*This is the original version of “Why a prosperous nation needs migration,” The Interpreter, 17 February 2016. The author decides to publish the original draft as she often doesn’t appreciate heavy editing. Her English may sound unnatural to native speakers at times but it is her identity of someone who’s using English as a second language. Hope the readers would understand.
The Bureau of Statistics announced that Australia’s population reached 24 million at 12:50am on 16 February 2016, In his response, the former Foreign Minister Bob Carr called for the government to reduce its immigration intake by up to one-half.
Mr Carr’s response is a representation of the frustrated public sentiment about the growing immigrant population and what follows, i.e. traffic congestion, crowded trains and shortage of affordable housing. The public sentiment against immigration is simmering globally. Many governments are struggling to keep up with these infrastructure challenges and subsequent socio-economic issues. The recent rise of European nationalist politicians is mainly due to immigration. Targeting immigration, however, is a shortsighted political tactic to get instant popularity. It often carries biased and inaccurate public messages and misleads the public opinion.
It is true that population growth directly corresponds with the growth of net migration as you can see from the table below. Population growth is adding two factors: natural increase (births minus deaths) and net migration.
[Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics at http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/3101.0Main%20Features2Jun%202015?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3101.0&issue=Jun%202015&num=&view=]
At the same time, the government has been focusing on skilled migration, rather than family and humanitarian programmes over the past two decades. As the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection says, “The purpose of migration is to build the economy, shape society, support the labour market and reunite family.”
If Australia wants to grow as a nation, it needs more people. Last year, 53 per cent of total population growth was the result of immigration and 47 per cent by natural increase. If the current fertility rate stays below 2, with zero net migration, Australia’s population is projected to be steady at around 25 million from 2045, but with a lot more elderly persons and not enough workforce to support them. A larger working age population is needed if it wants to have thriving economy and society.
Mr Carr said Australia was having “a third-world style population growth rate”, which isn’t exactly true. Yes, Australia’s growth rate at 1.42% in 2015 was higher than the world’s average of 1.13%. However, it’s nothing like the world’s highest: Niger’s 4.1%. Instead, it’s rather lower than Israel’s 1.59% or Singapore’s 1.66% (both developed countries), according to the UN Population Division. Australia’s neighbour, Indonesia had 1.17% growth last year, adding to its population of 260 million.
Let’s get some international perspectives. The world population reached 7.3 billion in 2015. China and India are the most populated countries, each with a population of more than 1 billion. In terms of the population density, the world’s megacities have a population more than that of entire Australia. Greater Tokyo has over 37 million, Delhi has approximately 26 million, and New York has around 24 million. If you look at the map below, you see how dense it is in South and East Asia, Western Europe and East and West Coast of the US. Except for Sydney and Melbourne, Australia has an immense land of opportunities. Australia is also blessed with natural resources and good weather. What seems to be natural thinking from a global perspective is to build more cities, either by its own labour force or by temporarily borrowing overseas labour with fair treatment and human rights.
Instead, Mr Carr is making a national identity argument by saying that “we [Australia] are going to have a huge concentration of the available land” and, as a result, “we [Australians] would lose ‘something of ourselves’” by having to “live in a unit in a high-rise tower”. It is not exactly clear what he meant by this, whether those who’re already living in high-rise tower units are un-Australian and what is that Australians are losing by having more migrants, many of who are working and contributing to the tax regime.
What was more puzzling was his last comment on reducing overall immigration that was “compatible” with Labor’s plans to increase Australia’s refugee intake. According to him, reducing immigration by up to a half (around 100,000) and increasing refugee intake (currently fixed at around 13,750) means that Australia will have less skilled and family migrants who are working and more refugees who can’t work and rely on the government’s social services. Furthermore, he also said Australia’s economy should focus on export-led growth and stop relying on an expansion in its domestic market. Australia would need more workers, managers and professionals to achieve this. I wonder what his magic solution would be for this: innovation perhaps?