Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Belshaw's world: a new direction in migration policy?

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 7 October 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

In September, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released population statistics for the year to the end of Match 2009.

The headline reporting focused on the size of the estimated increase in the Australian resident population, up 2.1% or just over 439,000 people on the previous year. Of this number, 278,200 came from net migration.

The size of the population increase was quite a remarkable number and, correctly, attracted considerable attention. However, there were some other elements to the figures that were less reported.

Australians have always been remarkable travellers. Our young in particular have always sought broader horizons.

Some return to this country, others stay overseas, returning only to visit. This group has had a major impact elsewhere. You only have to look at the Australian push that came to play such a remarkable role in English intellectual and cultural life to see what I mean.

Accepting that we travel, the numbers to the end of March show that no less then 224,600 Australians left the country on a long term basis. Now that’s a remarkable number.

Think about it for a moment.

It’s only a few years ago that the number of Australian living abroad passed the million mark for the first time. On present trends, we are now adding another million to that number every five years or so.

Ten years, another two million Australian expatriates. Remarkable.

I have no problems with Australians leaving the country. Quite the opposite.

Australia’s growing expatriate community is in fact a major national asset. Emotional links with home remain. You can take the Australian out of Australia, but you cannot take Australia out of the Australian.

But if nearly a quarter of a million Australians left the country, how did we achieve such a big population increase? Quite simply, we added 502,800 people through migration. Now that’s a truly remarkable number.

Again, think about it for a moment. It’s over 2% of our population. It means that one Australian resident in fifty did not live in this country twelve months ago.

Some of the new people are in fact Australians returning. Even so, it’s a major exercise in social re-engineering.

Am I opposed to our migration program? No, but I do think that there are some questions we need to ask.

To begin with, the impact of migration is not evenly spread. It mainly goes to drive metro growth.

Do we want Sydney to grow from four million to six or seven million?

I don’t. The place is bad enough at the moment. I hate to think what will happen with a fifty per cent increase in the city’s population.

Then, too, we have to look at the balance in the migrant intake. I think about this at two levels.

The first is the need to provide proper support to migrants and especially our refugee intake to avoid creating islands of disadvantage.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am clearly on the record as supporting our refugee program. My argument is that we are not matching our rhetoric with supporting policy and programs.

I also think that we need to look at the mixture in our intake.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I am a strong supporter of a non-discriminatory migration policy. It just worries me when we get very large numbers of particular ethnic groups concentrating in particular areas. We don’t want to create ghettoes.

So what would I propose?

Quite simple, really.

I think that the points system that we already have should, for a defined period, be heavily skewed in favour of non-metro areas.

A business migrant wanting to establish a business in, say, Moree should get far more points than one wanting to set up in Sydney. Ditto for skilled workers.

To avoid locking people in too rigidly – the Moree business may not work – migrants should be allowed to move so long as (and for a specified period) that move was to another place in Regional Australia.

What do you think?

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