Is Dan Tehan confused about immigration levels?

Mar 5, 2024
Shadow Minister for Immigration Dan Tehan speaks to the media in the press gallery at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, February 28, 2024. Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas

In an interview on the Insiders program, Shadow Immigration Minister Dan Tehan was asked what Australia’s immigration intake should be. He said that 1.6 million over the next four years, implying that is the Albanese Government’s plan, was too high. But is that really the Albanese Government’s plan?

Tehan also said over 1 million students over one year was too high and should be reduced.

When Australian politicians talk about immigration levels, they refer either to the permanent migration program or the level of net migration. At 190,000 per annum, Tehan clearly wasn’t referring to the migration program. If he was referring to net migration, then he has overstated the Government’s net migration forecast by more than 400,000.

The Government’s latest forecasts for net migration are provided in Appendix A of Budget Paper 3 (published in May 2023) and in the Population Statement by the Treasury Centre for Population (December 2023). These forecasts are in Table 1.

Table 1: Net Migration Forecasts

Source: BP 3 and Centre for Population

The forecast in Budget Paper 3 for the next four years comes to 1.155 million while the more recent forecast in the December Population Statement is even less at 1.117 million. Obviously, these are well below the 1.6 million alleged by Tehan. I cannot find where Tehan gets his 1.6 million over the next four years from.

If Tehan thinks the 1.117 million over the next four years is also too high, he should explain how much further he would cut net migration and how he would do that given he was boasting in early 2022 of the range of measures the Coalition Government had taken to boost both student and working holiday maker visas. These were the key drivers of the net migration blow out in 2022-23.

While the Albanese Government was far too slow to tighten the policy settings it inherited, it is not at all clear what additional tightening Tehan has in mind.

It is relevant to note that in the 2019 Budget (the back in black budget immediately before the pandemic), former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg assumed net migration over four years to be 1.074 million with every year being above 260,000.

Is Tehan saying he would cut net migration below the 260,000 per annum forecast by Frydenberg? Is he saying he would drive net migration to below the long-term assumption of 235,000 per annum in the latest Intergenerational Report published by Treasurer Chalmers?

Or is he just running a political line similar to Scott Morrison immediately prior to the 2019 Budget when he said he was cutting immigration to ‘bust congestion’. That was just Scotty from Marketing doing what he did best – marketing. The reality was reflected in the net migration forecast in the 2019 Budget published soon after Morrison’s political spin.

On students, I cannot find how Tehan gets to his 1 million students in a year. The stock of student visa holders in Australia increased from 336,844 at end March 2022 to 664,178 at end September 2023 and then fell to 547,075 at end December 2023. There were 577,295 student visas issued in 2022-23. That includes onshore student visas which are often to students already in Australia.

The only sensible thing that Tehan said in the Insiders interview was that we need a long-term plan for immigration. But many shadow ministers have in the past promised that in Opposition and then backed out when in government.

A sensible immigration and population plan is desperately needed to guide overarching policy making and service delivery.

If Tehan wants to develop such a plan, he needs to move away from his political rhetoric, get on top of the numbers and do more work to understand the role of different visa categories. That should be within Australia’s broad demographic directions.

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