Australian Immigration Program Cut in Half
"Immigration mistakes are big mistakes. They don't go away. They only get bigger."
-- Meyer Burstein, Director Strategic Planning and Research Directorate, Canada Employment and Immigration Commission
Back in November 1990, as I sat through a couple of days of conferencing hosted by the Australian government's Bureau of Immigration Research, Meyer Burstein's above-quoted comments went politely unnoticed by the predominantly pro-immigration and ethnic-industry audience. Such candor from an immigration industry bureaucrat is a rare gift. Seldom do their public statements strike such accord with observable reality or public opinion.
In 1990 we saw the first tentative trimming of Australia's immigration program, the numbers of which had been arbitrarily drifting upwards for some years and had reached 170,000 in 1989-90. Further cuts followed in 1991-92. The details of the 1992-93 program reductions and modifications continuing the trend were officially released on May 12, 1992.
Under the sobering cold shower of recession, even some people in big business - the hard core of the pro-immigration growth lobby - began adding up the costs to industrial productivity and the public purse of English language training, unemployment, health and other welfare benefits that were directly attributable to immigration - figures which immigration reformers had been stressing for some years. Nor had the massive costs associated with city building and infrastructure establishment for the newcomers been so easy to finance in a country burdened with escalating and increasingly frightening foreign debt repayments. Indeed, a growing number of influential economists (including the Labor Government's own recently-resigned Finance Minister, Peter Walsh) came to believe the 1980s immigration excesses to be a significant contributing factor in the nation's declining economic fortunes.
The environmental movement is currently clearing its throat in readiness to rearticulate the common sense on population it espoused a decade ago. Environmentalists appear poised to engage the internationalist utopian element within their ranks, which, in recent years, has paralyzed the movement's logic with the all-too-familiar name-calling when population issues have been raised.
When, on May 12th this year, Immigration Minister Gerry Hand took to Cabinet a recommendation that the numbers for 1992-93 be cut by 31,000, to a gross figure of 80,000, he reported the ''best support'' for any proposal he had ever taken to Cabinet. Non-dependent relatives (a category which includes cousins, nieces and nephews) faces the biggest cut - from 19,000 to 6,000. The independent skills category, which has never matched with labor market needs, has been cut from 30,000 to 13,400. The humanitarian component is down from 12,000 to 10,000. Stricter requirements in the independent category and concessional family category (which covers non-dependent relatives) are among key program changes. English will be required for independent and concessional category entrants. Full or partial up-front fees for English-language training will be a prerequisite for those with poor or no English; however, those applying for entry on humanitarian grounds, and preferential family grounds, will be exempt from the language requirements.
Predictably, the Housing Industry Association, along with ethnic lobby groups, objected to the cuts. The opposition Liberal Party [more or less the equivalent of Republicans in the U.S.] had been seen in recent times to be leading the Labor Government in the push for lower numbers and, in response to the latest reductions, claimed that the cuts didn't go far enough. The downward bargaining between the two major parties is being viewed with some relish by a public whose opinion, when polled over the last decade, revealed an increasing majority in favor of lower numbers. That opinion was consistently ignored on a bipartisan basis, allowing the numbers to drift upward unchallenged and unchecked.
As compelling as the environmental/ economic/ socio-cultural arguments for immigration reduction may be, the general unease about immigration policy and multicultural policy is bound to continue. Some rather novel and as yet unexplained redefinitions of the ''national identity'' and the ''national interest'' are currently taking shape at elite levels - way above the heads and out of the earshot of ordinary Australians, the vast majority of whom, along with their children and grandchildren stand to lose much (if not all) as a result of such far-reaching socio-cultural and ethnic policy experimentation.
"...when polled recently, Australians by a clear majority
did not see themselves as 'part of Asia'
nor are they in favor of 'integration with Asia.' "
The new Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has significantly raised the ante by actively promoting a new economic and cultural orientation for the nation's future. He calls it ''integration with Asia.'' Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans pushes similar top-down views in his recent book, Australia's Foreign Relations in the World of the 1990s. In effect he outlines the way Australia's foreign affairs, regional trade, and defense policies, when artfully conflated with immigration and multiculturalism policy, can bring about far-reaching and irreversible change to Australia and Australia's future - whether they know about it, or like it, or not! Minister Evans states ''We are, whether fully recognizing it or not, engaged in nothing less than the re-shaping of our national identity...'' and ''...all of this is going to take time to convert into mainstream, popular sentiment in Australia.'' Germane to these comments is the fact that, when polled recently, Australians by a clear majority did not see themselves as ''part of Asia,'' nor are they in favor of ''integration with Asia.'' In 1991-92 over 50 percent of all immigrants into Australia were of Asian origin, which reflects the recent shifts in immigration policy emphasis.
There is some fierce political maneuvering happening around and within immigration/ multi-culturalism policy-formulation circles at present. The night the Immigration Minister, Mr. Hand, released details of the 1992-93 program he appeared on a widely-watched current affairs TV program. He admitted that the granting of temporary residency to 34,000 Peoples Republic of China students and their dependents after the Beijing-Tienamen Square massacre could lead to a chain-migration flood of 300,000 relatives, should all those in Australia take up their options under the family-reunification component of the program. Mr. Hand's comments followed a recent revelation that Prime Minister Keating had made a pledge, in a letter to a local Chinese-language magazine, that those who had been told after the massacre they could stay on a four-year visa could now settle permanently.
Is it any wonder many Australians question the long-term strategic planning and social engineering policies already in place, when these were never adequately canvassed in the broader community?
While immigration is down, it is clearly not yet out. Immigration reformers have joined forces from across the political spectrum in Australia. Their efforts have earned for the nation some valuable time to think things through. The argumentation they have put to the government, to the opposition, the media and the public over recent years is well-developed and philosophically sound. While it cannot be eroded, it could again be ignored in pursuit of the redefined ''national interest.'' Given the clear majority of public opinion on immigration, multiculturalism, and integration with Asia, the stage seems set for a period of political instability as yet unknown to Australia.
Immigration mistakes are not the only big mistakes governments can make, but they manifestly have the capacity to both create and magnify many other problems. We ignore them at our peril.
Denis McCormack is one of the principal activists on immigration reform in Australia. He helped found the political party called Australians Against Further Immigration and, as its candidate, stood for election to parliament in a recent by-election. While failing to gain office, his candidacy helped open up the discussion of the immigration topic, which in turn contributed to the changes he discusses here.
[Reprinted from: The Social Contract, Summer 1992]
Articles by Denis McCormack