The recently re-elected centre-right government in Australia, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under some political pressure at the moment due to largescale migration and the strains this is placing on infrastructure. Australia has one of the fastest-growing populations in the developed world. Infrastructure Australia (an independent body providing infrastructure advice to government, industry and communities) notes that the population is expected to grow to 31.4 million people by 2034, an increase of 24 per cent in just under 15 years. Most of this increase will be due to migration – in 2017 over 60 per cent of Australia’s population growth of over 388,000 people was due to migration. The importance of migration to future population growth will only grow since the natural change in population is trending downwards: there are still more babies being born than there are deaths, but the difference between the two will trend downwards as the baby boomers start dying in larger numbers due to old age and the fertility rate remains below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. (The last time Australia’s population had a fertility rate of 2.1 or above was in 1975.)
Most of Australia’s new residents in the next decade or so will live in Sydney or Melbourne, adding to congestion and to the pressure on infrastructure already seen in Australia’s two largest cities. There are concerns that the cost of lost productivity due to congestion will double to nearly AUD40 billion a year by 2031 if nothing was done (not to mention the rise in frustration and road rage!) The leader of the opposition Labor Party Anthony Albanese has accused the government of not “lifting a finger” to help commuters in gridlocked traffic and called on it to fast track road and rail projects.
The government has not done that yet but has responded to criticism by launching an inquiry into Australia’s migration program. This will look at cutting migrant numbers and also into ways to push more migrants to the regions away from Sydney and Melbourne. This review will be led by Parliament’s joint migration committee, which usually deals with visa laws and detention centres. The Committee is made up of members from across the political aisle and will look at Australia’s migration rate, the impact migration is having on infrastructure, the broader economy and methods of encouraging people to move away from the big cities.
The government has already announced that it is planning to cut permanent migration numbers, but it is fighting against the trend: in April the federal budget figures showed that total net overseas migration would peak at 271,000 this year more than 50,000 people more than was assumed only last year. Furthermore, the government might have a fight on its hands with the Treasury department which has historically supported high levels of migration to keep tax revenues up.
It will be interesting to see what the inquiry recommends or if it is merely designed for the government to be seen to be doing something. It will also be interesting to see if cutting back migration numbers can be accomplished politically in Australia without calls of “racism” rearing its predictable, banal and debate-stifling head.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.