Catching the SkyBus from Tullamarine airport to Melbourne recently, I was reminded how much we had embraced the Asian century. The announcements were in English and then Mandarin. Indeed, everyone on the bus except me appeared to be ethnically Chinese.
Source: Adam Creighton, News Corp
We’re not Asia’s ‘white trash’ but we must be careful
Why worry about how to “engage” with Asia when we were becoming an Asian country? Better, for instance, to take advantage of the language skills of our residents than bother teaching native kids how to speak Chinese, especially when literacy scores for English have been so poor.
By 2023, the Chinese-born population of Australia — which grew by half to 650,000 across the five years to last year (more than eight times faster than overall population) — will likely exceed those born in England.
Last year, our Indian-born population, which grew even faster (nine times population growth) to 590,000, overtook the number of New Zealanders, traditionally the second biggest stock of foreign-born residents after the Brits.
The understandable heartache aroused by the repatriation of the Tamil family to Sri Lanka obscures our dependence on migrants from Asia, broadly defined. Last year, the number of Sri Lankan-born residents increased by 14 every day, to 135,000, or four times overall population growth.
Without migrants from Asia, Australia’s economy would slide into recession.
In defending last week’s poor economic growth figures, Scott Morrison pointed to Germany and Britain, whose economies shrank in the June quarter. Ours expanded 0.5 per cent and 1.4 per cent across the year, the slowest pace since 2009.
Yet their populations are growing at less than half the pace of ours. Per capita, economic output went backwards in Australia.
In Germany and Britain it went forwards. It’s hardly a comparison to brag about: strip out the extra people, and we’re doing worse than both.
Indeed, if the British and German economies are floundering, their people aren’t coming here. The number of people from Britain and Germany living in Australia started shrinking years ago. Those large Italian, Greek and even Scandinavian populations are all declining, too. Even the Irish aren’t coming, down 9 per cent to 87,000 across five years.
It’s not so much a Europe-for-Asia swap as a rich for poor one. Migrants from South Korea, Singapore and Japan have slowed. Meanwhile, the number of Brazilian-born residents is up 130 per cent to 46,500 in five years and the number of Nigerians has risen 95 per cent to 12,500. Migration from North Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, has surged too, up 22 per cent to 469,000.
Proximity should matter less than it did, given transport has become quicker and cheaper.
For these migrants from developing counties, coming to Australia can be a boon. Quite aside from impending gold-plated religious freedom laws, after 10 years of living here they are entitled to the Age Pension, for instance. (Although the SkyBus may be a bit of a step down; Sri Lanka is building a high-speed rail line from its international airport to Colombo.)
For lower-skilled natives, improved cuisine notwithstanding, it may not be so beneficial.
The smaller number of hardworking, studious Asians who came to dominate the professions, especially medicine, are giving way to vastly greater numbers of temporary student migrants vying for low-skill jobs. The number of foreigners on student or post-student work visas has exploded from 365,000 in 558,000, in just four years to June last year.
Despite all the rhetoric about skills and targeted occupation lists, our migrants are increasingly in low-skilled work, whatever their visa might say.
“Of the one million temporary visa holders — a number that’s almost doubled since 2007 — almost 60 per cent of the 600,000 who are in work are in low-skill occupations,” Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley says. “Everyone thinks we’re running a high-skill migration program, but it’s low-skilled in reality,” he adds.
Remarkably, 24 per cent of workers with temporary skilled visas are in low-skilled occupations, he finds.
This setup also could strain support for our highly progressive tax and social security — something backers of ever greater immigration from developing countries tend to overlook.
“While increase in population diversity may have long-run benefits, in the short run immigration and diversity are perceived by many as a threat to social cohesion and put welfare systems and democracies at risk,” Harvard economics professor Alberto Alesina concluded in a recent analysis of Europeans’ attitudes to a recent influx of migrants.
“Beliefs about who is a worthy recipient of public generosity correlate with race, especially in the US,” the study, based on decades of household surveys across 16 European countries, found.
Perhaps no country in recent times has absorbed so many people from different backgrounds so successfully. Such cohesion hasn’t been tested in a major economic downturn, though. And, as Clive Hamilton has suggested in his book Silent Invasion, extraordinary growth in immigration from mainland China, whatever the category of visa, could be problematic were our relations to deteriorate with our biggest trading partner.
Of course, having a mass, low-skilled immigration program means politicians can boast the economy “isn’t in recession”. In fact it’s practically impossible for Australia to ever meet the technical definition of a recession — two quarters of economic contraction — when it accepts about 240,000 people a year, on top of natural increase of 150,000.
That’s politically convenient but dubiously wise in the long run. Overseeing wide-scale immigration from poorer countries is a lazy achievement. In 1980, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s longstanding leader, quipped that Australia would become the poor white trash of Asia. He was wrong, but he could end up being half right if we continue to depend on massive, lower-skilled immigration from Asia to paper over our economic problems.