The Politics    Monday, December 11, 2023

Boundless pains

By Rachel Withers

Image of Clare O’Neil

Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil announces the government’s migration strategy, December 11, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Is now really the time for another migration scare campaign?

The Albanese government has unveiled its new migration strategy, a 10-year plan to curb the number of foreigners living in a “permanently temporary” state in Australia, including tougher tests for international students and a specific pathway for those with specialised skills. The plan comes after two major reviews argued that the immigration system was broken, with student visas being exploited and the nation failing to attract the migrant workers it needs. But the way in which the plan has been framed politically seems very much about the numbers, with “net migration” to be halved within two years, after “blowing out” to 510,000 this year. Speaking at today’s launch, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said the plan would help “bring numbers back under control”, and she also mentioned housing, the cost of which is often blamed on immigration. It’s unclear if this plan will reduce migration to the government’s desired level – around 250,000 per year. Is it fair to blame migrants for our various crises? And why is Labor buying into the Coalition’s scare campaigns about a “Big Australia”?

There has been some conjecture on this point. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton began beating the “Big Australia” drum in his budget reply speech in May, seizing on migration forecasts to dog whistle against migrants. But for the past several months, economists such as Chris Richardson and Scott Phillips have been calling for a reduction in migration to help address the housing crisis, even if they recognised that it cannot be the only solution. “Housing affordability is the worst it’s ever been, and I’m starting to think we may need to do dumb things on migration policy simply to ease the impact of the even dumber things we’ve done in housing,” wrote Richardson in the AFR last month, arguing that something had to be done. Voters, too, are wanting to see a decrease in our migration intake, with yesterday’s Resolve Monitor poll showing 62 per cent of voters think the migration intake is too high.

Others, however, see this as a dangerous capitulation – or as Greens immigration spokesperson Nick McKim puts it, a “cynical pivot against migration”. “Australia’s housing crisis is not the fault of migrants,” McKim posted on social media. “It’s the result of decades of deliberate underinvestment in social housing by both major parties.” A Nine editorial following yesterday’s Resolve results makes a similar point. “Reforms by the Albanese government to cut the intake and crackdown on abuses by overseas students will need to tread delicately,” it reads, noting that this comes just as the government finds itself under pressure on border security. Blame for rising costs of living “rests with governments over the years”, it adds, calling for people not to demonise migrants.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether that is something Australians can manage, especially with tensions already sky high over the recent release of immigration detainees and social cohesion at a devastatingly low level. But it is incumbent on all involved to avoid blaming migrants for a housing crisis that is very much a homegrown one, with successive federal governments having failed to tackle its root causes, whether through building more housing or making reforms to tax settings. Australia was built on migration, and migrants will continue to come to this country. Politicians must not be allowed to blame newcomers for the unsustainable price of housing, not when the real responsibility lies with people such as themselves.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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