Surveys ranking the electoral significance of political issues consistently find economic issues are ranked first, followed by health and education. Population issues and asylum, along with the environment, rank as second level issues.
One of the most recent surveys, conducted in July 2013 by Essential Research, asked respondents for the “three most important issues” in deciding their vote at the federal election. It found just 9% indicated “managing population growth” and 14 per cent rated “treatment of asylum seekers” as important, up from 6 per cent in November 2012 and 11 per cent in June 2013.
The broader context for population issues at this election is the above average population growth in recent years. Over the period 1970–2010 annual population growth averaged 1.4 per cent. There has been above average growth in six in the past seven years, with a peak at 2.2 per cent in 2008.
In 2012, Australia’s population increased by an estimated 394,200 to reach close to 23 million. Of this increase, 60 per cent was contributed by overseas migration and 40 per cent by natural increase. The highest growth was in Western Australia, where the population grew by 3.5 per cent, followed by the ACT (2.3 per cent) and Queensland (2.0 per cent).
Immigration policy has undergone substantial change in recent years with the majority of migrants arriving on long-stay rather than permanent visas, as well as the substantial migration of people from New Zealand, who gain settlement here but limited rights. The magnitude and significance of these changes is little understood in public discussion.
The biggest categories of long-term admissions are overseas students, business visa holders and working holiday makers. The long-term intake was designed to be flexible and self-regulating, providing benefits to Australia in terms of labour supply, notably through the employer-driven 457 visa program.
The large numbers of overseas students, who bring benefits to our university sector through fees and enriching student interaction, also have work rights while in Australia. Long-stay visas entail tax obligations but do not confer welfare benefits and hence limits cost to government. There is, however, the risk of developing an under-class – an issue that is gaining attention with regard to arrivals from New Zealand.
Controversies in migration policy
Population issues have sparked a range of controversies in recent years. One concerned the rate of population growth, an issue that figured prominently in the 2010 election with the Liberal Partypresenting a policy to cut immigration and Labor arguing that reduction to the intake had already been made.
The issue in part stemmed from the 2010 Intergenerational Report, which projected an Australian population of 35.9 million in 2050 on the basis of a relatively conservative estimate of annual population growth of 1.2 per cent. In the ensuing debate, supporters of growth were characterised as the advocates of a “Big Australia”.
Most opinion polls between 2007 and 2012 have indicated majority support for the immigration intake. The Scanlon Foundation surveys, the one consistent measure of attitudes over these years, found that in four of the five surveys, support for immigration was close to 55 per cent with a substantial minority of almost 40 per cent who considered the intake to be too high. Reasons for concern were tested in the 2011 Scanlon Foundation survey and the greatest concern was with the overcrowding of cities.
Students have been motivated to study in Australia by the expectation that they would enhance their path to permanent residence. There was much disappointment in 2010 when the government introduced a changed points system, greatly reducing the occupations scored favourably in applications for residence.
Students in Australia have also reported many cases of racist attacks with a crisis in 2009 sparked by violence against Indian students, including acts of murder. The number of overseas students had increased rapidly between 2005 and 2009, from 192,775 to 386,258. Since the 2009 peak, there has been a decline to 307,050 in June 2012 and significantly, the number of Indian students has declined from 91,920 in 2009 to 38,029 in 2012.
One current controversy concerns 457 visas holders, who are entitled to an initial residence of up to four years. The number of 457 visa holders reached 162,230 in June 2012.
In June 2013 the Labor government, responding to criticisms that local workers were being denied job opportunities and employers were exploiting foreign workers – claims contested by industry groups – secured the passage of amended legislation to ensure that foreign workers are introduced only to fill genuine skill shortages. The changes require employers to first test the labour market by job advertisement and there is increased funding for inspections to ensure that wages and work conditions are not undercut. The legislation passed without Opposition support.
The asylum seeker dilemma
By far the most prominent issue in 2013 relating to immigration concerns the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. While asylum is not strictly an immigration issue, it is seen as such by a significant section of the electorate.
Analysis of Google searches over the last twelve months indicates that between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of people use the terms “illegal immigrant” and “boat people” when seeking information on asylum seekers, with the highest proportion using such terms in Western Australia.
When Scanlon Foundation surveys asked respondents why asylum seekers were seeking to enter Australia, by far the most common response to an open ended question was that they “came for a better life”.
The asylum seeker issue has sparked controversy in earlier times, with the 2001 election fought on the rallying cry of prime minister John Howard that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. The Howard government introduced a range of policy innovations, including temporary protection visas and the so-called “Pacific Solution”, entailing off-shore processing for asylum seekers.
In following years the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat fell sharply from an annual average of close to 3,500 between 1999-00 and 2001-02, to just 40 per annum over the next six years. Following the repeal by Labor of key elements of the Howard policy in 2008, there has been a steady increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat from 668 in 2008-09 to an unprecedented 25,000 in 2012-13.
While the exact cost of the increase is not readily available, the core budget allocation increased from A$112 million in 2008-2009 to $1.05 billion in 2011-12, and now an estimated $2.867 billion for 2013-14.
Attempts by the Gillard government to halt or reduce arrivals failed, despite the reintroduction in August 2012 of offshore processing on Manus Island and Nauru and the introduction of a “no advantage” policy, whereby those arriving by boat gain no advantage over refugees who apply overseas for protection in Australia. On July 19 this year, the Rudd government announced that those arriving by boat would be sent to Papua New Guinea and would have no prospect of being settled in Australia.
The 2013 change in Labor policy arguably left little difference between the policies of the two major parties. The Greens, in contrast, advocate the closure of Australia’s offshore detention centres; completion of health, security and identity checks in a maximum of 30 days; the fostering of regional cooperation to deal with the asylum problem; and an increase in the annual refugee intake by 10,000 to 30,000. The stated aim of the policy is to stop people smuggling by presenting refugees and asylum seekers with a viable alternative to risking their lives at sea.
The asylum issue sharply polarises the electorate, with a number of polls finding less than 30 per cent of the population support permanent settlement in Australia for asylum seekers arriving by boat. Essential Research surveyed respondents to see if they supported the Labor policy of settling all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat in Papua New Guinea and found 61 per cent approval and 28 per cent disapproval.
Irrespective of the electoral outcome, it is likely that there will be difficulties in the short to medium term in halting the arrival of asylum seekers by boat or the protests in offshore detention centres, and the increasing polarisation of Australian society.
Professor Andrew Markus works in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University.
This article has appeared on The Conversation.
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