What the forthcoming migration strategy won’t address

Sep 28, 2023
A man with a shoes and travel bag is standing on asphalt next to flag of Australia and border.

The Government has foreshadowed that it will soon release its new migration strategy. Most of what has been leaked to date is sensible fine tuning of employer sponsored visas which will have little impact on net migration levels. But I fear the migration strategy will be largely silent on the big issue of net migration levels and how these are to be managed.

The fact net migration is currently running at record levels of well over 100,000 more than previous records when Kevin Rudd talked about a ‘big Australia’ will make the Albanese Government even more reluctant to talk about a long-term net migration target. The media obsession with per capita recessions will exacerbate Government fears of talking about net migration.

From an overall migration management perspective, I fear the migration strategy will not address three crucial issues:

First, the migration strategy will avoid mentioning a long-term net migration target. Successive governments have for years tried to avoid adopting such a target for fear of upsetting both business lobby groups who continually argue for higher migration and anti-immigration groups who would like immigration reduced to the lowest level possible.

The Coalition will criticise the current Government for not setting a long-term net migration target but it will also avoid committing to this for the very same reasons. While Peter Dutton cut the permanent migration program, he allowed net migration to rise through higher levels of long-term temporary migration. In doing so, Dutton never talked about a long-term net migration target when he was Home Affairs Minister but will happily criticise the Albanese Government’s performance in this area.

Now you may well ask how we can possibly have a sensible migration strategy without a long-term net migration target? Net migration will always fluctuate through the economic cycle but setting a long-term net migration target that is an average over the cycle enables more effective long-term planning for just about everything from housing, infrastructure, energy, transport, health, education and other government services.

A long-term net migration target would also assist with the workforce planning crucial to the Government’s forthcoming Employment White Paper.

Doesn’t the Government want better planning in these areas?

Second, the recent Intergenerational Report assumed long-term net migration of 235,000 per annum compared to net migration of over 450,000 in the 12 months to March 2023. 235,000 was the same net migration assumption used by the Coalition Government in its last Intergenerational Report. The Albanese Government chose the same number for political reasons – to avoid the Coalition’s accusation that the Albanese Government is secretly pursuing a ‘big Australia’ agenda.

There is zero publicly available analysis to explain why 235,000 is the right long-term net migration level for Australia. It’s simply a level Treasury has determined based on a preferred average of a period in the past.

Nevertheless, if 235,000 was the Government’s preferred level of long-term net migration, what policies will the migration strategy include to deliver that level? Some actions have recently been taken but these have generally been too little, too late. Much more will need to be done in the forthcoming migration strategy.

Even if appropriate actions are taken in that strategy, it would take at least 12-18 months to get net migration down to 235,000, unless the labour market weakens dramatically. The reactions from the Education Industry to such tightening would be intense as it is growth in overseas students that would need to be reduced significantly.

Third, even if net migration is brought down to 235,000 per annum in 12-18 months, that will still leave a record number of long-term temporary entrants in Australia who do not want to leave but can’t find a pathway to permanent residence (see here). The Government has said it doesn’t want a large number of temporary entrants stuck long-term in Australia yet that is precisely what it has delivered – a record number of temporary entrants in Australia and growing rapidly.

There is a great deal the Government’s migration strategy must do. But I fear we may be disappointed that it does very little on the big picture issues.

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