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Australia is considered to be one of the world’s major ‘immigration nations’ (together with New Zealand, Canada and the USA). Since 1945, when the first federal immigration portfolio was created, over 7.5 million people have settled here and Australia’s overseas-born resident population—estimated to be 28.2 per cent of the population in June 2015—is considered high compared to most other OECD countries.

Permanent migrants enter Australia via one of two distinct programs—the Migration Program for skilled and family migrants or the Humanitarian Program for refugees and those in refugee-like situations. Each year, the Australian Government allocates places, or quotas, for people wanting to migrate permanently to Australia under these two programs.

Until recently, the United Kingdom (UK) had always been the primary source country for permanent migration to Australia. However, for the first time in the history of Australia, China surpassed the UK as Australia’s primary source of permanent migrants in 2010–11. Since then, China and India have continued to provide the highest number of permanent migrants. New Zealand (NZ) citizens also feature highly in the number of settler arrivals, but they are not counted under Australia’s Migration Program unless they apply for (and are granted) a permanent visa.

Over the decades, migration program planning numbers have fluctuated according to the priorities and economic and political considerations of the government of the day. However, it is important to note that the Australian Government’s immigration policy focus has changed markedly since 1945, when attracting general migrants (primarily from the UK) was the priority, to focussing on attracting economic migrants and temporary (predominantly skilled) migrants. Currently the planning figure for the Migration Program is 190,000 places (it has remained at this record high level since 2012–13), with skilled migrants comprising the majority.

One of the most significant developments in the dynamics of migration to Australia in recent years has been the growth in temporary migration—in 2000–01 temporary migrants outnumbered permanent arrivals for the first time. Many of these entrants arrived on either student or Temporary Work (Skilled) (subclass 457) visas. Unlike the permanent Migration Program, the level of temporary migration to Australia is not determined or subject to quotas or caps by Government, but is demand driven.

The 457 visa also provides a pathway for skilled workers and their dependants to apply for permanent residence and many students are also eligible to apply for permanent visas under the Migration Program at the completion of their courses. The largest contribution to net overseas migration (NOM) in recent years has been from people on temporary visas—mostly comprised of overseas students and temporary skilled migrants and the rate of Australia’s population growth has increased significantly over the few years largely driven by an increase in NOM.

Migration statistics

Annual statistics on Migration and Humanitarian Program ‘outcomes’ (visa grants) provided by the Immigration Department since the 1980s provide accurate data on the number of people who are planning to migrate to Australia. However, other immigration-related data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is also used to measure migration flows or settler arrivals. These statistics are often used interchangeably and/or incorrectly with the result that data used in the public debate to describe migration flows can often be inaccurate or misleading. Changes in government policy and data collection methodology by government agencies have also added to the complexity in interpreting this data, and make it difficult to compare migration-related statistics over time. Some of the more commonly used data sets (and their limitations) include:

(1) Net overseas migration (NOM) data, compiled since 1925 by the ABS, is often used to describe and measure population growth. However, NOM is not a measure of the number of permanent migrants arriving in any given year as it measures departures and arrivals of both permanent and (long-term) temporary entrants and the resulting increase or decrease in the population overall. In addition, the methodology for the calculation of NOM has changed significantly over the years and should be used with caution.

(2) Settler arrival statistics, also compiled by the ABS, are a better indication of permanent migration flows than NOM, but include NZ citizens and some other temporary migrants who have indicated an intention to settle longer term. Other ABS data on overseas arrivals and departures may also include multiple arrivals and departures of individuals and not the total number of individuals.

(3) Migration Program visa grant outcomes recorded by the Immigration Department, provide the most accurate statistics on the number of permanent migrants intending to settle in Australia, however not all migrants granted visas take them up, and accurate data is only available back to the 1980s. Prior to that, it is necessary to resort to settler arrival statistics.

There would be drastic consequences to the Australian way of life if we did not have the level of immigrants that we currently have. Population growth would halve, economic growth would falter, our workforce would age quicker, the federal budget would blow out, roads would remain crowded, housing expensive, education and tourism would suffer and it’d be harder to find a doctor.

Population growth would halve

Net overseas migration – arrivals to Australia minus Australians departing – accounted for more than half of the growth in the Australian population last year. Of the 326,100 people added to the population count, just 148,900 came from so-called “natural” increases – births minus deaths.

The remainder, or 177,100, came through more people migrating here than departing. This pace of migration has actually slowed in recent years after hitting a peak of 315,700 in 2008 – the year the global financial crisis washed up on our shores. A clamp down on foreign student visas and slackening business demand for skilled migrants explains the recent fall.

Economic growth would falter

One of the key drivers of growth in the Australian economy has been strong population growth.

Australia’s quarter century of uninterrupted growth is due in no small part to a swelling population. That makes us quite different to a lot of other countries across the world who have got the challenge of population growth that’s slowing, or shrinking, like Japan.

Slower economic growth is less of a problem if what is produced has to be shared among fewer people. But migrants add to demand in the economy, helping to prop up spending and incomes. The net effect is still positive.

Our workforce would age quicker

The median age of all new arrivals to Australia last financial year was 26.5, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics. This includes temporary and permanent visa holders. The median age of the entire Australian population was 37 years.

More than two thirds of Australia’s annual migrant intake arrive on skilled working visas. While family reunion visas make up a large part of the remainder, they include children as well as grandparents.

On average, new migrants lower the age profile of the Australian population and are more likely to be of working age.

The federal budget would blow out

With no new migrants arriving, there would be fewer working aged people to pay the income taxes needed to support an ageing population.

There may be some cost savings for government in helping new arrivals, particularly refugees. But Australia’s annual humanitarian intake is only 13,750 a year – less than a tenth of total migration. Most migrants to Australia contribute to the workforce, given our skew towards skilled labour, and pay significant taxes.

Roads would remain crowded, housing expensive

At the margins, traffic congestion might not continue to deteriorate as quickly if immigration was halted. But there’s no reason to believe it would get better.

Similarly, there would be fewer potential buyers of property. But tax incentives remain that promote excessive speculation on housing, and foreigners are still able to purchase property in Australia without actually migrating here. Furthermore, builders could simply respond to less demand by building fewer new homes.

The belief that ending migration would solve all the growing pains of Australian cities is a misnomer. We have to keep building infrastructure to keep pace with the growth in the population. The better approach here is to find a way to build good infrastructure rather than slow down our growth prospects by limiting population growth.

Education and tourism would suffer

Export revenue from international students is worth more than $20 billion a year to the Australian economy and is today our third biggest export after coal and iron ore.

Tourism also supports the jobs of nearly one million Australians. The chief executive of the Tourism & Transport Forum Australia, Margy Osmond, says halting immigration would hurt the industry.

Particularly for the Chinese market, holidays, education and long-stay family reunions are a big reason for them to come here, stay longer and spend more in our economy.

Shutting the doors to New Zealanders would also hurt reunion visits from that country, which remains our biggest source of inbound tourists at 1.3 million visits a year.

Overall, there is a tourism benefit from being perceived as an open, multicultural and welcoming country.

It’d be harder to find a doctor

Without immigration, the skilled occupation lists would never get filled. Seeing doctors and nurses would be harder for everyone. A lot of businesses would have to close. Universities would collapse without international students’ income. We would have a rapidly diminishing taxation base to fund the running of the country and the ageing population, and – most of all – Australians who married a non-Australian overseas could not bring in their new spouse.

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