A startling number is about to trigger a toxic debate about big Australia

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A startling number is about to add a toxic combination of fear and alarm to a national argument on migration that will help define federal politics after the Voice referendum – and may even shape the next election.

The number is 454,400, and it is deeply troubling news for Australia because it sums up the enormous strain on the country from a surge in migrants after the pandemic. The figure shows the net overseas migration over the 12 months to the end of March, after deducting the number of departures from those who arrived over that year.

Illustration: Simon Letch. Credit:

It’s the highest level of net migration in Australia’s history, and it’s being taken as proof that Australia has “opened the floodgates” to migrants.

But that old analogy is exactly the wrong way to look at this challenge when so much of the argument actually opens the floodgates on stale rhetoric, frightening conjecture and tired blame games.

The galvanising event in this debate will be the migration strategy that is due for release in the next few weeks and is meant to overhaul the country’s visa system to make it simpler and faster to bring in the skilled workers Australia needs.

One part of the strategy is already in the news: a new visa class is meant to make it easier for employers to get the clearance they need to attract foreign workers who will earn much more than the average salary.

This is only one part of the plan, however, and it is not a move to expand the overall program because the government’s objective is to bring net overseas migration down from that 454,400 number. This is an absolute imperative in the new strategy.

The attack line from the Coalition is predictable: opposition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan says Labor is setting up a “big Australia by stealth” by allowing too many people into the country. Tehan does not say who he would turn away. What is his solution? The Coalition is not ready for that question.

Even so, Labor is exposed because it is crashing through its comfortable forecasts from only a few months ago. The May budget tipped net overseas migration of 400,000 in the year to June 30. AMP chief economist Shane Oliver says it could be around 498,000 instead. Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary in the Department of Immigration, is forecasting 470,000 and says he cannot understand why the government did not act more quickly to prevent this outcome.

The May budget said net overseas migration would fall to 315,000 this financial year, but that looks unlikely. “They’ve delayed action so long that the 315,000 will be blown out of the water,” says Rizvi. “At some point a tightening will have to take place – and when it does there will be all kinds of screams from all kinds of stakeholders.”

That is because Australia has a “demand-driven” migration program that does not impose caps on the huge parts of the economy that rely on overseas arrivals – like the universities and other education providers who generated $26.6 billion in business last year. We have about 650,000 overseas students, as well as about 200,000 temporary graduates.

It is too late to break the nexus between education and migration in Australia because it has become essential to the business model at our universities, ever since Canberra told the academies to find new ways to make money without relying on taxpayers.

Education is now worth more than gold to the Australian economy – $26.6 billion against $23.5 billion last year – when the exports are counted in terms of goods and services as well as tuition fees. Yet the strain on the rest of the economy is impossible to ignore. It is visible to anyone who hops on a tram from Melbourne University, down Swanston Street and past RMIT University, or catches any other public transport around our biggest universities. The student populations are growing steadily bigger.

Have the universities grown too greedy? The truth is they gain the revenue from the uncapped migration system without bearing all the costs. They have no obligation to invest in housing, although the best of them are building more accommodation. They have no responsibility to pay for transport congestion. Is this sustainable?

This is not an idle question: cabinet ministers are examining this pressure point. The migration strategy will come with a plan for greater integrity in the education sector under changes being decided by the three key ministers involved: Education Minister Jason Clare, Skills Minister Brendan O’Connor and Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil.

The worst aspect of the problem is the advent of the “ghost college” that sets up classrooms to pretend it is teaching overseas students, only for the desks and chairs to stand empty because the students are working all day. Clay Lucas exposed this trend in his reporting here last month. Cracking down on that problem is part of the new policy.

A key test for the migration strategy will be whether it makes sure Australia takes in workers with the highest skills – something O’Neil has named as a priority. The current system rewards aspiring migrants who are persistent, rather than encouraging those who have the right skills.

If changes are not made, Australia could end up with a class of “limbo workers” who are on temporary visas but have no pathway to permanent residency, destined to wait for years with a secondary status in society. This is the American model, with a swelling group of guest workers who are given amnesty every few years. And it is a worker underclass Labor says it wants to stop.

Labor is exposed if its migration strategy cannot bring the numbers under control. But the “big Australia” claim is the wrong way to frame this new policy. There will be simpler visas for some workers with the most valuable skills, but the broader objective is to fix a broken system. Above all, the goal must be to make sure the recent migration surge becomes a thing of the past, not a sign of the future.

David Crowe is chief political correspondent.

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