Inside Story

Lies, damned lies and migration statistics

Peter Dutton’s departure from the immigration ministry is an opportunity to reset Australia’s debate about population and migration

Peter Mares 22 August 2018 1714 words

Apples and oranges? Citizenship minister Alan Tudge. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

The first priority of any new immigration minister must be to end the misery that is Nauru and Manus. In the face of such suffering, the deal to resettle refugees in the United States is far too limited and far too slow. A new minister should immediately take up New Zealand’s longstanding offer to take 150 people, and then bring the remainder to Australia. As demanded by a coalition of more than thirty of Australia’s most important development agencies and human rights groups, priority must go to families and children.

The prime minister’s repeated claim that resettling refugees from Manus and Nauru amounts to “rolling out the welcome mat to the people smugglers” is nonsense. The smugglers are not going to launch new flotillas of dangerously overcrowded vessels in the direction of Australia as long as the military-led operation to intercept and turn them around remains in place. As the home affairs department proclaims in eighteen languages on its Operation Sovereign Borders website, “Australia’s defences against people smuggling boats are stronger than ever. The illegal maritime pathway to Australia is closed, and it will stay closed. If you try to reach Australia illegally by boat, you will be stopped and turned back.”

If the incoming minister believes that assertion, then he or she must acknowledge that keeping refugees on Manus and Nauru is a pointless and expensive act of cruelty.

A new minister could also help to bring reliable evidence and sober argument back into the debate about immigration and population. Fraser Anning may have crossed a line in calling for a return to the White Australia policy, but as Katharine Murphy commented in the Guardian, the new senator’s speech was not “something happening on the fringe of respectable political conversation.” The likes of Peter Dutton and citizenship minister Alan Tudge, and even Malcolm Turnbull himself, have opened the way for Anning with ill-considered and poorly founded assertions about African gangs and ethnic segregation.

As we pass the twenty-five million mark, it seems that many Australians are increasingly concerned about population growth and want to talk about it. And since no one is suggesting that government should intervene with measures to control the birthrate, a national debate about population will inevitably be a debate about immigration.

WA Liberal senator Dean Smith has called for a parliamentary inquiry, arguing that population growth has “heightened quality of life pressures, most notably in Australia’s largest cities — just ask any Australian who commutes during peak hour.” Judith Sloan, economist and columnist for the Australian, has no time for more research and says that “it is as plain as day” that permanent migration must be cut now.

In the Fairfax press, Ross Gittins decries immigration as “the cheap and nasty way to grow the economy” while former foreign minister Bob Carr told Q&A in March that high immigration puts “downward pressure on wages” and “upward pressure on housing prices.” Carr’s views coincide almost completely with those of Tony Abbott, who claims that when it comes to wages and house prices, immigration is “the one big contributing factor that is wholly and solely within the federal government’s control.”

Carr, who is also former premier of New South Wales, often frames immigration as an environmental issue, as does entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Smith, who accuses his fellow millionaires of foisting high immigration on a reluctant public because it “disproportionately benefits big business and the 1 per cent of wealthy Australians.”

When I reluctantly traded verbal blows with Dick Smith at Hobart’s Festival of Dark and Dangerous Thoughts, he put the view that political correctness had enforced a conspiracy of silence that means it is almost impossible to question immigration without being accused of xenophobia. Gay Alcorn put a similar view in the Guardian, writing that until recently the debate “was stuck in our debilitating culture wars, with many progressives wary that questioning immigration rates would give succour to racists.”

Alcorn’s opinion piece, in which she argued that “the case for easing immigration is compelling,” ran under the plaintive heading “As a Citizen of Melbourne, Don’t I Have the Right to Question Immigration?” Of course she does, and she has used it, as have Smith, Carr, Sloan, Gittins and many others.

No topic of public policy should be off limits in a democratic society, but the real risk is not that the debate will be bound by a political straitjacket but that it will be a short-sighted and thoughtless free-for-all. When prominent figures in the major parties seek to exploit such a sensitive topic for short-term electoral gain, or when they play fast and loose with the facts, they embolden the likes of Hanson, Abbott and Anning. In this respect, we are being let down by both sides of politics.

In a recent speech to the Business Council of Australia, Alan Tudge expressed concern that so many new migrants to Australia settle in Sydney and Melbourne. He claimed that of “the more than 111,000 skilled migrants who arrived” in the last financial year “only 13 per cent will settle outside the two large capitals.” When he spoke to Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast that morning, he rounded the number up to make it more alarming still, saying that “almost 90 per cent of all skilled migrants are coming into Melbourne and Sydney.”

As someone who spends a lot of time trawling through the data periodically released by the home affairs department, I found Tudge’s numbers hard to believe.

No detailed breakdown of the 2017–18 migration figures has been released yet, but on the basis of the previous year’s figures the minister’s claim seems highly improbable. In 2016–17, 32.9 per cent of skilled-stream entrants nominated New South Wales as their intended state of residence and 26.1 per cent nominated Victoria. This makes a total of 59 per cent (for all of New South Wales and Victoria), which falls well short of the minister’s figure of 87 per cent (for Sydney and Melbourne alone). It is just a shade higher than those two states’ share of the overall national population, 58 per cent.

If this year’s figure really is 87 per cent, that’s a staggering turnaround. And it can only have happened because the minister or his department made it happen by changing the way the program is managed or by using a different time frame.

The department has mechanisms it can use to significantly influence where skilled migrants initially settle. In particular, its three state-specific and regional programs — the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, the skilled regional visa, and state and territory nominated visas — gave it control over the destinations of 30 per cent of the skilled migration intake in 2016–17.

To reach this year’s alleged 87 per cent, the department would have had to dramatically cut back on approvals in these visa categories. Or New South Wales and Victoria would have had to be far more successful than the other states and territories in nominating skilled migrants for permanent visas. Or there’s a third possibility: perhaps the minister actually meant that 87 per cent of skilled migrants will eventually end up living in Sydney and Melbourne.

If that’s the case, then it would be helpful to know what time frame he’s using. Is it one, five or ten years? My repeated attempts to get a better understanding of the 87 per cent figure from both the department and the minister’s office led nowhere, making it hard to escape the conclusion that Alan Tudge has deliberately allowed an exaggerated view of the impact of skilled migration on Sydney and Melbourne to take hold.

Labor has been playing fast and loose with numbers too. Shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann has accused Peter Dutton of “beating his chest about permanent migration numbers” while “ignoring real problems” like the “1.6 million people currently in Australia on temporary visas with work rights which undercut the pay and conditions of local Australian workers.” Opposition leader Bill Shorten also used the 1.6 million figure, asking why it is that “the Liberals never talk about all the people with temporary work right visas in Australia when we’ve got youth unemployment, we’ve got declining apprenticeships, and we’ve got wages stagnation holding back the wages of millions of Australians?” Shadow employment minister Brendan O’Connor railed against “the explosion, the misuse, and abuse” of 1.6 million temporary work visas, which is “one of the reasons why we have one of the highest levels of youth unemployment, high underemployment.”

That figure of 1.6 million temporary work visas is deeply misleading. For a start, it includes 670,000 New Zealanders who have an automatic and reciprocal right to enter and work in Australia. Since all New Zealanders are granted the same “special category” visa on arrival, a big chunk of those 670,000 are probably here only briefly, to watch the All Blacks thump the Wallabies, visit family, do a business deal or have a holiday. Another big chunk of New Zealanders have lived in Australia for decades and are to all intents and purposes permanent residents. Does Australia want to rescind the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement and kick out all the Kiwis?

Labor’s 1.6 million figure also includes around 490,000 students. Is Labor seriously suggesting that it can solve youth unemployment by cutting international student numbers or curbing their right to work forty hours a fortnight? This would be more likely to cripple Australia’s higher education sector than improve labour-market outcomes.

In other areas of temporary migration, numbers have been falling anyway. In the category of skilled temporary workers (which includes the now-abolished 457 visa) the number of visa holders present in Australia has fallen substantially, down from almost 200,000 four years ago to fewer than 150,000 today. The number of working holiday-makers is down from 151,000 to 135,000.

None of this is intended to suggest that there is no congestion problem in Sydney and Melbourne or that immigration bears no relationship to house prices. Nor am I downplaying the serious problems temporary migration can create. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Australia risks gradually moving towards a guest worker ethos of “All Work, No Stay.” But immigration is a complex issue and politicians and commentators should tread carefully, speak thoughtfully and act judiciously.

Is it too much to hope for a new home affairs minister who understands this? •