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The incoherence of MPs' migration mentality

  • 11 October 2018


How is Australia to handle an otherwise ageing (historically white) population in a highly mobile world? The answer seems locked as ever onto modes of control, but also lately welded onto a transactional mentality that is incoherent.

New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian called this week for halving the state's migrant intake. Federal minister for cities Alan Tudge proposed a mandatory five-year regional settlement scheme for migrants.

Both have left policy observers scratching their heads. The highest proportion of net overseas migration is in the higher education sector, according to Guardian analysis. Setting aside serious questions around a model that relies on fee-paying students, Australian universities in major capital cities are being propped up by international students.

The cash injection to universities — at $6.2 billion nationally — is significant, but not limited to this area. Students are renting, buying, and paying for services. Education as an export earns more than tourism, running third behind iron ore and coal.

So here we have a situation where governments have slashed higher education funding, prompting university reliance on foreign students for revenue, which drives (and has coincided with) a competitive international market for Australian degrees, leading to resident population growth that is inextricable from an economic bump — and the premier wants to halve migration levels.

I'd rather not mention that the bulk of international students come from Asia, particularly China and India, but there it is. Is it worth asking if the problem would have been better framed around infrastructure spending rather than population growth, if most migrants come from Ireland or (white) America? Maybe.

In election season, it is not unusual to see a spike in concern about matters like roads, public transport and housing supply. These are governance issues worth attention. But they have also become a proxy language for population control based on other motives.


"This is how perversely we think about people who arrive here: we say they have created problems for which they are the solution."


Drastically limiting migrant intake starts sounding less racist and more sensible if you talk about traffic and rent, suggesting that there are just too many people out there. These pressures are of course real. However, without accounting for the positive GDP impacts of immigrants — particularly skilled workers who contribute more to fiscal revenue than they draw on public services — as well as inadequate, overdue infrastructure spending, the opportunity for blame is also real.

This becomes clear in