Immigration is a political weapon some politicians like to wield just before elections. But as the debate continues over Australia’s migration intake - experts say our politicians could be missing the point completely.
NSW Opposition leader Michael Daley has been called out for saying young people fleeing Sydney are being replaced by migrants.
“There’s a transformation happening in Sydney now where our kids are moving out and foreigners are moving in and taking their jobs,” he said in a video recorded in September last year.
Mr Daley has apologised for the comments, saying he didn’t mean to sound “racist” - but the immigration debate has taken hold in state and federal politics.
On the same day Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been tipped to slash Australia’s annual immigration intake by 30,000 a year - and he’s adamant concerns about congestion and infrastructure are not driven by racism.
But demographers - experts in population trends - are skeptical.
They say blaming migrants for failing infrastructure, congestion and unemployment doesn’t quite stack up. In fact, they say it’s “simplistic” and “annoying”. Here’s why:
Why we need migration
Australia has had some form of skilled migration program since the late 19th Century (remember the gold rush?), intended to fill skill shortages in the labour market.
With an ageing population, demand for skilled work has increased - meaning we’re moving toward a highly skilled workforce.
Right now, the federal government offers 128,500 places annually to skilled migrants.
Demographer at the Australian National University Dr Liz Allen believes that’s about right.
Because of the demographic trends in Australia, we need that level of immigration.
Sydney and Melbourne’s population has been increasing at about 100,000 a year and that’s mostly from migration. But unlike Melbourne, more than 18,000 people left Sydney for other parts of the country between 2016 and 2017.
But Dr Allen said the idea foreigners are "moving in and taking their jobs" is a lie.
“The idea that migrants are stealing our jobs is an absolute furphy,” she said.
She said Mr Daley’s comments - and most commentary around reducing migration - stinks of the “white flight” debate and feeds xenophobia.
“It perpetuates the idea that migrants are getting a better go,” she said.
“This is not a reality and it’s harmful discourse.”
While overseas migration number have increased, the demographics have also changed. More Chinese and Indian immigrants are in the country as skilled workers.
“We have seen a major change in what our migrants looks like, fuelling an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ debate” she said.
Dr Allen argues these migrants are fillings gaps in the workforce, rather than displacing Australian residents.
Easy to blame foreigners
Director of Research at The Demographics Group Simon Kuestenmache said Michael Daley’s comments were “at best off the cuff, at worst they were facetious”.
“When there is a statement that foreigners are taking newly created jobs, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“Why would any business go through the expense and paperwork involved with hiring a migrant worker if there was an Australian who could do the job?”
Mr Kuestenmache explains blaming infrastructure issues on population growth is scapegoating.
“It’s easier for politicians to blame migrants for failing infrastructure than admitting previous governments have made poor choices,” he said.
Mr Kuestenmache says a cut of 30,000 people - which the federal government is proposing - would not make a difference to congestion.
“The argument that taking migrants off the road would stop congestion is a gross simplification of a very complex system," he said.
Could spread out demographic
Sydney and Melbourne’s population is increasing at about 100,000 a year and that’s mostly from migration.
Growth in the regions and other capital cities has been much slower.
Mr Kuestenmache explains that building infrastructure in anticipation of population growth is expensive and does not reflect well on budgets.
He says ideally governments would focus on spreading out new migrants to other capitals and regional centres - which the Morrison government is proposing.
“Everywhere part from Melbourne and Sydney are desperate or growth, they could easily take more migrants.”