Until recently, the debate on immigration has been about reducing numbers, driven by high unemployment and seeking to protect jobs for locals. Two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration has returned to the spotlight amid nationwide skills shortages and intense competition for the best and brightest. This is an issue we have researched intensively as part of our Race to the Top project to ensure that Western Australia builds a workforce to meet future needs. Our research shows that immigration has been critical to meeting the labour and skill needs in Western Australia. While the removal of travel restrictions may bring some relief to the worker shortages, it is unlikely to result in a significant inflow of immigrants into the State over the short-term.
Now is an opportune time to redirect the discussion on the role of immigration from beyond meeting the short-term cyclical labour market fluctuations towards long-term goals to shape the State and Nation’s cultural and economic aspirations, and global positioning.
To manage the post-World War II reconstruction amid critical labour shortages, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, declared that Australia must ‘populate or perish’. This resulted in a policy to grow the population by 2% per year, with 1% of that growth to be based on immigration. The intake of immigrants from European countries, followed by increased arrivals from non-European countries since the 1970s, created a multicultural Australia.
From 1996, Australia’s permanent immigration programme shifted to skilled immigration. Since then, the narrative on whether the number of immigrants intake was too high or too low has been a constant in the political debate. Community views have also changed, with a Scanlon Foundation survey reporting in 2018 that around 44% of people surveyed thought the number of immigrants accepted into Australia was too high; however, notably, this number fell to 31% in 2021.
Immigration has made significant contributions to Australia’s economic diversity—for example, through population growth, fiscal impacts, building a skilled workforce and contributing to innovation and investment, to name a few. While not easily quantifiable, immigration has instigated cultural connectivity between Australia and countries across the world and introduced new consumer markets for products and produce. However, immigration – like any other form of population growth has placed pressures on demand for housing, infrastructure and other services, particularly in capital cities.
Since there are costs and benefits to immigration, the discussion should expand beyond what is an acceptable number of immigrants and become a more strategic discourse. A community-wide dialogue is needed to understand the role of immigration in achieving our aspirations of a skilled workforce, diversifying our industries, population building and creating an inclusive and multicultural society.
A shared view of the future role of immigration will enable the Albanese Government to overhaul policy so that it better reflects the broad contributions of immigrants—economic, social and cultural. This will provide certainty both to those who already live here and those who we are seeking to attract.