John Hewson
Labor’s credible plan for immigration

Perhaps Australia’s greatest postwar achievement has been the creation of a functional and tolerant multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious society that has become the envy of the world. However, it is very important to recognise that despite this success, it remains very much a work in progress – one that needs continuous, careful nurturing. Unfortunately the issue of immigration has, at times, been all too easily weaponised in the short-term game we call politics in this country, driven by baseless assertions, rejection of all available evidence and scaremongering about the alleged activities and “threats” of particular individuals and ethnic communities.

It is too often forgotten that the issue of immigration is multifaceted. It’s certainly not just about economics – though the economic advantages in terms of major contributions to national productivity and growth, to the development of our export industries, to our workforce and its skills, are well documented. We should never lose sight of the broader picture: that we are developing a society, not just an economy. That the richness of Australian culture is due to the contributions of its many diverse communities, and the additional contributions of foreign students, tourists and other visitors to our shores – these should never be overlooked or undervalued.

This is not to say, of course, that there haven’t been tensions with, at times, outrageous attacks on key groups, such as scaremongering over Muslim immigration in the wake of the September 11 attacks and, most recently, a rise in hate speech targeting Jewish people and Palestinians, against the backdrop of the Israel–Hamas war. But this country has generally managed to demonstrate its maturity and its capacity to address such behaviour, which has remained in the minority, and to move past these differences.

With the issue of immigration heating up again, Labor this week released its first detailed immigration policy since Kevin Rudd’s flirtation with “Big Australia”.

In keeping with its destructive intentions, the opposition has become overtly defensive about the immigration and refugee system that collapsed under previous Coalition governments, as noted in the findings of the recent review by Dr Martin Parkinson, who declared Australia’s migration program “not fit for purpose”. “Australia now has a migration program that fails to attract the most highly skilled migrants and fails to enable business to efficiently access workers. At the same time, there is clear evidence of systemic exploitation and the risk of an emerging permanently temporary underclass,” the report said.

These concerns are compounded by the recent ruling of the High Court on the illegality of indefinite detention, together with ongoing debates over the strains that high levels of immigration are placing on infrastructure – especially transport and housing – and the cost of living.

Much of the debate around immigration has been focused on numbers. A recovery in immigration from the lockdowns of the pandemic pushed the net intake last financial year to a peak of 510,000. The Coalition and other critics have described this boost as excessive and disruptive, and part of a “Big Australia” approach by Labor – criticisms that wilfully ignore the stated temporary nature of the increase.

While not committing to a particular target, the government forecast in its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, delivered on Wednesday, that net migration would fall to about 375,000 next year and 250,000 in 2024-25.

But Labor’s new blueprint looks at the immigration system’s components. It brings a new strategy for meeting skills shortages – a key objective over decades and one that, despite considerable efforts, successive governments have failed to fulfil effectively. In their press conference this week, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles announced a four-year Skills in Demand visa to replace the Temporary Skill Shortage visa. There will be three avenues for accessing the new visa – specialist skills, intended for highly skilled workers, in fields such as technology, earning at least $135,000 a year; core skills, for tradespeople, earning at least $70,000 a year; and essential skills to address shortages in the care sector for roles paying less than $70,000 a year.

It remains to be seen if this approach will succeed where prior attempts to target shortages have failed. The latest Skills Priority List, released in October, showed that 36 per cent of occupations assessed faced shortages, and the situation was worsening. Over the past year, a further 66 occupations have fallen into shortage, most of which required highly skilled professionals.

Another dimension to addressing these shortages would be to determine whether Australia is under-utilising the capacity of migrants who are already here, as many of their professional qualifications from overseas are not recognised in this country.

One of the most significant reforms in Labor’s new strategy relates to cleaning up what had become a corruptible visa process. The main focus is on foreign students, and specifically cases whereby student visas have been used as a backdoor means of accessing permanent residency, or even citizenship. These include shonky education programs created by some in the “business” community, as well as the capacity of some students to extend their stays by “visa-hopping”. If these migration program reforms do force some private vocational institutions to close – as has been a criticism in at least one news report – perhaps they should.

That said, this tightening needs to be a very delicate process given education services have become our fourth-largest export. And it is important to understand how and why this blowout in foreign student numbers happened – the root cause was the underfunding of the university education sector. Charging foreign students full fees became a very attractive alternative funding pathway for universities, and established a gravy train for the unscrupulous. And nothing was put in place to secure a contribution from foreign students that allowed Australia to benefit from their completed education before they returned to their home countries.

Although previous Coalition governments have been obsessed with discouraging people from coming to this country by boat, declaring at each and any opportunity that they “stopped the boats”, the decline in these arrivals has paled into insignificance relative to the numbers that arrived by plane and simply overstayed their visas. The issue has become a farce.

Previous governments have also failed in their policies on refugees to lead a regional process to negotiate resettlement agreements between source, transit and destination countries. Such agreements would, in principle, have obviated the necessity for indefinite detention, and so would have averted the High Court process and its aftermath.

The government’s migration strategy attempts to answer the findings of the Parkinson review, which said the system required a 10-year rebuild. The joint press release from Labor representatives Brendan O’Connor, Jason Clare and Andrew Giles this week described it as “the final piece in a three-phase approach to building a prosperous and sustainable Australia”. That is, along with efforts to provide more affordable housing, and a $120 billion infrastructure pipeline. The vision is essentially to restore the trust and confidence in the migration system and to deliver on “a larger ambition to enhance Australia’s employment, education, and skills training sectors” as specified in its employment white paper.

These are big claims, to get the balance right on fixing the failures of the past and set a pathway for the future. All eyes will now be on the delivery.

Broadly speaking, two principal challenges remain to ensure this new migration strategy is fit for purpose. A complete Australian story would be one in which our modern multicultural society expands on the solid foundations of 65,000 years of First Nations culture. Proper and respectful recognition of this and the elimination of Indigenous disadvantage remains of overarching importance, especially given the failure of the Voice referendum.

The second remaining challenge is in relation to effective settlement of refugees so as to ensure local governments can accommodate them. In recent days the government has issued thousands of visas to both Jewish people and Palestinians in the context of the current Middle East war. Important lessons are to be learnt from the past placement of more than 6000 Syrian refugees over 2016-17 concentrated in the Fairfield local government area, which overwhelmed the services of the Western Sydney community.

Overall the government’s changes could constitute an effective immigration policy if appropriately implemented. And their positioning of immigration policy has touched on the sensitive issues in an unemotive way. It’s to be hoped this country is past the days when a prime minister could see advantage in a dog-whistle election pitch declaring “we’ll decide who comes to this country”. Australia is still perfecting what the United States has long described as “the great experiment” of multiculturalism, and ours is arguably the more successful – though the process can never be declared complete.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Big Australia for the better".

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