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Tuesday, May 14, 2019, 11:45
Immigration again hot issue in Australia
By Karl Wilson in Sydney
Tuesday, May 14, 2019, 11:45 By Karl Wilson in Sydney

Aiming at re-election, Prime Minister Morrison vows to cap refugee numbers

Immigration and refugees have become an issue in the run-up to Australia’s May 18 general election, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling a gathering of the Liberal Party faithful that if re-elected he will “crack down” on who comes to the country.

In an April 29 speech, Morrison promised to cap the numbers of migrants coming to Australia as refugees at 18,750 and unveiled a suite of measures outlining precisely who will be allowed to stay.

Morrison’s pledge to freeze the number of humanitarian arrivals for the next term of government — which runs for three years — comes after the Liberal-National Party Coalition’s promise in March to drop the permanent immigration level from 190,000 each year to a cap of 160,000.

Under the policy, there will be an overall target of 60 percent of the offshore component for women, up from 50.8 percent in 2017-18.

The government will also push to increase the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants being settled in regional Australia from a target of 30 percent to 40 percent in 2019-20, but insists new arrivals will only go to areas where there is strong community support.

Pressures in Australia’s two biggest cities — Sydney, with a population of about 5 million, and Melbourne, with 4.8 million — have brought immigration to the fore again.

Since 2010, both cities have seen their populations almost double, but vital infrastructure such as transportation, housing, schools and hospitals has not kept pace with that growth.

“Immigration has always been a sensitive issue in Australia,” said Tim Harcourt, the J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics at the University of New South Wales Business School in Sydney.

“Depending on who you talk to, immigration is either a good thing or a bad thing,” he said. “But what many people fail to understand is this country was built on immigration.

“Immigration has enriched this country. Two-thirds of our entrepreneurs were born overseas. The problem Australia faces is (that) most immigrants want to go to Sydney and Melbourne and those two cities are choking due to poor urban planning and infrastructure that has not kept up with growth.”

James Pearson, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in a policy paper in December: “Voices across the political spectrum have been calling for a reduction in migrant numbers. The left attacks the level of temporary migration, asserting that students and working holidaymakers take Australian jobs, and the right seeks to put up the ‘house full’ sign to permanent migrants, either for nationalist reasons or as a political response to concerns about congestion in cities and infrastructure shortfalls.”

A survey by the Australian National University in Canberra earlier this year showed that just three out of every 10 Australians believe the country needs more people. The high cost of housing, overcrowding in major cities, bad traffic, and job security issues were among the most common reasons cited for limiting Australia’s population growth.

“It is easy to blame immigration” for the growing concern, said Professor Nick Parr, a demographer at Macquarie University in Sydney. “But it is more complex than just how many immigrants you take each year.”

“During the mining boom of the early 2000s, Western Australia was a magnet for immigration,” Parr said. “But when the boom ended around 2012-13, the numbers fell away dramatically and there was an outflow of people who headed east.

“At the same time, immigration numbers didn’t go down,” he said. “It was a volatile mix as the outflow from Western Australia headed to Sydney and Melbourne, as did most of the new immigrants.”

It is not just immigration that fuels congestion in Australia’s two biggest cities. The foreign student population of around 400,000 prefers studying in Sydney or Melbourne.

And Australia takes in a variety of foreign workers — from brain surgeons to dog handlers — on a variety of work visas. These number around 400,000 to 500,000.

“The issue facing Australia, and in particular, city planners, is how rapidly should population growth occur,” said Parr. “You just can’t turn the immigration tap off.”

karlwilson@chinadailyasia.com


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