Australia’s population is a controversial subject. We hear a lot about the need to reduce the migrant intake.
Immigration has never been popular at the best of times, but it is even less popular now with our biggest cities suffering terrible congestion and travel times. But so much gets lost when we focus solely on the quantity of immigration.
It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation about immigration without considering quality. Highly skilled professionals and business people have a substantially positive effect when they migrate to Australia. Family reunion migrants, by contrast, are far less likely to contribute.
We also disregard the patchwork nature of the Australian economy, in which some parts of Australia are crying out for population growth. Plus, we lose any chance of moving beyond immigration to considering our approach to population overall, including the issue of how many children we are having.
We need a response on each issue.
Congestion is a consequence of a lack of infrastructure, not simply a reflection of the size of our big cities. There are plenty of bigger cities around the world where congestion is not an issue. What’s required is not just new train and bus services, motorways, bridges and tunnels, but practical considerations such as parking at train stations and bus stops. And there is much that could be done to promote greater use of motorbikes and scooters.
Congestion is aggravated by the number of people who commute long distances. To address this, we need to get rid of stamp duty on housing, which applies every time housing is bought and sold. Not only does this lock out thousands of Australians from home ownership, it also discourages existing home owners from moving to be close to a new job.
The quality of migrants would rise if we denied new migrants access to welfare until they become citizens. This would discourage those whose employment prospects are poor or only temporary, while those who still seek to come would be signalling that migrating to Australia is still a good deal for them.
The quality of migrants would also rise if we charged a substantial fee for a permanent visa. This would ensure new migrants made a catch-up payment for the assets paid for by previous generations of taxpayers, like roads, but would discourages migrants with poor employment prospects from joining the migration queue.
Both measures would result in reduced family reunion migration compared to skilled migration.
Continued character, criminal and health checks are important to ensure migrant quality, and there should obviously be rigorous and relevant security screening before a resident can become a citizen. We also want people who will embrace our values, not seek to impose their values on us. Thus anyone applying for residency or citizenship who supports female genital mutilation, forced marriages, child marriages or the subordination of women, for example, should not be accepted.
Dealing with the patchwork nature of the Australian economy, where some parts of Australia want to close the doors while others are crying out for population growth, is a tricky one. Much of the growth in Sydney and Melbourne is a result of the dynamics of agglomeration, where people are attracted to where other people already are.
This could be partially offset by reducing the size of the bureaucracies that oversee the provision of government services from the centre of our busiest cities, and by relocating to regional areas as many as possible.
There is also nothing wrong with placing conditions on permanent residency visas that require the holder to live in a regional area, at risk of losing the visa. While it’s true that enforcement may be difficult, it’s not insurmountable.
We should also recognise that, if there is a genuine problem with population growth itself, then there’s a case for paring back the welfare payments that encourage Australians to have children.
The Parenting Payment, for example, provides thousands of dollars more than the dole each year with no requirement to look for paid work provided you have a child under six. There’s also Family Tax Benefit, which can be $10,000 per child each year, with higher amounts once a child turns thirteen.
Our living standards depend on more than just the population; the population is about more than just immigration; and immigration is more than just a number. Policies based on raising the quality of our mix of migrants would have direct benefits for us all.
David Leyonhjelm is a former Senator running for the Liberal Democrats in the NSW State election