While Scott Morrison earlier this year publicly disagreed with Tony Abbott on immigration levels, he eventually gave way to Dutton’s ruse about ‘greater scrutiny’ leading to the migration program ‘ceiling’ not being delivered in 2017-18. Will he continue to compromise with Abbott and Dutton on immigration or has he drawn a line in the sand by appointing a moderate in David Coleman as the new immigration minister?
Abbott wants immigration cut significantly further than Dutton has so far delivered. He and his acolytes in some sections of the media are also keen on abandoning Australia’s non-discriminatory approach to immigration when it comes to matters of race and religion. If Morrison does not quickly turn around his government’s polling performance, Abbott et al will soon return to their demands on immigration. With Morrison having already compromised on energy and company tax cuts, immigration is now the most fertile ground for Abbott style conflict.
So what can we learn about how Morrison may respond from his record on immigration policy?
One of Morrison’s first acts as shadow minister for immigration was to oppose Julia Gillard’s Malaysia solution. The Malaysia solution, negotiated to resettle asylum seekers arriving by boat and announced in July 2011, was defeated in the High Court a month later. Morrison described the High Court decision as “another policy failure by an incompetent government”.
Gillard subsequently sought to put the solution into legislation. Abbott and Morrison, supported by the Greens and urged on by refugee advocates, led the charge to defeat the legislation in the Senate. The idea of a regional refugee solution was dead before it could be tested.
But in 2016, Abbott conceded that opposing the Malaysia legislation may have been a mistake. Abbott and Morrison’s actions prevented the resettlement of a large number of refugees who ended up on Manus and Nauru for many years (with the associated human and financial costs).
Morrison tried to avoid blame after Abbott’s 2016 speech by saying he only opposed the legislation because he was acting on instructions from Abbott – but the Nuremberg defence is for foot soldiers and junior officers rather than a key leader.
As immigration minister, Morrison also rejected New Zealand’s offer to resettle some of the refugees thus adding to the human and financial cost for zero policy benefit. Morrison must bear at least some of the responsibility for the length of time refugees have been stranded on Manus and Nauru.
Stopping the Boats
While Morrison can undoubtedly take credit for re-introducing boat turnbacks, boat arrivals had already slowed significantly following Kevin Rudd’s reinstating offshore processing. Indeed, Menadue and Hughes cogently argue the boats had largely stopped by the time Abbott and Morrison were in charge.
2014 Budget and the Migration Program
With Abbott and Hockey keen to bring down the budget deficit, all portfolios were given a savings target as part of the 2014 Budget. Immigration minister Morrison decided he would meet his portfolio’s savings target by explicitly linking the size and composition of the migration program to budget figuring – something that Treasury, Finance and Immigration officials had long resisted.
As a result, the size of the program at the start of every year since 2014 has been fixed at 190,000. This was bad practice as it meant government decision-making on immigration would be viewed largely through the prism of the budget.
But it was the situation Dutton inherited when he became immigration minister. He couldn’t cut the program without paying the lost net revenue to the budget. So he devised the ruse of a migration program ‘ceiling’ rather than a target. This meant that at the start of the year, the public was told the migration program ceiling was still 190,000 even though Dutton had no intention of delivering the program to that ceiling.
Under this ceiling arrangement, the lost net revenue is treated as a ‘budget variation’ rather than a ‘budget measure’. Responsible ministers do not have to pay for budget variations. The ceiling for 2018-19 is still 190,000 and we still have no idea what the actual target is.
Until recently, Morrison had argued that any minister who proposes to cut the program must provide the offsetting savings. It is for this reason Dutton insisted he had not cut the program but that it had fallen due to the application of ‘greater scrutiny’ – a total furphy that Morrison has now bought into.
Net migration when Morrison was immigration minister
For the years Morrison was immigration minister and Abbott was prime minister, net migration fell significantly even though the migration program was delivered very close to the 190,000 target). Abbott has subsequently claimed this as a credit to him, including in a recent article in The Australian.
However, what really happened was that the net number of Australian citizens leaving Australia long-term went up strongly and the net number of NZ citizens arriving long-term fell. This was largely due to the weak state of Australia’s economy at the time but it’s a story The Australian is happy to swallow uncritically.
Overseas students and net migration since 2013-14
As immigration minister, Chris Bowen commissioned Michael Knight to undertake a review of student visa processing after overseas student numbers had fallen significantly after 2008-09. The Knight Review recommendations to streamline overseas student visa processing were implemented under Morrison as immigration minister and Abbott as prime minister.
These changes led to a strong increase in overseas student numbers (and as a consequence net migration). In recent years, overseas students have represented around 40% of net migration. They drove the high population growth that has apparently worried Abbott et al in recent years.
Whether Morrison knew this would be the result is unknown but it may explain his strong defence of past immigration policy settings and his rejection of Abbott’s push to cut immigration.
But with the policy changes Dutton has made, the contribution of overseas students and other temporary entrants to net migration will fall over the next few years along with the size of the migration program.
Will Morrison allow this to continue or will he try to arrest the decline? Mr Abbott and his media acolytes may have more to say on this.
Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.