Australian immigration in the 21st century (Part 2)

This is the second in a two part series about Australian immigration in the 21st century. See Part 1 here

Unlike some European and American cities, Australian migrants have not historically lived in tight clusters. It is true many areas are known for their immigrant flavour but intergenerational locational and social mobility has been strong. Indeed, second generation kids do better at school than the average student. This is also reflected in strong English language skills. However there are signs this is slowly changing as diversity increases from recent levels of high immigration.

The Scanlon Foundation ‘Mapping Social Cohesion’ surveys, Australia’s pre-eminent research into immigration and diversity, aims to show emerging social cohesion trends. Over the last seven years, Australian’s have had a high and stable sense of belonging. This means we are proud of the Australian way of life and culture.

Table 4 Scanlon

(Source: Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion surveys)

But there has been a sustained negative trend in the sense of rejection.  There is an increasing pessimism about the future and the experience of discrimination is rising. Author Andrew Markus says this is a real challenge for the future but one that is not uniformly bad news:

“If you look at non-English speaking background migrants, the large majority share the Australian dream – work hard and you get on. This makes Australia very different from a number of countries. When you get many people agreeing that you can work hard but you don’t get on, that’s a bad result for a society.”

What is of concern is the increasing attitudinal difference between new migrants and third generation Australians. In 2012, the survey picked up a heightened disenchantment from third generation Australians on whether the impact of immigration was positive or negative. Markus says increasing cultural diversity is partly driving these social trends:

“We are finding increasing segmentation of major cities; the Census provides evidence of a movement away from areas of immigrant concentration by third generation Australians. If you measure diversity by language use, which encapsulates second generation migrants, you find some areas of Sydney and Melbourne which are 90 per cent non-English speaking background. Each Census shows us more of this.”

It is no coincidence that these local areas – such as the outer west in Sydney and south-east in Melbourne – are also areas of high population growth. As Australia’s population has grown, the rate of diversity has increased from 21 per cent in 1996 to 27 per cent in 2011. The majority of new migrants don’t live in the CBD (except for the unique geography of international students) but in the suburbs.

Laurie Ferguson says this change contributes to a ‘nuanced difference’ of social attitudes to immigration between the inner city and the suburbs because “when your space is affected, you have a different attitude to when its not”. Ferguson, a parliamentarian since 1990 for two electorates in suburban Sydney, is most worried about the perceptions around safety and trust. He says he has a number of associates in the ALP who have moved to suburban Sydney from the inner city and now hold dramatically different views on these issues.

“The question of ‘my space’, ‘my neighbour’ doing certain things that give people the shits, is something which contributes. People raise the issue of not being able to buy pork in their butcher shop any more. I hear this pretty regularly. This isn’t a big issue but a small example of space in people’s lives.”

While some might cringe at these comments, sentiment such as this is critical to understand how social change is difficult. These factors play a strong role in how society understands immigration and diversity. Where we live will have a large and permanent impact on how one understands immigration in Australia. In a period of rising diversity and rising population, disparate social and economic groups of people are likely to think very differently about the impacts of immigration.

This understanding is also reinforced by where you work. Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh:

“If you are a worker in an industry which is seeing a big influx of migrants, we should expect you to have a different attitudes to migration than if you’re a worker in an industry that is seeing no influx.”

This is a difficult message to intuit.

There is an ongoing meme that says when different people come together, see and live amongst difference, bias is erased and compassion bred. Unfortunately the evidence for this appears to be mixed at best. Robert Putnam, the leading sociologist on the link between diversity and community, has found “immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital”. If you feel a migrant is replacing your job, how you feel about Australian society and a ‘fair go’ will inevitably change.

This is prevalent in the short term. Helpfully, and more encouraging, new identities for communities are forged over the long-term which encompass immigrants. Australia has ample evidence of this. “It’s not incomprehensible to me that Anglo-Australian’s in the 1950s got nervous when they saw Greeks and Italians”, says Leigh. Sometimes we forget these important historical lessons. Australia has a history of excellent integration over generations.

This explains, but does not excuse, political rhetoric in search of a short-term gain. Why were Prime Minister Gillard’s comments conflating foreigners and unemployment in 2013 so damaging? Instead of seeking to explain the complex, Gillard tapped into the discontent. A Prime Minister’s role should be to rise above it and help shape the long-term success that we know immigration can become. How we ensure this generation of migrants settle well into Australian society – something far from inevitable – is critical.

Unlike some European cities, race riots are a foreign concept in Australia, with Cronulla the major exception. Riots have come to represent to very worst of European society where migrant communities are increasingly geographically, socially and economically separated from their hosts. This is a mark of societies divided by skin colour and religion, occurring in places as unlikely as prosperous, social-democratic Sweden.

In Australia last year, a brief instance of street violence between indigenous and Pacific Islander communities in Logan, south-east Brisbane grabbed the attention of news headlines, only to be forgotten a week later. Perhaps it was the lack of Molotov cocktails or riot police but this small instance of social division points to a more uncertain future as two decades of economic growth slows and encapsulates Markus’ concerns about segmentation.

At the time, Andrew Laming found himself in the middle of this short national discussion after conflating indigenous disadvantage, migrant dependency and welfare in fewer than 140 characters. Twitter is many things, but the appropriate medium to discuss social divisions in suburban Australia it is not.

Away from the immediacy of those events, Laming says this is a serious issue:

“There is concern about islander migration through New Zealand, increasing social problems. In reality this represents a sub-population completely disengaged from society. No mutual obligation, excluded from welfare. This is a real problem and I think it will be looked at by this government.”

Laming’s concerns about the prevalence of Pacific islander’s entering Australia through our open door migration policy with New Zealand are shared by others in Canberra. Since 2001, New Zealand citizens can only become permanent residents and gain eligibility for welfare and social support through the standard visas. This is despite having the right to live and work in Australian permanently on temporary visas. This disconnet from the government safety net is dangerous. Living and working in Australia but technically set apart from everyone else. For some of these people, English may be a distant language and unemployment means a complete lack of basic income, as they are ineligible for NewStart.

Andrew Markus’ latest work shows these concerns are not baseless. In Logan, the Brisbane suburb where the violence occurred, 15 per cent of the population were born in New Zealand or the Pacific. A full 43.7 per cent of the population are born overseas, compared to 27 per cent of Australia as a whole. Social cohesion in Logan is gravely ill. Compared to the national average, every indicator for the Scanlon index is below average. For social justice and equity, there is a massive disparity of 38 percentage points between the national average of 97 and the Logan figure of 59. The sense of rejection is 16 percentage points lower than the national average. People living in Logan feel excluded, rejected and disenchanted compared to people who live elsewhere.

Markus says this is largely responsible for the lack of identification with Australia many New Zealanders have when living in here:

“The New Zealander’s are a huge issue. This is an issue that the government knows is becoming more concerning but who is working seriously on a fix?”

There are only a limited number of ways to improve this situation. The simple, cheap method would see the government limit the arrival of New Zealand citizens or radically alter the existing agreement between Australia and New Zealand on people movement. This would run counter to Australia’s recent history of immigration, an act of exclusion based largely on ethnicity, given the issue has been defined as one concerning Pacific islanders. The precedent would be extreme, unfortunate and retrograde.

Another option is to fundamentally revisit the need to support of those in the community who require it to participate in Australia, both economically and socially. Extending English classes to those who cannot speak English would be a start. Allowing New Zealand citizens to access university funding akin to Australians would be another welcome policy change. These people are Australian in everything but passport. Having lived here for years, the sense of exclusion they demonstrate is perhaps the most worrying ongoing concern for Australia’s sense of social cohesion.

Regardless of the migration and welfare policies, the figures also show the critical role of socio-economic factors play. With an unemployment rate of 13.2 per cent, Logan ranks in the top three percentile of all postcodes for soci0-economic disadvantage in 2011. These are the reasons why 58 per cent of those living in Logan believe immigration is too high, compared to 42 per cent nationally, despite 16.7 per cent of the Logan population arriving between 2000-11. Creating economic opportunity would see social cohesion improve on the back of higher incomes and reduced disadvantage. Feeding the beast with messages about foreigners should be a long way from the politician’s mind.

Fostering a sense of community for those who feel excluded is critical. Of course, this is only one example of a highly frustrated sub-set of people. There are many other, more positive examples of communities. Markus highlights those who most closely identify with Australia are those of Indian ethnicity. Yet by ignoring that which is difficult, we are risking a permanent division between those who have opportunity in Australia and those who do not.

Laming isn’t content simply to comment on the issue of New Zealand citizens however.  He parlays his concerns about social integration into much broader questions about the labour market and labour mobility and what this means in the 21st century:

“There is a real welfare question around mobility of labour. Certainly workers 16 to 21 should be expected to move for suitable work with appropriate relocation assistance and if they refuse two offers, I don’t see why they should continue receiving Newstart.”

He goes so far as to caveat support for further increases in skilled immigration on this type of welfare reform. This would be a radical rethinking of immigration and welfare, policy areas not typically fused together.

On the surface, these policy discussions may appear a long way from arguing about the amount of people who should come to Australia. Yet as the labour market drives immigration, population considerations weave in and out of various domestic policy agendas. Laming’s ideas are well outside the mainstream yet over time these thoughts may come to play a more dominant role.

While I disagree with Laming’s policy solutions, there is an undeniable link between labour mobility and immigration. Jeff Borland, an economist at Melbourne University, has explored the decline of people movement between states. In the decade to 2013, inter-state migration dropped by the equivalent of 130,000 people.

Immigration is one of the reasons for this decrease. Borland finds a closer match between the number of migrants arriving in a state and job creation. This reflects the demand-driven nature of immigration in the 21st century yet few would have expected effects as substantial as reducing inter-state migration.

Labour mobility is critical in a workforce that ebbs and flows amongst its constituent parts. Retail might be slack in Brisbane but booming in Perth. As manufacturing declines, an increasing share of job opportunities might be found in more dense urban areas. Mobility of a workforce allows these opportunities to be explored, softening an otherwise hard landing for those without work.

Unnoticed, away from the front pages, these are the policy impacts stemming from the immigration policy revolution outlined in Part 1. Our space is the common denominator to this social context. Ethnic segmentation, divergent social attitudes and labour mobility are all being directly or indirectly influenced by Australia’s new immigration framework. Yet, on these topics of policy importance, the silence from government, the bureaucracy and those who benefit from immigration is deafening. Just as we are largely unaware about how immigration policy has transformed, we are yet to explore how these policy changes are shaping critical social constructs.

This clash between the economic fundamentals of immigration and the social impact on how people live and work is real. It is also unrelenting. The next question is how to mitigate the worst impacts and harness the most positive aspects of immigration and population. As Australia has shown successfully, and as Europe has failed at historically, the role for government is central in this task.

(See Part One here)

Australian immigration in the 21st century (Part 1)

This is the first in a two part series about Australian immigration in the 21st century

Two symbols of Australian suburban life – the Hills-Hoist and the lawnmower –were broadcast to the world at the Sydney Olympics. Both command attention in backyards across the country, most of which are more than big enough to play cricket in. At the dawn of the 21st century, a bemused global audience caught a glimpse of how we see ourselves. Above all, our space – an entire continent to ourselves – embodied an idyllic Australian lifestyle.

This is the heart of the our population debate. More people means less space. This sentiment fused with electoral politics makes for uncomfortable public policy and strange bedfellows.

The most recent iteration of this potent mix was seen in 2010. A new Prime Minister ran from her predecessor’s policy agenda and a future Prime Minister surveyed the political landscape and made the easy call. Divisive public opinion provided the foundation for ‘a great big new tax’ and ‘stop the boats’. Yet even in this period of heightened political division, bipartisanship in Canberra was far from extinct.

A ‘sustainable Australia’ was born.

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott campaigned almost in tandem. Abbott called immigration ‘out of control’, Gillard created a Minister for Population and Sustainability and we were promised a Productivity and Sustainability Commission from a Coalition government, which was inevitably scrapped very quietly.

In the four years since, sustainability has been incorporated as a buzzword into the political lexicon, littered within endless talking points and speeches.

This bipartisanship shades the truth. A big Australia is here to stay. Whatever the word sustainable once meant, it must incorporate at least 36 million people by 2050. Sam Dastyari uses his own word to describe the 2010 debate: rhetoric.

“When Gillard redefined the issue from a big Australia to a sustainable Australia, it was actually more rhetoric than policy. It was rhetoric. Rather than embrace it and debate, we’ll redefine it into a less scary concept. There was obviously politics in that. Rhetoric not being matched by policy change was actually disingenuous but everyone is in on it. The Conservatives have got in and nothing at this point indicates anything serious in terms of the broader immigration framework but again, it’s almost as if there is this secret that everyone is in on.”

In his short time in Parliament, Dastyari has become the poster boy for a big Australia.

“It’s become this huge taboo in politics, talking about immigration, talking about population. This is the most significant challenge that is going to be facing us in the next 20-30 years”

This taboo doesn’t apply to Dastyari. A pivotal figure in the much-storied NSW Right faction of the ALP, his position in the Senate allows him a wide berth to explore the controversial. The fact he is Iranian-born is nearly lost in the whirlwind that trails him down the corridors of Parliament House. As his colleagues focus on the deterioration of manufacturing across the eastern seaboard or defend the union movement from another conservative advance, it is easy to dismiss his claims as hyperbolic.

Yet hyperbole it is not. Current rates of net migration are trending above historical levels, something demographic forecasters have had trouble with, making future projections almost impossible. In 2001, the Treasury in the first intergenerational report based its long-term net migration rate at 90,000 per year. A decade later in the third intergenerational report, this number had doubled to 180,000 per year, creating the magic 36m figure where public debate floundered on. As we await the next iteration of the intergenerational report, current net migration trends are hovering at about 240,000 per year. 36m is likely to become 38-40m.

Dastyari is right there is a secret about immigration policy. You’ll find very few politicians who will seriously discuss the issue. Unlike other economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, no politician has been able to explain to a sceptical public how and why a bipartisan consensus exists on the wholesale reform immigration policy has undertaken in the past two decades. This starts with a simple yet somewhat uncomfortable truth: with economic growth, comes immigration growth.

Historically, the federal government picked the number of immigrants to enter Australia every year. This was loosely based on the unemployment rate and strength of the economy. These migrants were provided permanent visas, as the vast majority settled in Australia, a concept in direct contrast to many European countries, where temporary migration was the norm.

Two major policy changes in the 1990s transformed Australia’s immigration framework.

These were the introduction and expansion of temporary visa programs such as 457, student and working holiday visas and the shift away from family reunion towards skilled migration. Bipartisan in nature, there has not been a set of policy changes in the past two decades designed specifically to limit migration in any way whatsoever.

Taken together, these reforms lay the foundation of a ‘demand-driven’ immigration system where demand from the labour market and universities largely determines the number of people who immigrate to Australia. Like interest and exchange rates, immigration has changed from a policy wholly determined by government to one where the market plays the dominant role.

This has not removed government agency from immigration policy. Governments establish boundaries through various program settings but cannot determine the exact number of immigrants who come to Australia each year. Economic growth, such as the much touted 23 years without a recession, will bring more people. This is why the past decade has seen such large increases in population projections.

I ask Bob Carr how he would see a lower rate of population growth. He calls for the government to lower the level of permanent visas in the annual budget process. But he doesn’t touch on the policy settings behind student, 457 or working holiday visas, all of which are increasingly doing the legwork on population growth. These are complex programs now interwoven in our labour market, higher education sector and foreign relationships, arising in the last two decades without the accompanying percolating public discussion akin to how we discuss home loans.

We do not understand immigration as a market driven institution but this is exactly what it is. By constantly relying on politicians to set a limit without acknowledging the policy transformation, we are poorer in our understanding.

Elsewhere in Parliament, particularly with the loss of Bob Carr, you find the very same support for immigration and a larger population. Andrew Laming, a Harvard-educated, beer-swilling, Liberal MP represents the electorate of Bowman, a suburban seat in Brisbane’s east.

“On population growth I regard myself of supporter of what we are currently doing. I’m very comfortable with the current growth and wouldn’t dream of any slower.”

From different sides of the political divide, Dastyari and Laming represent the dominant view in Canberra on population.  This bipartisanship emerged as Australia’s period of economic sunshine began in the 1990s. Dastyari calls this “a secret political consensus” on immigration and population, a journey where the public have been left behind.

Those outside this consensus who advocate for a lower rate of immigration, such as former Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, agree with Dastyari’s central point – how difficult it is to talk about Australia’s population. Says Carr:

“Governments in Canberra have traditionally assumed they can ramp up immigration without any accountability and whenever it surfaces as an issue, I’m struck by the fact that Australian’s have made it pretty clear they don’t accept the simple arguments for a bigger Australia”.

I ask Dastyari if this is simply because no one talks about population or if there is something deeper, a wariness of what this conversation might unearth.

“No-one likes change. People are comfortable and change is an unknown. Historically there has been this sense of the Australian psyche which is wrong, that we are this lucky country with this amazing land of prosperity and peace and someone is going to come and take it away from us.”

Bob Carr on the other hand sees the delineation of federal and state jurisdictions as an important factor. He mentions the oft-cited call by federal governments for an infrastructure response to immigration as not being borne out historically.

“I’ve never seen a federal government – Liberal or Labor – make a serious commitment to the nations cities since the era of Whitlam. No subsequent prime minister has shown any commitment to the quality of urban life”.

These are sharp words for his own side, as the ALP oversaw six years of strong population growth from 2007-2013.

Peter Lewis is a director with Essential Media Communication and has tracked public opinion on population.

“Our leaders don’t want a debate about population, they know they can’t win on a ‘big Australia’. Instead they allow immigration to quietly increase while creating panics around specific groups. The slogan trumps the big issue.”

Lewis’ comments about an inability to win a ‘big Australia’ debate are concerning given Bob Carr is hardly inventing what is a genuine public concern about population.

Following the 2010 election campaign, 47 per cent thought there were too many migrants arriving. This tapered off to 42 per cent last year but remains in the top handful of issues raised by voters after the traditional staples of the economy, health and education.

This entrenched gulf between the public and the political class is dangerous. The result is tokenistic urban planning frameworks across capital cities, devoid of vision and detached from reality.

Exhibit A is Infrastructure Australia’s National Priority List. The largest ‘transforming our cities’ project – the Melbourne Metro – is classified as “only not ready to proceed due to a small number of outstanding issues” despite the fact Premier Napthine has likened the Metro plan for Swanston St akin to the Berlin Wall. There is a lack of transformative infrastructure projects simply awaiting approval.

This even extends to where we live. The Grattan Institute has found Australians have strongly divergent preferences about the housing we live in now as opposed to the housing we want to live in. Something is not quite right.

This is where the politics of population crashes up against a brutal reality about sustainability. Policy and discussion are kept in the backroom instead of the front page. Peter Lewis believes politicians have convinced themselves this debate is ‘unwinnable’ because of a reliance on focus groups.

“It’s not impossible. When people think this is simply a choice between development and no development they opt for the status quo. But when you tell them the population will grow, regardless of who is in power, they accept this and are prepared to engage in a debate about what sort of development we should have.”

We now have a sustainable in name, market driven by nature immigration policy that will push Australia’s population past 36m by 2050.

The 20th century lifestyle celebrated in the Olympics by our love for traditional quarter acre is already in the rear view mirror.

The question is not how many people but what does this mean for Australia? The social and economic impacts on Australia are lost in the debate over the headline figure.

(See Part Two here)