Speaking ahead of the release of sealed cabinet papers, the former prime minister told SBS News that Australia should be "mature" enough to debate the issue of migration.
Former prime minister John Howard says Australian governments should be able to cut the country's annual intake of migrants “without being accused of racism.”
Speaking to SBS News on Tuesday he said long-term migration was good for Australia but defended his cuts to the migration program when he came to power in 1996, as well as more contemporary examples.
“You should be able to vary the overall number without being accused of racism, or prejudice, or any other silly hysterical nonsense,” Mr Howard said.
Mr Howard was in Canberra for the pre-release of 1996 and 1997 cabinet documents, which SBS News will publish in detail when the embargo lifts on 1 January 2019.
The second-longest-serving leader in Australian history, behind only Robert Menzies, said there were parallels between the immigration debate in 1996 and the one triggered by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent cut to the annual cap.
Mr Howard defended his decision to cut the permanent migration intake down to 85,000 in his first year in office, as well as his decision to increase the proportion of skilled visas at the cost of family visas.
“I thought the balance of the program was wrong and there should be a greater emphasis on the skilled migration because that was more in the national interest of Australia,” he said.
Accusations of racism were “ludicrous” and “ridiculous”, he said, and Australia should “have enough maturity” to debate the size of the intake.
Mr Howard said he believed “long-term migration” was “good for this country”, and said former prime ministers from both sides of politics were on the same page. He said there needed to be room for “periodic variations” in immigration, in line with economic trends.
'The government's got to work this out'
Despite Mr Howard cutting permanent migration to just 85,000 places when he came to power in 1996, it had risen to more than 140,000 by the time he was defeated by Kevin Rudd in 2007.
It rose to a plateau of around 190,000 migrants, which was maintained under the Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull governments until 2018, when it fell substantially for the first time in years back down to 160,000.
“Migration was cut in our early years and then it got bigger as time went by, and you have to gear it to the demands and capacity of the economy,” Mr Howard said.
“I think everybody's aware that in some parts of the country there is concern about congestion, but in other parts of the country you've got people saying 'we'd like some more migrants'.”
"The government's got to work this out. I'm not going to try and fine-tune their migration policy, that's a matter for them,” he said.
“But it ought to be possible to vary the overall number and have a debate about it without the distraction of racism and prejudice.”
SBS News asked Mr Howard about a number of issues from the first years of his prime ministership that will soon be illuminated in the National Archive’s public release of 1996 and 1997 cabinet files.
The Port Arthur massacre, foreign relations with China, and budget management were all dominant issues in those years. The documents will be declassified when the clock strikes midnight on 1 January 2019.