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The role of immigration in Australia's population future

By Philip Ruddock - posted Monday, 15 October 2001

Australia's broad population directions are relatively clear. Over the next 50 years, our population growth rate will decline and our overall population may stabilise at around 23 million, perhaps a little more. I expect that most Australians would not be alarmed by this prospect.

I know that some have argued that we should take action to achieve a very much smaller population. Others have argued for a very much larger population.

On the evidence I have seen to date, the environmental arguments for a very much smaller population do not stack up against the social and economic costs involved in achieving a smaller population.


A somewhat better case can be made for a slightly larger population but this is highly dependent on how we set about achieving this. It would be good if we can achieve this by minimising further declines in our fertility rate by adopting practices that help all Australians to better manage the balance between work and family responsibilities.

The other way to achieve this is through a highly targeted and well-planned immigration program.

A key element of such a program must be skilled migration, intelligently linked to the long-term needs of Australia.

The Government has instituted a number of initiatives to deliver such a program.

We have increased the proportion of skilled migrants in the Migration Program, from around 29 per cent in 1995-96 to 50 per cent in 1999-00.

Australia is now attracting better-educated, younger, more job-ready migrants with the language skills to operate successfully in the Australian workplace. There is mounting evidence of the economic, budgetary and employment benefits of this reform. There is also mounting evidence that highly skilled migrants can help to minimise income inequality whilst unskilled migrants increase inequality. Both the business community and the Labor Opposition have applauded this new emphasis.


However, there is not a bottomless pit of these people waiting for the call to come to Australia. We are in competition for them with many other nations. This competition is intensifying with new countries entering the race for these people. If we are to win this competition, we need partnerships between the Commonwealth, Industry and State governments.

To demonstrate the Government's commitment to work towards an increase in skilled migration, I announced an 8,000 place contingency reserve which can be used if Industry and relevant State Governments can recruit the skilled migrants they say they need. Steps have also been taken to streamline the mechanisms that Industry and the States can use.

Clearly the key to these initiatives is partnership. Businesses that cannot meet their labour force needs from within Australia and profess a desire for more skilled migrants need to actively seek them out and find a place for them within their industry and within their organisations.

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About the Author

Philip Ruddock was attorney-general and minister for immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs in the Howard government, and is the Liberal member for Berowra.

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