The federal government is set to slash Australia's annual migration intake as Prime Minister Scott Morrison denies concerns about congestion are driven by racism. Cabinet has authorised the changes, which would cut up to 30,000 from the current target of 190,000 permanent migrants.
For many months, the government has floated plans to reduce Australia's migration level by 30,000 from its current level of 190,000.
Now Prime Minister Scott Morrison says managing population growth is a practical challenge, adding "It shouldn't be hijacked by other debates about race or about tolerance or these other issues. We've seen what happens when these important practical debates are hijacked by these other extremist views, which occur from both the right and from the left, and I'm determined to not see the serious population growth management issues taken off course, to be hijacked by those who want to push other agendas."
The proposed new cap would almost match last year's actual intake of 162,417.
Mr Morrison is still reluctant to confirm the proposed figure but says a congestion-busting plan would force a number of skilled migrants to live outside Sydney and Melbourne.
A regional settlement policy would require a certain number of skilled migrants to live for at least five years in cities other than Sydney and Melbourne.
The government is also flagging incentives for foreign students to attend universities away from the two major cities, as part of what it says is a bid to reduce congestion in Sydney and Melbourne.
"What I am focused on is ensuring that we have liveable cities, that we have good population growth management strategies and that means you have to balance all of these various components. Whether it is migration intake, migration composition. How it is spread across states and territories. The infrastructure you invest in. The city and regional deals you are able to strike. These are the things that I think focus on the needs of Australians. And I think it's important that we address them and we reject absolutely any effort to try and recast those important practical issues for Australians in the context of other matters that only seek to divide."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten says a sensible discussion on immigration numbers is needed, but he's warning the Morrison government not to use debate over immigration numbers for political gain.
"Dog-whistling about immigration and asylum seeker and immigration needs to stop because the crazies, the extremists, they take comfort when there is approval given to go down this slippery path of starting to bag immigration. Now, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have proper immigration numbers. We have to make sure that infrastructure fits. I get that. We can have a sensible discussion about immigration. But I think that both major parties have an obligation to work together to stop the dog-whistling about asylum seekers and refugees, to stop the dog-whistling on immigration", says Mr Shorten.
Mohammad Al-Khafaji is the Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA).
He says the government's proposed cuts to immigration send the wrong message and conflate the issue of congestion with migration.
Mr Al-Khafaji also believes the timing of Mr Morrison's announcement is irresponsible, saying "We're really disappointed that the prime minister's announcement comes just days after the terrorist attack in Christchurch. That sends the message to the community that migrants are a problem in Australia and that problem is congestion in the cities. Where as we know that Treasury's modelling has shown time and time again, that Australia's growth is dependent on permanent migration. I think it's the wrong approach and it is quite irresponsible to link migrants to congestion. I think the real problem here is lack of investment in infrastructure."