Monday, 22 February 2010
In the inquiry currently being conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, which I chair, it is quite clear to me that some common-sense changes are needed to how our immigration process treats disability. In a huge immigration program like Australia has there are always ways of tweaking and improving the system, as the government has recently done with its changes to the skilled migration program.
I now turn to some remarks made in the online publication, the National Times, by Mr William Bourke, who announced he is going to launch a new single-issue political party to campaign for cuts to immigration. I welcome that because it will enable the Australian people to voice their opinion about this issue. I confidently predict that Mr Bourke’s party will sink without trace as most single-issue parties do. His arguments in the National Times seem to mark him as a left-wing anti-immigration lobby, as opposed to the right-wing anti-immigration lobby represented by Pauline Hanson. In an aside, it is somewhat ironic that this arch critic of immigration imagines that she can just emigrate to the United Kingdom. I am not sure why she thinks that or what value she will contribute there. Returning to Mr Bourke’s article, he says, striking a populist note, that immigration benefits only ‘property developers and media moguls’. This is of course nonsense. Immigration benefits the whole community. It stimulates economic growth and employment. It brings in much-needed skills. It enriches our culture and makes our cities more attractive to tourism. In economic terms, immigration is one of Australia’s greatest assets. It may be said that we used to ride on the sheep’s back; today we ride on the migrant’s back. I will return to that issue in a minute.
Further in the article Mr Bourke strikes a green note, blaming population growth for ‘dead river systems, near permanent water shortages and increasing pollution’. Once again, this is nonsense. Australia is not short of water. Our current water problems are the result of generations of waste and neglect of our water resources, aggravated by the current drought. The solution is to stop wasting water, particularly in irrigation but also in our cities. The state and federal governments are currently undertaking plans to do that. Does Mr Bourke not know that Melbourne’s water consumption has been cut by 25 per cent over the past 15 years? It is now at the same level it was in 1982, despite urban growth of nearly a million people in that time. Mr Bourke also blames immigration for the loss of farmland, for traffic gridlock and urban congestion, and for the loss of open spaces for our children. All our social ills are apparently caused by population growth fuelled by immigration. I wonder if Mr Bourke has ever been outside Australia.
Australia has a population density of three people per square kilometre. Even Victoria, our most densely populated state, has only 62 people per square kilometre. The Netherlands—one of the most important countries in Europe—has 400. I am not advocating that we aim for a Dutch population density; I am saying that Australia is a thinly populated country even by the standards of the developed world let alone by the standards of our region. Our social and environmental problems have not been caused by excessive immigration. They have been caused by wasteful use of our water and other resources, lack of urban planning, short-sighted decision making, excessive reliance on the motor car and neglect of investment, particularly in urban infrastructure.
I conclude by saying that one of the things that I find most astonishing about the anti-immigration lobby is their failure to address the issues of the economic benefit of the government’s current skilled migration program. Figures that are uncontested and are in the budget papers show that in 2008-09 the current composition of principally skilled migration delivered a benefit to the tax base of $800 million in the first year, and in the 20th year that immigration delivered $1,800 million net benefit to the tax base after the cost of the Humanitarian Program and family reunion. If you looked at that one year of immigration, there is $20 billion of net benefit to the Australian people.
How do these people imagine that we are going to pay for the ageing population of Australia as the baby boomers move into retirement without skilled immigrants coming to this country? They have no plan. They have no vision. It is important to address the issues of urban infrastructure, saving water and better public transport. These are all legitimate issues. To say that the current skilled migration program is not contributing to Australia’s benefit is very short term; it does not look at the whole picture and certainly does not address the uncontested issues of the economic benefit of the program, as it is currently constituted to Australia.
Question agreed to.