The Howard cabinet papers: Australia’s 20-year tussle with immigration

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The population has surged past the most bullish estimates provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to cabinet in June 1996, which predicted the population would grow to between 22 million and 24 million by 2021. Australia clocked up 25 million in August.

 The documents, released for the first time on January 1 by the National Archives of Australia, show cabinet endorsing a proposal by Mr Ruddock that would give immigrants who lived in regions outside of Melbourne and Sydney extra rights to sponsor siblings, nephews, nieces and other non-dependent family members to join them.

“I am concerned about the extent to which new arrivals settle in Sydney and Melbourne rather than regional Australia and the lesser populated states and territories,” Mr Ruddock told cabinet.

“I am also concerned about the skill shortages that are evident in some regions.”

Mr Ruddock presented research that showed the primary factor determining an immigrant’s choice of settlement location is their family. The proposal could yet be expanded on more than two decades later by the Morrison government as it looks to deliver a formal population policy ahead of this year’s election.

Despite the concerns, the Department of Finance questioned the practicality of the proposal, foreshadowing the difficulty successive governments have had in finding the right policy levers.

“There is no barrier in Australia to migrants or others living where they wish. Migrants and others will choose to live where they consider their prospects of successful settlement, including employment, to be most favourable,” it said in its submission.

“Accordingly, it seems unlikely that the proposed scheme will do much to boost the population and prospects of regional areas while adding some complexity to the administration of the program.”

The cabinet also decided against adopting a formal population policy on Mr Ruddock’s advice, but began the transition from a family-based immigration system to a skills-based system that would help propel Australia through 27 years of economic growth.

 NSW in particular had pressed for a formal population policy under former Labor premier Bob Carr.  The submission is eerily similar to current Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian’s statements at the Council of Australian Government’s meeting in December.

 
“State governments would be involved in discussions relating to intake levels and would be kept fully informed of the Commonwealth’s medium term plans for the level of immigration,” the cabinet documents state.

“By managing the overall intake as part of general population policy the effects of continued urban growth could also be better dealt with.

“The current system of annually setting the immigration intake makes such planning impossible.”

Mr Ruddock argued there was no evidence that Australia was approaching the limits of its carrying capacity and because of its relatively low fertility rate it did not need a formal population policy outside of immigration settings.

“A formal population policy would reduce the government’s flexibility to respond to humanitarian crises, fluctuations in compositions of demand driven components of the migration intake and the needs of an Australian economy for key skills that may be in short supply,” he said.

Two decades later, Prime Minister Scott Morrison charged Population and Cities Minister Alan Tudge with formulating Australia’s first population policy weeks after he took over the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull in August.

The submissions provided to the Howard cabinet are likely to form the basis of the population agenda, particularly on the economic case for immigration.

The cabinet heard that the most reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from past analysis is that overall economic impact of immigration is at best considered positive, albeit close to neutral, as migrants drive up tax receipts and the supply of workers and skills.

“A common community view has been that immigration drives down wages, increased labour supply might exert downward pressure on wages – at least in the short term. In the longer run however, there will be offsetting effects as aggregate demand and output expand,” a cabinet submission in July 1997 stated.

“In Australia, whether the net impact on productivity is positive will to a large extent depend on whether migrants have a higher than average skill level than the existing workforce.”

The evidence turbo-charged Australia’s shift towards a skills-based immigration system that mirrored Canada and New Zealand, with stricter qualification, financial and English-language restrictions.

In 1996, 65 per cent of migrants arrived under family reunification visas and 35 per cent were skills-based. By 2018 those statistics had been reversed.

The Howard cabinet did not want to increase the overall permanent intake beyond 96,000, so it had to find cuts elsewhere if it was going remain within the cap.

Mr Ruddock presented several proposals, including a radical option to restrict family sponsorship rights to citizens only, which would have seen the queue reduced by 40 per cent, and a regulation change that could have seen any applicants that did not fit within the cap having their application terminated along with a non-refundable fee of up to $900.

The measures were part of a series of controversial measures Mr Ruddock took to cabinet in his first year as a minister.

The now president of the NSW Liberal Party also asked for the National Security Committee to grant him unprecedented powers that would allow him “to cancel a large number of temporary visas held by a class of persons whose entry to Australia would be contrary to the national interest”.

Ministers had previously only been allowed to cancel the visas of individuals on a case-by-case basis.

In the document’s marked secret he said the powers, which would not be subject to a merits or judicial review or a provision of parliamentary disallowance, were necessary in the lead up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics in the case of an outbreak of a highly infectious disease or “a civil disturbance resulting in an attempted exodus of people to Australia seeking refuge”.

The Attorney-General’s Department advised that such a move would be unlikely to survive a challenge in the High Court.

“It is a fundamental rule of administrative law that discretion must be brought to bear on every case with each being considered on its merits,” it said.

In the same year, Mr Ruddock successfully lobbied cabinet for the immediate approval of temporary residence for more than 8000 refugees who had fled Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and China before 1993, as their countries grappled with ongoing civil unrest.

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