Let’s hold the line on immigration

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 27 January 2011

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. At least this must be the rationale behind proposals to relax visa requirements for temporary workers entering Australia. In order to deal with the flood catastrophe, the government should issue more subclass 457 visas, business leaders suggest.

Brendan Lyon, CEO of Infrastructure Partnerships, argues that guest workers should be fast-tracked. “Australia is already facing a skills shortage in infrastructure delivery; and no doubt the pressure of rebuilding after the devastating floods in Queensland will only add to that,” the head of Australia’s peak infrastructure body was quoted as saying in The Australian newspaper.

Rebuilding the flood affected parts of Queensland will be an enormous task with big labour market implications. But should great decisions for the nation’s future population be made on the fly? Or do international experiences suggest that a broader strategy is preferable?

The three part documentary series Immigration Nation, which just concluded on SBS, was a useful reminder of Australia’s success in integrating its migrants. From a country that was almost exclusively white and British after World War II, Australia has turned into the ‘multicultural’ nation that it is today.

In the Australian context, multiculturalism is a bit of a misnomer, though. It suggests that several equally important cultures exist in parallel, with no dominant ‘Australian’ culture.

Of course, this is patent nonsense. Newcomers have brought some of their traditions, cuisines and religions to this country. But they have also been quick to embrace Australian values and institutions such as the rule of law, the ‘fair go’ and the English language. Australia is certainly multi-ethnic, but in many important ways it is certainly not multicultural.

From the ‘New Australians’ of the 1940s and 1950s and the boat people of the 1970s to the surge in Asian migration beginning in the 1980s, Australia has integrated its migrants extremely well by international standards. There is no other country with a better integration record.

The children of Australian migrants regularly score at least as well and sometimes better in education tests as children whose parents were born in Australia. Although there are pockets of crime in some migrant communities, the vast majority of migrants are not more criminal (and are often less criminal) than the rest of the population.

In terms of their integration into the labour market, skilled migrants do particularly well in Australia. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship conducts its Continuous Survey of Australia’s Migrants, which demonstrates that skilled migrants have higher salaries, are less often unemployed and have an overall higher labour market participation rate than the Australian average.

Australia has been the shining example for those who believe that ‘multiculturalism’ can work. However, it was not the only Western country that developed into a multi-ethnic society. Other countries did too – but with vastly different outcomes.

The United Kingdom, for example, had a foreign-born population of only 2.1 million people in the 1951 census which has risen to about 7 million people today. And whereas previously ‘foreign-born’ meant ‘European-born’, contemporary Britain has become a place with people from all over the world.

Germany’s migration track-record shows the same developments. The German Federal Statistical Office estimates that of the country’s 81.8 million inhabitants there are 16.0 million people (19.5 per cent) who have a so-called ‘migration background’. This background is defined as either being a migrant or the descendent of migrants who entered the country after 1950. While a large number of migrants originate from other European countries, there are also more than 3 million ethnic Turks living in Germany.

Australia, the UK and Germany share many migration developments. They all started off as Western, white countries after the War. They all then received large numbers of migrants from different cultural and religious backgrounds, and today they can be regarded as examples of ‘multi-ethnic’ societies.

There is one difference, though: Whereas in Australia multiculturalism has worked, it is failing in the UK and Germany. Britain is facing increasing segregation, religious extremism, racial tensions and also – as the attacks on the London Underground demonstrate – home-grown terrorism. Germany is slowly waking up to the fact that many of its migrants show great education and integration deficiencies and that, for example, unemployment among migrants is twice as high as in the native population. Welfare dependency among these people is endemic.

Why does multiculturalism work in Australia and fail elsewhere? There are two reasons. First, as historian John Hirst has pointed out, Australian society has been extremely receptive to newcomers. If they fit in and played by the rules, Australians have traditionally welcomed migrants with open arms.

As Hirst explains, it is inconceivable that boatloads of Italians arriving at Dover in the 1950s would have been called ‘New Englanders’. In Australia, on the other hand, it was government policy to refer to the migrant Lithuanians, Italians and Greeks as ‘New Australians’. Australia was a much more open society than the UK or Germany, which initially did not even consider themselves immigration countries.

The second reason for Australia’s successful migration is practical. Australia was simply better at selecting its migrants. For a long time, migration into Britain was easy from other Commonwealth nations. Migration into Germany was also easy for unskilled ‘guest workers’, who later managed to bring their extended families to the country as well.

Australia, on the other hand, has always been stricter in its visa requirements, particularly since the introduction of the points test. English-language skills and professional qualifications were needed to overcome the visa hurdles. This ensured that educated, ambitious and employable people entered the country. Is it then surprising that these migrants had properly educated children, that they did not become criminals and that they embarked on successful professional careers?

The great strength of Australia’s migration policy is its selectiveness. Not even a catastrophic event like the Queensland floods should change this. If migrants can make a difference in dealing with the reconstruction, then by all means let them in. But that does not mean that the usual language and skills requirements should be compromised for this purpose.

Migrants can only add value to recipient countries if they fit in and make an effort to integrate. Immigration nations ignore this basic insight at their peril.

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