There were lots of really dumb and desperate things said during the Brexit referendum campaign, by both the Remain and the Leave sides. But one of the silliest comments was uttered by Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, who said that adopting an Australian-style immigration system could “crash the economy”.
Oh come on.
Was he being serious?
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the now discredited UK Chancellor, George Osborne, declared that implementing a points-based immigration system like Australia’s was “fantasy politics” that would lead to a rise in net migration. The evidence for this proposition was Australia has higher net migration per head than the UK, while ignoring the fact that this outcome is an explicit decision made by the Australian government.
Why would these fervent Remainers say such ill-informed and asinine things? After all, for non-EU citizens, the UK does in effect run a points-based immigration system. Just ask young Australians about the difficulties of getting a visa to work in the UK. There are age restrictions, income restrictions and certain occupations are favoured over others. And many of them are booted out after their visas expire.
Since April this year, non-EU skilled workers can only secure a visa to work in the UK if they earn £35,000 ($63,000) per year or more. And there is an overall cap of 20,700 per year on their number.
Messrs Cameron and Osborne, this is a points-based immigration system. It just doesn’t apply to EU citizens who have a right to reside in any EU country they wish and to avail themselves of all the public services and welfare benefits accessible to local citizens of the country in which they choose to live.
It was extremely unwise of the British Prime Minister to suggest he could reduce immigration to the UK to less than 100,000 per year — he even talked about 10,000 — under the current EU rules. With more than 300,000 immigrants making their way to the UK each year, mainly EU citizens, it was never possible for Cameron to make good his promise as long as Britain remained a full member of the EU. The binding rules simply prevented this outcome.
And what about this furphy that per capita net overseas migration is higher in Australia than the UK, thus rendering a points-based system “fantasy politics”? If we look at the chart above there is a reasonably stable pattern of net overseas migration (NOM) to Australia.
But here’s the rub: the biggest component of the NOM is students (mainly higher education), who make up more than one quarter of all arrivals according to the latest figures. Indeed, temporary entrants (who also include 457 visa holders, working holiday makers and visitors, as well as students) make up more than half of all arrivals.
In terms of the permanent migration program, the government sets annual targets for three categories: skill, family and humanitarian. The skill category is the largest by far — more than twice as large as the family intake.
The points system applies to migrants entering under the skill category. Factors such as age, English-language ability, qualifications and occupation are taken into account. Note also those who enter under the skill visa category are not entitled to receive any welfare benefits from the Australian government for a period of two years. There are also some restrictions that apply to family entrants.
The humanitarian intake is the smallest of the three permanent categories — skill, family and humanitarian — making up less than 7 per cent of the total permanent intake and 3 per cent of all arrivals.
We also permit New Zealanders to come and go; more recently, they have shown a great propensity to go rather than come. There are also some restrictions placed on their entitlement to welfare and subsidised higher education. The bottom line is this: Australia has run an orderly and rational immigration program based on restricted permanent entry and large temporary entry.
To be sure, quite a few temporary entrants — graduating students and 457 visa holders — end up staying, but they are issued permanent visas within the annual limits and generally under the skill category. Mind you, trying before you buy makes a lot of sense when it comes to migrating.
Also note that skill migrants have very high rates of employment and earn as much as Australian workers. According to figures from the Department of Immigration, 85 per cent of skill migrants are either employed or running their own business five years after arriving.
How Cameron could possibly think that implementing an Australian-style points-based immigration system could crash the UK economy is anyone’s guess. In fact, there would be many economic upsides were the UK to follow our policy. Of course, immigration policy is not just about economics, something that was very apparent in the referendum campaign. People prefer a sense of control over immigration and their government putting their wellbeing ahead of others.
In that sense, Australia has the balance right, even though there can be some debate about the size of the annual permanent intake and the conditions attached to the various entry categories. And by securing the borders against asylum seekers arriving by boat, Australians can have confidence in the broad integrity of our immigration program. Britain has a lot to learn from us.
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