Wednesday, April 12, 2017
The multiple implications of Australia's high rate of immigration
With less than a month until the federal budget, a host of issues loom large on the Australian political landscape. Housing affordability, economic growth, the return of right-wing populism, groaning infrastructure, environmental stresses and the pressures of an ageing society.
They make headlines, divide communities and define elections. And they are all connected. The thread that links them is arguably the most important, and most sensitive, factor in Australian politics: immigration.
Migration to Australia currently sits at double the long-term average, down from triple during the last years of the mining boom. The bulk of this influx comes from the government's permanent migration program, currently pegged at 190,000 people a year and mostly comprising skilled migrants.
As the natural growth rate from births is low, it's immigration that takes Australia's population growth to 1.5 per cent, higher than the global average. Last year, the natural increase was 155,500 and migration amounted to 193,200.
The advantages, disadvantages and question of whether the intake should be reduced are deeply complex, and they are being discussed publicly and privately ahead of the budget. This is in part thanks to former prime minister Tony Abbott, who said the government should promise to "cut immigration to make housing more affordable".
The debate over the explosive growth of house prices in urban areas, especially Sydney and Melbourne, rages on. Various federal and state government measures - like changes to stamp duty, raiding super and caps on capital gains tax - are routinely tossed around and sometimes tossed out. But there's always the elephant in the overly-priced room.
"High rates of immigration put upward pressure on land and housing prices in Australia's largest cities," a 2016 Productivity Commission report into the migration intake said, noting that poor urban planning and zoning laws compound this.
"While this is beneficial to property owners," the report said of the demand introduced by migration, "it increases costs and thereby reduces the living standards for those entering the property market."
But even if reducing the migrant would reduce demand for housing, Reserve Bank chief Philip Lowe has called immigration a source of national strength.
"To give that advantage up just so that we can take some pressure off housing prices, I find kind of problematic," he said last year.
However, the pressure does remain and a recent NSW government forecast found Sydney will require 726,000 new dwellings by 2036 to keep up with growth.
Boosting the economy
The Productivity Commission found new migrants boost economic growth through consumption and the supply of labor, particularly jobs that struggle to get filled otherwise.
The valuable increase to gross domestic product has been a crucial ingredient in Australia's 25 years of unbroken economic growth and continues to mask other vulnerabilities in the economy.
At an aggregate level, recent immigrants had a negligible impact on wages, employment and participation of the existing labour force.
"We do not have the infrastructure capacity to support today's population, far less the population of the future."
That is what the former secretary of the Treasury Ken Henry told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in February amid ongoing frustration about Australian roads and public transport.
"On the basis of official projections of Australia's population growth, our governments could be calling tenders for the design of a brand new city for two million people every five years" he said.
Both Mr Henry and the Governor of the Reserve Bank Philip Lowe agree: these are growing pains that we are not prepared for.
"This imbalance is compounded by insufficient investment in the transport infrastructure needed to support our growing population," Dr Lowe told a meeting of the Reserve Bank governors this week.
The Committee for Economic Development of Australia has questioned "whether the current settlement patterns of migrants, predominantly into Sydney and Melbourne, can continue indefinitely with these figures."
The more people you have, the more pressure is placed on the natural environment. This means that more work is required to protect it, particularly in urban areas.
In Sydney, more than 70 green spaces - the "green grid" considered a crucial part of a liveable city - have been identified as under threat from the booming population. Australia's largest city will pack in another 2.1 million people over the next two decades.
The gravitation of of migrants to urban areas, alongside the natural population growth in these areas, means that effective urban planning and environmental regulations are required to preserve local ecosystems, open spaces, clean air and clean water and minimise the impacts of waste and garbage.
An ageing society
It is one way to sell a migration boom, who is going to pay the taxes to look after an ageing population?
On this the Productivity Commission is clear: "By increasing the proportion of people in the workforce, immigration can reduce the impacts of population ageing," it found.
Accordingly, the government places an emphasis on skilled migrants with an age limit of 50. Last year, these migrants accounted for 128,550 of the 190,000-strong migration program while 57,000 came to join family.
But this "demographic dividend" does not offer a panacea, it delays rather than eliminates population ageing.
Based on the current rate of migration, Australia will still have 25 per cent of the population aged over 65 by 2060 when the population hits 42 million.
The figure is set to become far worse if the the intake is cut, as has been speculated, putting generations at risk of billions of dollars in higher health care costs and the burden of the aged pension.
There has always been a segment of Australian society opposed to immigration and hostile towards people seen as different.
According to the Scanlon Foundation's Mapping Social Cohesion survey, at least 30 per cent of people consistently feel immigration is too high, including a core that are staunchly opposed to immigrants on ethnic and cultural grounds. Built on top of this is sentiment driven by economic uncertainty and concern about the infrastructure and environmental impacts.
Professor Andrew Markus, author of the Scanlon report, says there has been no demonstrable boost to anti-migration sentiment in recent years. He argues those voices are now just louder and better represented in political discourse.
"If there are problems that are of concern to people that flow from population growth, such as infrastructure or housing, then governments need to deal with that. It's primarily a function of growth, not primarily immigration," Professor Markus says, asserting that government policy needs to keep up
Justice targets won’t help Indigenous incarceration rates
Pressure is mounting for the Prime Minister to introduce Indigenous justice targets. But having targets for other social indicators hasn’t helped improve them. Ten years have passed since the Closing the Gap campaign was launched and only one of the seven targets is on track to be met — Year 12 attainment.
There is no doubt Indigenous incarceration rates are unacceptably high. Indigenous people account for a quarter of the prison population in Australia and the situation is even worse for Indigenous youth. According to the latest AIHW report, 59% of juveniles in detention are Indigenous, despite Indigenous young people only making up 6% of the population aged 10-17.
Having a target to aim for may make people feel they are doing something to address these appalling statistics, but there is little evidence to suggest it will help reduce the number of Indigenous people going to jail. If the government is serious about lowering the Indigenous incarceration rate, it needs to focus on strategies that will actually help reduce offending and reoffending.
The rise in Indigenous incarceration rates is often attributed to institutional racism, with the popular narrative being police unfairly target Indigenous people, particularly youth. But while this may sometimes be the case, it is not the underlying reason behind the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in jail.
The only way to reduce the incarceration rate is to reduce the number of Indigenous people committing crimes. The best way to do that is by improving Indigenous education and employment outcomes. Unemployment is a greater risk factor for offending than being Indigenous — with unemployed Indigenous people 20 times more likely to go to jail than Indigenous people who are employed. Latest statistics also indicate that there is no employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians with a University degree.
If the government was actually making headway on its Closing the Gap targets, the Indigenous incarceration rate would be going down. Rather than introducing yet another target, the government should try to achieve its existing ones.
‘Sick and tired’ of hospital’s Islam bias
The new $2.3 billion Royal Adelaide Hospital will open this year with a prayer room for Muslims but without a “chapel” after bureaucrats opted for a “spiritual care” area to cater for “multiple faiths”.
The move has angered Australian Conservatives senator Cory Bernardi, who says Australians are “sick and tired” of accommodating a minority religion while undermining Christian traditions and heritage.
The hospital’s new “spiritual care” room is a departure from other major hospitals in the state, including the Queen Elizabeth and Flinders Medical Centre, which have chapels.
A chapel and a separate prayer space for Muslims exist at the current Royal Adelaide Hospital, while the Women’s and Children’s Hospital has recently opened a “sacred space” for all religions.
South Australian Health Minister Jack Snelling, a key figure in Labor’s Catholic right faction, told The Australian yesterday in a brief statement that arrangements for the chapel at the new hospital “are the same as they are at the current RAH (Royal Adelaide Hospital)’’.
However, the new hospital is yet to be opened and SA Health has spruiked its still unveiled religious areas as “a dedicated space for private, individual or group prayer, meditation and quiet reflection” on level three of the vast building. Both spaces — the prayer room and the spiritual care area — are understood to be devoid of religious symbols.
The prayer room has separate washing facilities for men and women, and compass points to show the direction of Mecca.
Senator Bernardi, a South Australian, said the new hospital’s arrangement was “everything that’s wrong” with the approach to integrate other cultural groups, and the prayer room was “clearly designed for Islam”.
Separate washing areas were “all the symbolism I need that this is tailor-made to accommodate to a tiny minority’’, he said yesterday. “We’re bending over to appease a minority for fear of causing offence while undermining our tradition and heritage.
“In a hospital environment, catering to all faiths is important, but what’s happened here is all faiths are supposed to share the space except for those of Islam, who once again want to exclude themselves and be granted special status.
“If you’re going to give priority to a particular faith, it should be to the Christian faith because that’s the overwhelmingly dominant ethos and part of our cultural ethos.”
The 2011 census showed that 61.1 per cent of Australians identified as Christian and 2.2 per cent as Muslim, with the Christian majority higher in South Australia.
The Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth has a multi-faith prayer room and a dedicated room for the Muslim community. Similar facilities are planned for the delayed new $1.2bn Perth Children’s Hospital, not expected to open until later this year.
Perth church leaders lobbied the then Barnett Liberal government in 2015 for a Christian chapel to be built at the Perth Children’s Hospital. Now retired Anglican Archbishop Roger Herft called the Perth hospital’s multi-faith centre “an empty shell for people who are grasping for hope”.
Muslims Australia president Kayser Trad said Senator Bernardi’s concerns were “further evidence of (his) paranoia and narrow-minded bigotry”. He said decisions about prayer spaces related to the needs of the hospital’s demographic, with Muslims requiring wash facilities for a variety of limbs, including feet.
“Many non-Muslims find using a wash basin to wash the feet objectionable,’’ Mr Trad said.
Anglican Diocese of Adelaide administrator Bishop Tim Harris said he understood the new hospital provided areas that would be “genuinely multi-faith’’.
“While the Christian presence is still significant, and numerically still the majority, we recognise we are no longer living in times of the church receiving privileged status in public space, nor do we seek such privileged or priority treatment in publicly funded facilities.’’
The hospital was supposed to open in April last year before a legal dispute between government and builders delayed it; now it is a year overdue and $640 million over budget.
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