High immigration is good for the national interest
Skilled migrants help ease the costs of an ageing society
A big, carefully composed immigration intake is good for Australia. The latest proof comes in a report from the federal Treasury and the Department of Home Affairs that estimates our permanent migration program will add up to one percentage point to gross domestic product growth each year. We attract skilled migrants with bankable qualifications who are likely to pay more in tax than they take in services, something essential if our nation is to live within its means. Their relative youth helps offset the costs that come with an ageing society. They lift productivity and the workforce participation rate. The report dispels the myth that skilled migrants displace locals from jobs or rob them of hours and wages; new arrivals generate demand for goods and services. We need the inflow of human and financial capital. Without investment, growth falters. A shortage of skilled workers pushes up costs, as the US is finding.
Economics is not the only test of an immigration program. In the counterterror era, Australia wisely has put more emphasis on selecting migrants who not only pose no threat but also positively embrace our democratic, pluralist values. What’s at stake is civic cohesion and public safety within a successful multicultural nation. Last week, we reported that the permanent intake this year is expected to fall by more than 20,000 places from its ceiling figure of 190,000. The main reason is tighter vetting rules that took effect in 2015. A temporary drop in numbers is no bad thing if it’s necessary to guarantee security and quality in the program. Public support for a high immigration intake depends on confidence that the government polices our borders effectively and runs visa programs consistent with the national interest. Australians also understand that a bigger population is better and safer, in a geostrategic sense, for a large, sparsely settled country in a region beset by land hunger.
The other vital element of our migration program is provision for refugees. Former prime minister Tony Abbott agreed to take 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. On top of that, our total humanitarian intake will rise to 18,750 in 2018-19. On Monday’s ABC Q&A program Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, suggested Australia should accept more Syrians. He misses the big picture. We have a proud record as one of the most generous destinations for refugees resettled via the UNHCR, and we do so within the context of one of the fastest migration growth rates within the OECD.
Monday’s immigration report makes the unsurprising point that a high number of new arrivals adds to pressure on housing and infrastructure. That’s not an argument against immigration, it’s a reminder of the need for good and prudent planning. For global cities, Sydney and Melbourne do not have much density at all. Better land release and zoning can free up housing supply. As for infrastructure, cities that are key migrant destinations (especially Sydney) are making up for past neglect but it will take time before congestion is alleviated. Meanwhile, it’s worth reflecting on the fact a well-run and sizeable immigration program makes us a smarter, wealthier and more defensible country.