Unintended consequences: British immigration reforms and the Australian reaction

Fascinating tid-bit over at news.com.au on a potential new visa deal for Australians heading to the United Kingdom.

David Cameron’s government decided to bring net migration down to tens of thousands, instead of hundreds of thousands, as a response to the rise of anti-migrant politics. This policy decision was made despite being in the EU, an area of near limitless internal migration. To put this into perspective: Australia has a net migration figure roughly akin to the British figure as it is now, with a third of the population and labour force.

A net migration figure of tens of thousands for the U.K. is a pipe-dream and everybody knows it. I don’t think Australia could manage this without blowing up our immigration framework, something the Cameron government thought was a good idea.

However the Tories are ploughing ahead. Skilled workers and international students from outside Europe got the chop. There are only 20,000 permanent skilled visas available to non-EU citizens per year. In Australia, an equivalent number gets approved about every seven weeks (noting we are not in the EU).

This is called an immigration cap. It is arbitrary and, as the British government is discovering, doesn’t make much sense. Apart from the massive negative impact on universities and employers, it also tends to piss off people and countries who are used to something different.

The cherry on top? These measures have not worked, with net migration still running in the hundreds of thousands.

This is where Australia comes in. Australian citizens are finding they cannot emigrate to Britain anymore. Boris Johnson says this policy “discriminates” against Australians, a word News.com.au ran with in their lede. I’m struggling to understand how as it covers all non-EU countries but lets move on. Tony Abbott is apparently going to raise the issue with the British government it is causing so much damage. Anonymous officials say a work-around visa is being discussed.

The most interesting question – away from the British policy disaster – is why is this exception being considered? Why is News.com.au, a rabid, populist website dedicated to clickbait seemingly stumping for little Aussie emigrants?

Because the idea of going to London and living the high life still resonates with Australians. Scratch a bit deeper and you see the attraction that the opportunity to emigrate (if only for a little bit) produces a tingly feeling. How unfair is it that Australians are being punished because British policy is borked? Even the Prime Minister is going to take up the issue.

(Sidenote: I’m glad the Prime Minister is going to discuss this. Hopefully he makes emigration opportunities for Australians a standing issue with international leaders. Other leaders should be taking up this issue with Mr Cameron also.)

If an exception is made for Australia (which I don’t believe will be), the door opens and every Commonwealth country will be beating on the front of Number Ten. This in turn will impact on the level of net migration, making it even more difficult for the Cameron government to meet its target.

The next time you read about capping immigration to Australia, think about this flipside from the point of view of an emigrant. Think about those people – in the United Kingdom – pining to come to Australia and unable to. It’s OK to worry about the impact on migrants on jobs (if that’s your thing) but a more balanced consideration of all the issues at stake will have improved policy implications over the long-term.

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