Some experts say Australia is at risk of squandering the benefits of immigration.
(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
It's the program that helped forge the nation.
However some experts say Australia is at risk of squandering the benefits of immigration.
For decades, Australia's carefully planned migration policies have driven economic growth and social diversity - making the country both the desire and the envy of many.
But a sustainable migration conference in Adelaide has heard the nation can't afford to bask in past glories, as the fast changing immigration landscape means Australia faces stiff competition for the pick of the migrants.
Karen Ashford reports.
(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)
In the past 70 years of planned migration, more than seven million people have come to Australia, and each year 190,000 more make it their home.
About 130,000 of those come as skilled migrants, and the rest as family reunion migrants.
But demographer Graeme Hugo from the University of Adelaide thinks Australia needs to start selling itself better.
"There are now a dozen countries in Asia that have their own skilled migration program which competes with Australia. So it is a very,very changed landscape and with the Asian economy going do well and increasing to likely to be by the end of this decade about a third of the global economy. This migration is going to increase. So the days of Australia being the one and only beacon of opportunity for skilled migrants within the Asia Pacific region are gone and there is going to be much more competition from countries, including China, which now has its own skilled migration program."
And then there's Cupid - Professor Hugo says in the migration realm, the power of love mustn't be underestimated.
"This enormous type of migration which has been neglected I think in a lot of the international discussion about migration - marriage migration. The corollary of young people moving all over the world is that they're going to meet other young people and they're going to fall in love. And as a result marriage migration is really very substantial and a significant proportion of marriages in Australia these days are between Australians marrying people from other countries."
And he says the effects of romance aren't just being felt here.
"Marriage migration has broken down the taboos about migration in Taiwan, in South Korea, increasingly in Japan - it's the Trojan horse* by which migration is actually being accepted by many of these countries and this young people travel thing I think has been very, very significant in changing not just patterns of migration but I think it's changing many countries' attitudes towards migration."
Professor Hugo says the biggest growth in Australia has been in temporary migration, yet he believes Australia's policy focus has been slow to respond.
As younger generations become increasingly mobile, he says they're changing the nature of migration, and Australia must adapt.
He cites the working holiday-makers program - a category he describes as having 'gone through the roof" with nearly 250,000 young people coming to Australian each year on holidays they finance by working here.
Professor Hugo thinks the program has many positive attributes, but its labour market impact should be assessed.
"I think in terms of its impact on other migration categories, is it a coherent policy to have the working holiday maker program but also to have the Pacific seasonal agricultural worker program, whereby those workers are really being squeezed out by working holiday makers? I think it is a program which must be reviewed very soon, given the very large numbers and with continuing financial difficulties in Europe and parts of Asia who are eligible for this, then it does mean I think there will be a continuing demand for those places."
One area of temporary migration where there has been significant debate is 457 visas - designed to address short-term skills shortages.
Australian National University Professor Peter McDonald is a member of the panel that had just concluded a review of that visa class, which some argue robs Australians of work.
He says this category of visa generally works well, but he'd like to see tough legislation to stamp out rorts, backed up with funding for enforcement and prosecutions.
Professor McDonald is especially concerned about what he calls "sweetheart deals" that he says should be made a criminal offence.
"This is the case where the employer and the work get together - the worker wants permanent residence in Australia, the employer says okay work for me on a 457 (visa) for two years then I'll nominate you for permanent residence in Australia, but, you know, you can pay your own salary, or you won't get quite as much. So it is a very corrupt practice which has to be knocked on the head. Its legal status was a bit fuzzy so we've said there should be legislation to make that illegal.
The Parliamentary Secretary with special responsibility for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement is Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
She says achieving a balanced migration system requires careful management, including the need for skills to drive growth, humanitarian demands and social cohesion - plus the overarching challenge of selling the benefits to the public.
"We have built one of the most cohesive societies on earth and to ensure that Australia continues to build on the benefits of immigration we must be alert to maintain the integrity and purpose of our migration program. A program - this program - cannot be successful without the support of the Australian people. Program integrity is an essential part of earning that support."