Australia’s unpredictable immigration system.

It has not taken long for consecutive Australian governments (Liberal and Labor) to dismantle what used to be a highly regarded and well-managed immigration system. Up until the early 1990’s family reunion and permanent independent skilled migration (mostly from Europe) was viewed as the optimum way to build the nation and maintain social cohesion. In the 1990’s this view of growing Australia was rejected by both Australia’s major parties. The start of the program dismantle process began with the ALP under Paul Keating and the implementation of temporary skilled-worker program carried out by a John Howard led Coalition government in 1996. [1]

The radical makeover of Australia’s migration program is now complete. Consecutive Australian governments have set about systematically overhauling the nation’s migration program through their migration policies. And not once have they asked the Australian public to have a say in this profound change in Australian society by way of a migration referendum. The polls and surveys on immigration intake (nearly all calling for a significant reduction) should have alerted Australian governments that the longer they deny the public a say on mass immigration the larger the democratic deficit grows.

We can see that Australia has made a permanent shift to temporary migration. Permanent settlement continues, entwined with a much larger program of temporary entry, which serves as the primary gateway to Australia.[2] Australia now has an extremely unpredictable migration program where employers picking from a huge number of online temporary visa applicants now control the large numbers coming in. The other major proponents of mass immigration are Industry lobbyists (i.e. Higher education, Property councils and Agricultural industries to name some) who seem to be able to pressure Governments’ into migration changes without much analysis required of the actual implications. And the latest ABS quarterly data shows how volatile the net overseas migration quarterly movements are under a loosely controlled migration system (see Figure 1 below).

Some big talking points in recent migration data.

The consequences of Australian politicians developing such a porous immigration system is that the costs and impacts are borne by Australian citizens living in the State and Territories. The Federal government have begun to bear some responsibility for this by providing States and Territories with $40 billion over the next 4 years for transport projects.[3] But this is not the solution. A much better way of controlling net overseas migration (NOM) is needed and the Morrison government have done nothing to solve this. In fact in their recent Budget paper they projected a significant increase in NOM for 2019 rising to 271,300. In the 2018 calendar year NOM reached 248,196, therefore if there predictions are correct the Federal government will oversee an increase of 9% in NOM.[4]

The evidence suggests that The Morrison government are not genuine about listening to the Australian public concerns on immigration propelled population growth. And reducing the cap on permanent migration by 30,000 will make no difference to Australia’s burgeoning temporary entrant arrivals. By the end of 2011 the numbers of long-term temporary visa holders with working rights in Australia stood at 676,566. The most recent quarterly snapshot ending September 2019 revealed this figure has nearly doubled to 1.3 million temporary working visas having shot up by 89% since 2011.[5] But the Federal government have not shown any interest to deal with this major component of NOM. Foreign student/working visas made up nearly half of the 1.3 million temporary visas. And interestingly a significant number of overseas students are also causing a blow out in applying for temporary bridging visas, which have also doubled since 2011. Comprising a substantial 229,000 visa holders (second only to foreign students) as at September 2019.[6]

Net overseas migration quarterly update.

Figure 1 below displays the quarterly NOM figure from June 1996 (when the temporary visa program was implemented), up to the March quarter 2019. The momentum under the temporary visa program shows a continual and significant move upwards depicted by a 4-point moving average trend (black line).

The lack of foresight by Australian politicians and their staff is in full view in Figure 1. Demonstrating that a raft of poor decisions by both the ALP and Federal Coalition shows no signs of producing responsible NOM trends to better manage immigration so that State infrastructure can catch up with population growth. Two policies stand out. One was the Howard Coalition government expanding the occupation demand list adding in qualifications in cooking, hospitality and hairdressing that could be gained with a one-year course of study. The vocational-training sector exploded with courses directly targeting this migration pathway, prompting a greater surge in foreign student numbers. In early 2008 a Kevin Rudd led ALP granted overseas students automatic working rights.[7] The outcome was the highest NOM on record, 315,687 migrants in the 2008 calendar year (see Figure 1 below).

Given those rapid growth immigration policies have had significant impacts in State infrastructure and residents quality of life. It would be reasonable to assume a better method used to underpin population policy would begin to take hold. Not so. In Western Australia the McGowan Labor government have decided to repeat the same mistakes (mentioned above) at the Federal level. Since elected in 2017 they have significantly widened State migration to include VET students in addition to over 200 occupations for foreign university students plus over 500 occupations for regional migrants.[8]

At the Federal and State level, it appears government’s are paying lip service to public concerns about immigration. To be expected therefore given the enormity of the visa program and it’s unregulated management, quarterly net migration reached one of the highest peaks in the past 24 years (see Figure 1 below). The ABS preliminary data showing NOM rising to just short of 87,000 long-term migrants for the March quarter 2019. Clearly trending in the right direction for the Scott Morrison government aim to significantly increase NOM and population growth into 2020.[9]Another important result from the March quarter was the big leap in the NOM portion of population growth reaching the highest on record at 73%. The only other period the migration portion of growth has been close to that level is when Australia had its highest ever NOM in the 2008 calendar year (see Figure 1 below).[10]

Figure 1: Net overseas migration quarterly data (1996 to 2019).

(Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2019.[11])


[1] Peter Mares, Not Quite Australian: How Temporary Migration Is Changing The Nation (The Text Publishing Company, 22 William Street, Melbourne, Australia, 2016).

[2] Peter Mares.

[3] Australian Government, ‘A Plan for Australia’s Future Population | Prime Minister of Australia’, 2019 <> [accessed 27 October 2019].

[4] Australian Government, ‘Budget Paper 2 | Budget 2019-20’, 2019 <> [accessed 3 April 2019].

[5] Australian Government, ‘Temporary Visa Holders in Australia | Datasets | Data.Gov.Au – Beta’, 2019 <> [accessed 19 November 2019].

[6] Australian Government, ‘Temporary Visa Holders in Australia | Datasets | Data.Gov.Au – Beta’.

[7] Harriet Spinks, ‘Overseas Students: Immigration Policy Changes 1997–2015’, Parliament of Australia, 2016 <> [accessed 14 July 2019].

[8] Government of West Australia, ‘Migration WA – Changes to Graduate Stream’, 2019 <> [accessed 31 October 2019].

[9] Australian Government, ‘Budget Paper 2 | Budget 2019-20’.

[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘3101.0 – Australian Demographic Statistics, Mar 2019’, 2019 <> [accessed 27 September 2019].

[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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