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Does the lucky country need migrants?

By Bob Birrell - posted Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Unless there is a sharp change in immigration policy, Australia's population is likely to exceed the latest Treasury projection of 35.9 million by 2050. This is the ''big Australia'' vision. The projection's core assumption was that net migration will average about 180,000 a year. By 2008-09, however, it was estimated to be 298,000.

Continued migration is not at issue. For 2009-10, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship expects 45,000 visas to be issued to partners alone. Australia is an attractive destination and, once here, migrants and their children, especially those from Asia, tend to return home for a spouse. Few would wish to deprive residents of their choice of spouse. Likewise, the humanitarian program of about 13,000 is not an issue - only the mode of entry is controversial.

What is at issue is the policy of successive governments of actively recruiting permanent-resident skilled migrants and their families via the skill program. This is currently set at 113,850 places. The parallel policy of encouraging temporary entry programs - including the 457 visa temporary worker, working holiday and student programs - is largely responsible for the surge in net migration.


What is the point of such programs? To judge by responses to opinion polls, few Australians seem to think there is a valid rationale. One earlier this year asked people if they favoured increasing Australia's population and 72 per cent said they did not.

This reaction probably stems from awareness of implications for cities. Most know if the population grows from 22 million to 35.9 million in 2050, Sydney and Melbourne will have an extra 2 million people and Brisbane will nearly double to about 3.7 million.

These metropolitan areas are not coping with the recent influx. Why encourage more arrivals? These cities are entering a phase of diseconomies of scale in providing infrastructure and state governments do not have the funds to keep up.

A recent report by the Water Services Association illustrates the point. Under the assumptions used for the 35.9 million projection, Sydney's water use will increase by 121 gigalitres by 2026 and 217 gigalitres by 2056, or by 25 per cent and 44 per cent respectively. As in other capitals, this will soon require another expensive desalination plant or a recycling plant on an equivalent scale. Water bills will grow accordingly.

Metropolitan governments have expressed their conviction that, faced with huge growth, they will not accommodate the extra people in outer suburbia. Even in south-east Queensland, residents are told they will have to accept a combination of small-lot houses and apartment living.

In effect, young Australians are being told the costs of population growth are such that they cannot expect to live the traditional Australian suburban lifestyle. Why do they have to make this sacrifice?


The answer from industry and government is that severe skill shortages will increase with the next phase of the minerals industry boom. They argue Australia needs a strong migration program if these shortages are not to put a break on industrial capacity. Advocates argue these shortages will worsen as baby boomers retire. The ratio of retirees to workers will increase and migrant workers need to shoulder the tax burden.

It is true that industries dependent on growth in metropolitan markets need high migration. Almost all new migrants are settling in these metropolises. If the big-Australia scenario eventuates, about 9-10 million of the projected growth of 14 million by 2050 will be attributable to migration and the rest to natural increase. The migrants, as customers, will be the main source of the demand driving the metropolitan housing development and city building industries.

The truth is, migration has little to do with the resources industries. The operations workforce in the mining industry constitutes barely 1.5 per cent of Australia's employed workforce. The industry's need for construction workers could be much larger during the start-up phase of the many mineral projects on the drawing boards. But even here, the workers required will be a small fraction of the construction workforce employed in Australia's metropolises.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 28, 2010.

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About the Author

Bob Birrell is founding director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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