Donald Trump wants to make his immigration plan more like Australia’s. He said as much when it was released in August 2017 and again to Malcolm Turnbull during the prime minister’s visit to the US. He spoke in glowing terms about our “merit-based, competitive” points system.
Trump also said: “The (Australian) competitive application process will favour applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy.” I am sure this won’t go over well with some of my friends in the Labor Party, but I favour adopting elements of the US system and they can have ours.
The first thing to say about our system is that it is discriminatory. That discrimination was picked up by Trump – he wants to be like us and discriminate in favour of English speakers, the highly skilled and business migrants who bring cash. Trump’s view, which is the same as those who established our points system, is based on the idea that discrimination in favour of English or skills would result in more people coming from English-speaking countries.
It’s a miscalculation. In fact, there are large numbers of skilled applicants with basic English living in countries such as India, China and other parts of Asia who want to come here. But skilled English speakers in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Italy and France do not want to come here because they already have highly paid jobs and live comfortably.
The lower skilled with limited English from western countries do want to come here but they can’t get past our points system. That’s why migration from our traditional European sources has dried up.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s 2014 report The Place of Migrants in Contemporary Australia notes that migrants who arrived from the UK or Europe are more likely to have been in Australia since before 1970. Those who came from India, China or other Asian countries are more likely to be recent arrivals.
Most importantly, more than 80 per cent of the latter arrive through the migration program’s skill/English stream. Yet we still have large numbers who don’t speak adequate English because those migrants bring their relatives on the family reunion scheme.
Prime Minister Turnbull’s solution is to make the English test for citizenship tougher for those people. But that does not address the underlying issue.
So if Trump thinks that adopting our system will give him English speakers from Europe or Britain, he will be disappointed.
The fact is that Australian immigration is concentrated from a small number of countries in our region and that is changing our demography. It’s been amusing watching Tony Abbott and the Greens calling for a reduction in immigration and pretending that this has nothing to do with ethnicity. The Greens claim they want to protect the environment by cutting numbers but I believe they are appealing to those who just don’t want migrants to come here from certain countries.
So what’s different about the US system? Like us, the US has big programs around skills and family reunion and a small percentage of immigrants in a refugee program. But unlike us, the US has a Diversity Visa Program which allocates about 50,000 visas each year from countries with low rates of immigration to the US.
More importantly, US migration policy places limits on how many immigrants are allowed in from any one country. So no one group of immigrants can exceed seven per cent of the total in a single year.
People will say that if Australia were to adopt that system, it would be discriminatory – but here is the rub. As I have said, our policy is discriminatory anyway and I think there is value in controlling the mix of diversity.
I think we should consider a variant of the US diversity system. Firstly, the Labor Party, in particular, should not be afraid to enter the debate over the numbers from a purely infrastructure capability sense. We should be clear that in the longer term, we must maintain numbers that will result in consistent population growth in the face of vast numbers to our north – as Jeff Kennett has noted in these pages.
We should settle on long-term consistent population growth but debate diversity as a parallel goal: whether we should, for example, divide the world into regions with a proportion of our intake coming from Europe, Africa, Middle East, South America, Asia and so on. I think that will give people from all over the world a fair go in getting into Australia.
Diversity is the key. It is in those countries where there are very big minorities that problems emerge: Myanmar, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, even Germany and France. There is strength in diversity, so long as it is true diversity.
Theo Theophanous is a commentator and former state government minister. Read more on his blog theotheophanous.org