“It may come as a shock, but Australia is no longer seriously looking for immigrants – not by today’s standards. Our postwar migration program was one of the most aggressive in the world – but not any more. Australia’s migrant intake last year was equal to Japan’s, after allowing for differences in population, and Japan is not really looking for migrants at all.

In gross numbers, it equalled Belgium’s and Sweden’s combined. As an international commentator, Gwynne Dyer, put it during a visit to Sydney this month: “Australia takes far fewer immigrants than most of the other industrialised countries.”

The implications are dawning on national leaders. Australia may be a big economy. But in the global network, we are a small market.

The Prime Minister recently told the Seven Network: “… one of the things we ought to do is have, I think, a more open view perhaps in relation to our immigration policy. We want the brightest and the best.” How times have changed.

A little more than three years ago, John Howard, addressing a meeting at Faulconbridge, sent out a message that immigration was the cause of unemployment and that levels should be cut. Countering the view that Pauline Hanson (then then Independent MP for Oxley) had originated discussion on unhealthy levels of immigration, Howard declared: “My belief that there is a link between certain levels of immigration and high unemployment goes back to 1991, long before anybody had heard of the current occupant of the seat of Oxley.”

A study in the October number of the journal People and Place shows that the percentage of those who feel immigration levels have gone “too far” has dropped from 66 to 42 per cent. Addressing the University of Sydney Law School’s International Symposium in November, the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, admitted that Australia had to be much cleverer in attracting skilled immigrants.

Australia’s fertility rate, at a replacement level of 1.75, is lower than in New Zealand (1.9) and the United States (2.0) and just above Japan, Canada, Germany and Italy. Australia is ahead of Italy (1.2) only because more Australian women have three children, a trend not likely to continue.

Ruddock said: “Countries not traditionally viewed as migration nations are now joining the race to lure [migrants] to their shores.” Our competitors are immigrant nations such as Canada, New Zealand and the US, along with relative newcomers such as Britain, Singapore, Iceland, Italy, Finland, Germany and Ireland.

Globally, the migrant market is hotting up. The American academic and columnist Irwin Stelzer, in a recent issue of the journal The Public Interest, estimates illegal immigration is worth between $US12 billion ($21.5 billion) and $US30 billion annually and says it is more lucrative than drug trafficking. No doubt this is behind Ruddock’s overseas trip to try to head off the illegals at the source.

Thirty million people are smuggled each year. Illegal immigration, says Seltzer, props up the US economy, keeping interest rates, labour costs and inflation lower than they would otherwise be.

Meanwhile, the problems of aging in First World nations means skilled migrants are hard to get. Countries are increasingly investing in skilled workers. In the past decade, Australia knocked back a unique chance to get in first, while governments, both Labor and Coalition, wound back the healthy immigrant intakes of the 1980s.

Australia’s demand for migrants proficient in English is also a problem. English may be the international language, but English-speaking countries decreasingly have university-educated masses seeking to emigrate. When they do, Canada, Britain and the US are well ahead of Australia as a destination. English-speaking graduates from Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, countries all experiencing a brain drain, prefer the Northern Hemisphere.

Yet go to Latin America, India, China, Vietnam or the Middle East and the story is different. Here are the sort of people who make among the best immigrants in the world, even though they are often without English language skills.

Remember those immigrants from the 1960s and ’70s who are now such good good citizens. They enriched monolingual Australia with the language skills that Bob Carr and Steve Bracks today hail when talking up Australia as a great place to do business. The Treasurer, Peter Costello, told ABC radio’s AM program late last year that “in world terms, Australia is a pretty small country – 20 million people. And we just have to run faster to keep up.”

Yet in three decades, Australian deaths will begin to outnumber births. In 1991 there were six wage-earners for every aged person; in 2031 there will be three, at our current population growth. The population explosion theorist Paul Ehrlich believes Australia should limit itself to a population of 10 million. But he lives in California, where the population is booming and real estate prices are rising rapidly with the success of Silicon Valley. Ehrlich will never have to pay the increased taxes in an aging, shrinking society. His real estate in California will not devalue like that of Australian home owners hit by a serious population decline.

So, immigration is back as a positive. But if it is to work, we have to cast off our prejudices. The Opposition’s immigration spokesman, Con Sciacca, has called for a review of our “high-risk” list of countries to which Australia is wary of giving visas because their residents are most likely to overstay. In late December, Ruddock announced that India had been removed from the high-risk list, but Brazil had been added.

If Australia plans to compete for skilled immigrants in serious numbers, we’ll have to do better than that.”

Article published in The Sydney Morning Herald