Australia’s commitment to immigration is being tested

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AYES AUSTRALIA It has long been said to be the most successful multicultural country in the world. Immigrants have increased the population by more than a third this century, to more than 26m. The promise of sunshine and well-paid work first attracted European migrants; now more are coming from China and India. This has never provoked a huge populist backlash: most Australians have welcomed newcomers with open arms. But now their tolerance is being tested.

The reason is the recent large flow. Net migration, a measure of immigrants minus emigrants, passed 500,000 in the year to July 2023. That was double the pre-pandemic level – and exceeded the population of Canberra, the main Australian city, to the national total. The sharp increase has coincided with a housing crisis, which is widely blamed on immigrants. The “social license” for migration is declining, admits the centre-left Labor government of Anthony Albanese. In December they pledged to halve the annual immigration rate over the next two years.

The social license depends on trade. For two decades both major parties have pushed border security as a way to stop asylum seekers, or “boat people”, while letting in workers and students who are more ever skilled. Net migration doubled between 2000 and 2019, fueling some of the fastest rates of population growth in the country. OECDa club largely of rich countries. That fueled a growth spurt – until the covid-19 lockdown prolonged a recession and left Australia short of workers.

After opening its borders in November 2021, the influx began again. And Australians have begun to protest. They don’t throw up fences, exactly. In a survey last year 78% said immigration made their country stronger. But most would prefer less of it: two polls in December found that around 60% think the current intake is too high. The percentage of Australians who rate immigration as their biggest concern more than doubled, to 13%, between September and December, according to pollster Freshwater Strategy .

The cost of housing is a big factor. Property prices have risen despite high borrowing costs, and there is a rental shortage in Australia. Lack of construction is the main reason, but both major parties admit that high immigration is making the problem worse. “We have a generation of Australians who can’t even afford to rent… this is not the time to be running massive migration programs,” said home affairs minister Clare O’Neil.

Mr Albanese promises to cut immigration to a “sustainable level”. His government plans to reduce net migration to a pre-pandemic level of 235,000 by 2027. According to Abul Rizvi, former assistant secretary of Australia’s Department of Immigration, this is the first time the Australian government has set such a target despite the obvious risk to growth.

The cuts can be smaller than they sound. Immigration was going to fall anyway, as a backlog of applications from the pandemic era has been cleared. However, the government promises to “crack down”, especially on visas for students, the largest migrant group. The government says many are playing the system by enrolling in dud courses.

Is a more populist debate brewing? That’s unlikely, says Nick Biddle from the Australian National University. Australia’s skills-based migration system prioritizes people with the qualifications it needs. That reduces the usual gripe about wage competition from low-skilled migrants. Politicians are also insisting that they will get rid of a third of Australians who were born outside the country. Both parties insist that Australia is a “beautiful multicultural country”, as Ms O’Neil says. For now, this still sets Australia apart.

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