findings of these polls to ask the question – can the “canvassing” of opinions about immigration be considered reliable?  Immigration policy is complex as are the political circumstances that drive this policy and the subsequent influences on society.  When a person being polled is presented with these Goldilocks questions how au fait are they with all the nuance of our immigration policy and correspondingly the impacts of this policy?

Probably the answer to this question is “not much”.  The polling questions envelope a great deal of the complexity of what is arguably the single most important variable in determining the future of Australian society.  In this respect the polling results are a kind of fairy tale.  Yes, the choice of too hot, too cold and just right is much too defined for this matter.

So, what is the complexity in our immigration program? Let us go back a bit or more precisely to around 2000.  The year 2000 or there about is when a major change point occurred in Australian immigration. It can be easily argued it was a major worldwide change point as well but let’s confine this discussion a little before it gets out of hand.

21st Century Immigration

There were several things happening or about to happen as the 20th Century turned into the 21st Century.

The first and perhaps most profound change was that by this time the White Australia Policy had been completely dismantled.  No more would a person gain entry or not gain entry to Australia on the basis of the colour of their skin – although I can’t completely subscribe to this view but again I don’t want to be sidetracked because the subject is complicated enough already.

Migration from a number of South East Asian, South Asian, East Asian and Middle East countries had been ongoing for nearly three decades.  Essentially as the post-war European migration wave petered out, the new Asian migration wave began.  During this period the immigration policy was strongly bi-partisan with Vietnamese boat people from 1976 and Chinese students in 1997 accepted to stay by both major political parties.

At the same time young Asian professionals were arriving to provide the skills that Australia was increasingly seeking for its transition to a service based economy. Some came as students, became doctors and engineers and stayed.  It was a generous and simpler time for immigrants.  I remember a meeting at the Australian High Commission office in Hong Kong regarding citizenship for my bride whose skin colour was a tone darker than mine.  The immigration officer correctly pointed out that citizenship was not guaranteed before we arrived in Australia.  However, it duly arrived and my wife of less than one year entered Australia not with a visa but with full citizenship.  That could not happen now.

A fish-and-chip shop owner was expressing negative views about these significant trends but most of us really liked what was happening.

I need to qualify the above statement.  Some, including many living north of the Tweed River were attracted to what the fish-and-chips shop owner was saying.  More ominously, the prime minister of the time was chasing his third election win and saw an opportunity to frighten Australian society with that historic fear of being overwhelmed by bad foreigners.

Timing is everything.  In August 2001, the Tampa incident gave the government the chance to spread lies to fuel this ancient fear and one month later 9/11 resulted in the emergence and hardening of this latent xenophobia.  Two months further on the consequence was the re-election of one of the most ill-deserving and idea-devoid Australian governments.

This story of the fish-and-ship owner, the Tampa incident and the symbolic and devastating attack on American hegemony led directly to the on-going exploitation of immigration as a political tool.  It is one reason why the ever more complex immigration policies of the 21st Century have ended up needing significant re-design.  Whilst the government aided by the media became obsessed about boat arrivals, the rules determining who could arrive by plane became less and less deliberate to any intended policy objective.

Another significant factor in this saga is what was happening to Australian universities.  Almost exclusively public institutions, the universities were experiencing a year-by-year withdrawal of funding by the federal government.  Increasingly the solution to this quandary was the international full-fee paying student.  The fine institutions that are Australia’s public universities quickly realised that what they had to sell was very appealing to Asia’s burgeoning upper middle classes.  However as is the way with these things there was a twist.  This twist was the many less than credible training “colleges” that emerged to serve a particular need.  Enrolling in these bogus colleges became the de rigueur means for gaining a visa to enter Australia.

With this as background what actually happened?  From 2004 onwards, net overseas migration (NOM) jumped from a long-term annual number oscillating just below 100,000 to significantly more than 200,000.  The NOM continued at this elevated level up to the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and then plummeted to negative territory.  However by June 2022, as the borders opened up again, there was an immediate recovery as the NOM reached 170,000 in a flash. Whilst not released yet, the June 2023 annual NOM is expected to be in the region of 450,000.  Much of this spectacular increase is in the temporary visa category of which a significant component is the “dodgy” language school student visas.

The temporary visas are uncapped and this has meant those holding these visas are accumulating – to 500,000 in 2007, to 1.25 million in 2020, to 1.9 million in 2022 and to a likely 2.5 million in 2023.  This means that temporary non-citizen visa holders are now 10% of the Australian population.

In the past, according to the Grattan Institute, there was an implicit pathway to permanent residency for almost all temporary visa holders.  However since 2017, many occupations have a much more restricted pathway and fewer will transition to permanent residency in the future.  This means many of those who came with visas to study at bogus language and trade schools and subsequently transitioned to temporary low skill visas are being left in an awful limbo of having little chance of gaining permanent residency and little desire to return home.

Community Concern

Community concern is growing about a range of impacts of this largely uncapped low-skill immigration is having on society.  The concerns include suppressed wages, housing affordability, the rental shortage and competition for certain skill training.  The extent of the impact varies and can be debated.  However, in both a real and perceived sense, these impacts are most felt amongst those of low skill and low income.  For low skilled temporary visa holders themselves there is a high risk of wage and condition exploitation and a denial of many of the social safety net benefits that the rest of us take for granted.  Continued toleration of this is not in anyone’s interest.

The complexity continues – there is the multiplicity of visa categories – under the two main divisions of permanent and temporary, there are at least 13 different visa categories.

During 2021 and 2022, the Grattan Institute investigated and reported on permanent and temporary immigration.  The aim was to provide advice on changes to policy post the pandemic.  This work included a comprehensive guidebook for policy makers on migrants in the Australian workforce.

The reports recommend a number of changes that would raise the capability (and salary) level of skilled migrants. In one report it is recommended that the business “money for visas” should be abolished and employers be enabled to seek younger higher skill migrants to a broader range of employment categories.  The intent is to attract migrants who:

“generate a fiscal dividend to the Australian community because they pay more in taxes than they receive in public services and benefits over their lifetimes.”

The Grattan Institute argues this quality over quantity strategy will also benefit young Australians via mentoring processes.  These high skill migrants would seed the emergence of new Australian expertise across a range of workplaces.

On temporary migration specifically the Grattan Institute highlights that both reality and perception is damaging the public view of skilled migration:

“Australia is now left with the worst of both worlds when it comes to temporary skilled migration. We have a restrictive visa that foregoes many of the benefits of high-skilled temporary migration by making it costly and uncertain for firms to sponsor high-wage workers to Australia.

And at the same time, because it permits less-skilled migration and fails to protect temporary migrants from exploitation, the design of the TSS visa feeds the perception that temporary skilled migration is not in Australia’s national interest. Persistent evidence of exploitation threatens public support of not just temporary skilled migration, but migration more broadly. Continuing on the same path could result in public support falling even further, which would undermine Australia’s ability to manage skilled migration policy.”

The Grattan Institute analysis highlights that Australia is in a competitive market for higher skilled workers and whilst the country has many lifestyle and institutional features that would attract higher skilled workers, the current cumbersome and inflexible visa rules and visa processes are an impediment to attracting higher skill migrants to choose Australia as their home rather than say Canada, Europe, the United States or New Zealand.  Gone are the days when immigration officers could walk into a refugee camp in war torn Europe and pick the youngest, the best and the brightest and they would meekly follow them out of the gate and onto a boat or plane to Australia.

In September 2023, the Government announced that temporary migration policy was “broken” and that major changes to this policy would be carried out.  A particular focus was the student visa category.  The Minister for Home Affairs was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying:

“This is in part due to catch-up post-pandemic and in part the result of settings we inherited when we came into government that have led to loopholes and rorts in international education – this is why student visa refusals tripled in 2022-23.”

Australia’s Migration Strategy

The reform now labelled the Migration Strategy will have the following five core objectives:

  • targeted skilled migration and new streamlined pathways for top global talent
  • higher standards for international students and education providers to drive quality in international education
  • visa settings to tackle worker exploitation and protect wages and conditions
  • support for regional Australia to get fast access to skilled workers
  • a new approach to migration planning to help return migration back to pre-pandemic levels and to get the right skills in the right places.

This Mitigation Strategy appears to adopt, at least in part, the Grattan Institute’s recommendations.  Also, it seems to aim for immigration policy to meet Australia’s intended economic direction.  The harsh reality of contemporary migration is that whilst there is no shortage of people wanting to enter Australia, it is not in the nation’s interest to allow entry of those whose skills don’t match the economic and social interests of the country.

This is not to deny Australia’s moral obligation to take its share of refugees.  Rather it reinforces that obligation.  Poorly designed immigration policy that enables entry of low skill migrants in great numbers is effectively at the expense of both high skill migrants and refugees.  There are limits to how many immigrants Australia can reasonably accept and hence the targeting of immigrants must be precise, effective and efficient.

What is refreshing about the recent announcements on policy is that they aim to do away with the distortions attributable to poor immigration policies of the past.

Immigration is a tainted issue in Australian politics, which is ironic given how successful our immigration programs have been historically.  The inhumanity and sheer nastiness of the “stop the boats” policies has divided Australians for two decades.

A problematic political element in the immigration debate is that it tends to be enveloped in ideology of whatever persuasion.  When seen in this light the debate is driven by a desire for greater populationthe Big Australia position.  This tends to place consideration of people and a healthy society to one side.  It is important to have a balance between economic and social objectives because, ultimately, these two objectives need to be complementary and not contradictory.  Without this holistic perspective it is difficult to have a rational debate about the value of curtailment associated with tighter and clearer rules of entry and length of stay.

It is now a time to return to the Goldilocks polls.  I don’t pretend for a minute that my outline of what has been going on is complete and comprehensive.  The Grattan Institute reports are the place for that.  For an understanding of the complexity these reports are essential reading.  However, I hope that what is written here is enough to show why we should never judge our porridge solely by its temperature.  We need to check if salt has been added and I also think some nuts and banana give a particular piquancy to this kind of breakfast.

Yes, let there be more nuance in the polling.