Major parties avoid detailed immigration policy debate

Major parties avoid detailed immigration policy debate

Most aspects of Australia's migration policy have been largely ignored by the major parties during this election campaign. 

Planning for Australia's ageing population, future population growth, and other aspects of the nation's migration policy have been largely ignored by the major parties during this election campaign.


Amid the battle over asylum seeker policy, changes to Australia's skilled migration laws and its effects have also largely disappeared below the radar.


Amanda Cavill has the details.


Just days after Kevin Rudd re-took the Prime Ministership from Julia Gillard in June, controversial changes to the skilled migration program passed through federal parliament.


The opposition had fought the legislation all the way, but in the end it got through by a single vote thanks to crossbench MPs Tony Windsor, Craig Thomson, Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie.


Bob Katter says overseas skilled workers are undermining pay and conditions for Australians.


"You would be insulting my intelligence to put a proposition before me that they're paying award terms and conditions. There's a thousand ways to circumvent the award wage. You won't get away with it if you're doing it to an Australian but you will get away with it when you are holding the paper to send him back overseas. He's not going to say anything because he's holding the deportation order."


Under the new rules, employers have to prove they searched for Australian workers before hiring a temporary worker from overseas.


When the bill was introduced the then Minister for Immigration, Brendan O'Connor said some sectors of the economy had seen a 100 per cent increase in 457 visa use, while few Australian jobs were created in the industries using them.


"We've seen a decline in real and nominal wages in the IT sector where there's been a spike of 457 uses and that's because we've seen I think a misuse of the scheme. So there is sufficient information and evidence to suggest that we need to reform the scheme because there is no requirement for the employer to fulfil their undertaking that they will look locally."


The Coalition has pledged that in government, it would repeal the law and issue more 457 visas, saying this would stimulate economic growth.


Population growth is an issue that figured prominently in the 2010 election campaign, with the Liberal Party announcing a policy to cut immigration and Labor arguing that the intake had already been cut.


There's been no such prominence for the issue during the 2013 campaign.


Australia's ordinary immigration intake is currently around 190,000 people a year.


This includes just over 128,000 places for skilled migrants, including employer-sponsored migrants, skilled independent migrants and business migrants.


Most of the rest of the immigration places - just over 60,000 a year - are for people sponsored by family members already in Australia.


The Bureau of Statistics says immigration currently accounts for about 60 per cent of the nation's population growth, with the rest coming from births.


The Director of Demography at the ABS, Bjorn Jarvis, says the source countries for immigrants have been changing.


"There is an increasing proportion of people who are born overseas and when we look at the countries they were born in, the top ten countries have changed a lot over the last few censuses. What we've seen in the last census is the Chinese-born Australians and Indian-born Australians are moving higher and higher in that list. So certainly the composition of our migration program continues to change and evolve over time."


By far, the dominant immigration issue in this election campaign has not been people arriving as migrants, but instead those arriving as asylum-seekers.


The humanitarian program currently allocates about 20-thousand places for refugees.


Labor says if it's re-elected, none of those places would go to any asylum seeker arriving by boat.


Under Labor's new policy, all asylum seekers arriving by boat since mid-July are being sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru, without any hope of settlement in Australia.


It's not clear what would happen to the thousands of asylum seekers who were already in the Australian community on bridging visas before mid-July, if Labor is re-elected.


But Immigration Minister Tony Burke says he makes no apologies for the policy of not giving these asylum seekers work rights, or access to other support services.


"Once we adopted the No Advantage policy we were in a situation where people who had come by boat that if they were to get a permanent visa would be waiting some years before they got it. It doesn't make policy sense to my way of thinking that you have somebody who has been in Australia for say five or more years and is now told "Okay you now have a permanent visa" and now we are going to start to settle you. By that stage settlement and support, that moment has passed."


Like Labor, the Coalition supports mandatory detention and processing of asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.


The Coalition says if it's elected on Saturday, asylum seekers already in Australia on bridging visas would only get Temporary Protection Visas, if they're recognised as refugees.

It says it would also establish a military-led program to try to stop more asylum seekers arriving by boat, and would also increase jail sentences for people smugglers.


Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the aim would be to restore confidence in Australia's immigration program.


"I believe in immigration. The Coalition has always believed in immigration as one of the great nation building planks of policy built our great country. If we are elected on Saturday and I have the honour of serving as Immigration Minister, my key objective is to restore confidence in that program. To do that we have to restore confidence in our borders."


The Coalition has not made any policy commitments on settlement services.


The Greens say they support permanent migration, including family reunion, and they're proposing better settlement services for migrants and refugees - including in regional and rural parts of Australia.


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