CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Immigration policy: whose view will prevail?
, March 25, 2000
Prime Minister John Howard may have helped rekindle the immigration debate mid-way through the second term of his government.
The immigration issue has been in hibernation over the last couple of years as tax has dominated the minds and hearts of the country.
This has been partly due to the welcome gradual fall in unemployment figures, the decline of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, but not least of all because of the Coalition's quite tough stance on immigration numbers.
The Howard Government has not gone anywhere near "zero net" migration demanded by some groups, but has certainly reduced the overall intake and has made a radical shift in the mix of migrants.
It has done this in spite of the increasingly clamorous calls of business and housing groups to lift radically the levels of migrants to between 100-200,000 a year.
However, during a recent interview with The Australian Mr Howard declared he had no objections to lifting immigration levels and appeared to welcome opening up the debate on Australia's future population.
There is some conjecture about how serious Mr Howard was in advocating higher immigration, and whether he was simply agreeing to consider such options.
It may have been a throw-away discussion, which turned into a front-page story, but when you are Prime Minister such indulgences are rarely permitted.
In any case, Mr Howard's sudden (apparent) about-face on immigration embarrassed his Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who has spent the past four years holding the line on family reunions and refugees, and illegal immigrants, and who has tightened the benefits of newly-arrived migrants.
Whether you agree with his policies as being sensible or oppose them as being heartless, Mr Ruddock has certainly developed a fairly cohesive policy on immigration, which has seen the total numbers reduced to a net intake of 60-70,000 people.
He has also begun to change the mix of immigrants, discouraging family reunions and encouraging more business migrants, particularly "part-time migrants" - those who intend to stay for between one and four years.
Mr Ruddock has also worked hard to lower the expectations of would-be legal and illegal migrants in other countries for whom Australia remains a very attractive destination.
The Ruddock policy has been generated partly as a counter to the former Labor Government's fairly loose policy on immigration. But, though Mr Ruddock would deny this vehemently, it is also a response to One Nation, and to the general anti-immigration sentiment in the community.
Mr Ruddock has helped muffle a serious population policy debate by declaring this off-limits to the Coalition.
On the other hand, a population policy has now been taken up by the Labor Party, and will form part of its platform for the next election.
Apart from undermining one of his better performing ministers, Mr Howard also inadvertently helped the Labor Party, which has been battling with the immigration issue for the past 12 months.
Under the leadership of Kim Beazley, Family Services spokesman Wayne Swan, and Immigration spokesman Con Sciacca, Labor stuck its neck out last year by declaring it would back a higher immigration intake if it won office.
Though not a vote winner, Labor believes higher immigration will be good for the economy, and for regional areas if handled correctly.
Even doubters like Martin Ferguson, who understands the One Nation sentiment in the community and who had opposed higher immigration, has recently been brought on board.
Now Labor's exposed vulnerable flank has been covered by Mr Howard's apparent bi-partisan stance on higher immigration.
Of course, this may give One Nation the opportunity to again push the issue at the next election.
It may also take some time before the Government gets its line on the issue right. In the meantime, Mr Ruddock will be continuing to drive his own agenda, which means no roll-back on immigration in the near future.
Mr Ruddock sees the future of immigration quite differently from all of his predecessors, virtually since Arthur Calwell.
Mr Ruddock wants eventually to see part-time immigrants exceed the number of permanent arrivals. The part-time migrant is usually a businessman or woman sponsored by a local firm, brought into the country with some particular expertise.
Mr Ruddock says these "part-time" Australians do not put any strain on the social security or health systems, and contribute greatly to the economy.
In a recent speech he lauded this type of migration as the way ahead in the "exciting and vibrant dot-com world". "Skilled long-term temporary entrants make a major contribution to Australia's international competitiveness, bringing with them new ideas, skills, technology, understanding and contacts," he said.
Mr Ruddock said Australia had to move away from the "populate or perish" idea of immigration of the 1950s. "We simply cannot afford to return to the days where permanent resettlement numbers were the end goal."
It could be argued though that such migrants have no long-term commitment to Australia, never become citizens, and have nothing in common with the migrants of the post-war generation who made Australia the country it is today.
Mr Ruddock's cold utilitarian vision of immigration based purely on economic costs and benefits is starkly different from the traditional idea of the immigrant as a builder of the nation.
It appears the new thinking on migrants is that we want fewer of them, and those that do come, we don't want to stay.