Net migration of 500,000 guarantees an ugly immigration election

Nov 9, 2023
Passengers walking through Australian border force lines

The October 2023 arrivals and departures data, to be published next week, is highly likely to confirm that net migration for the 12 months to September 2023 will be around 500,000. That is both unprecedented and unplanned. It will lock in an ugly immigration focussed 2025 Federal Election as net migration will fall only slowly unless there is a dramatic weakening of the labour market.

The previous record for net migration was around 300,000 just before the Global Financial Crisis. The ABS preliminary estimate for net migration for the December quarter of 2022 was 108,847 and for the March quarter of 2023 it was 152,192. Net long-term and permanent movements (the best early approximation of net migration) for the June quarter of 2023 was 90,144 and for the first two months of the September quarter of 2023 it was 107,030.

If net long-term and permanent movements for the month of September 2023 turns out to be 42,000 or more (highly likely), that would give a total estimate for net migration of 500,000 for the 12 months to September 2023. Net migration for the September quarter of 2023 will almost certainly mean another quarter of negative per capita GDP as the Reserve Bank continues to use interest rate hikes to slow the economy.

The ABS will not publish its preliminary estimates of net migration for the 12 months to September 2023 until around March/April 2024.

But the usual suspects are not waiting for that. For them it is irrelevant that if the Coalition had been in power, we would have had a very similar blow out in net migration. After all, in late 2022, Peter Dutton was arguing the Albanese Government had not increased immigration fast enough against the background of big business lobby groups baying for an increase in immigration.

Australia’s greatest ever dog whistler, John Howard, has been quick out of the blocks to tell us he never really believed in multiculturalism. He didn’t need to say that out loud. He made his views on Asian migration very clear in an infamous interview with John Laws in the late 1980s.

In my first meeting with Howard in 1996, when I was responsible for managing the migration program, he left us in no doubt what he wanted even if that required ‘unconscionable’ changes to Australia’s migration laws. I have always wondered what he thought when Phillip Ruddock introduced me to him as the guy who managed the migration program – a dark skinned bloke with a funny muslim name.

Howard’s mates in the right-wing media certainly voiced their disgust at my having such a role.

It took many years for Costello and Ruddock to convince him of the merits of an increase in skilled migration (even if the migrants were Asian) as the best means of slowing the rate of population ageing and dealing with the inevitable skill shortages that would emerge.

Not surprisingly, Pauline Hanson is running the ‘I told you so’ line as if she has the foggiest of what she is talking about. She will use her long-standing anti-immigration, anti-Asian and anti-muslim position all the way to the next Election. That will pressure Nationals leader David Littleproud to do the same. He would otherwise risk losing votes to Hanson, particularly in Queensland. The National Party no longer has principled leaders like Tim Fischer who rightly called Hanson “divisive, dumb and wrong”.

The key, of course, is Peter Dutton who will happily compete with Hanson for the xenophobic vote.

Flushed with success in defeating the Voice Referendum, Dutton will want to use his natural dog whistling skills in an immigration focused election. He has already revealed his intentions at Parliamentary Question Time when he asked about the Albanese Government’s hidden agenda for a ‘big Australia’.

His difficulty will be his record of incompetent management of immigration policy when he was Minister for Home Affairs. He will be relying on the Australian public’s (and media’s) short memory. His appalling attempt to mislead Australians that 105,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia under the Albanese Government is strong evidence of the approach he intends to take.

Dutton will try to use his recent trip to India to argue his dog whistling is not targeted at Australia’s Indian community, votes he cannot afford to lose.

He will be well supported in his dog whistling by most parts of the Murdoch press. Many Murdoch journalists love nothing more than a good dog whistling election, especially if they can also throw in the current Israel/Palestine conflict. They will take to getting back to some good old-fashioned islamophobia like pigs in mud after the self-imposed hiatus following the Christchurch massacre.

Fomenting Trump-style division is core to the Murdoch business model.

The problem for the Albanese Government is that it cannot deny the blow out in net migration under its watch, despite recent (limited) attempts to reign that in. It cannot deny that just like all previous governments, it has steadfastly refused to set a long-term target for net migration and try to manage to that.

The best thing that could come out of all this ugliness would be a commitment by both major parties to a long-term target for net migration and a framework for managing to that target. Sometimes good policy and administration can also be good politics, even if it means most stakeholders remain unhappy.

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