Residency & citizenship
The immigration debate is generally between those who want fewer people to come to Australia and those who are happy with continued high (or higher) immigration. I think both groups are right.
I agree with defenders of immigration on the economic, social and environmental arguments.
The evidence shows that foreign workers unambiguously help our economy by providing extra skills, a bigger market, and more opportunities for trade. For economists, this outcome is no surprise. Restrictions on labour movement is just as costly as restrictions on trade or restrictions on foreign investment.
Likewise, the environmental complaint has little weight. There are many countries and cities around the world that easily cater for a greater population density on less arable land and with fewer resources available. Technology and trade has solutions for all these problems. The greenhouse argument is the weakest of all. When a person moves from New Zealand to Australia that may increase Australia’s greenhouse emissions, but it will not increase the global greenhouse emissions.
The social argument is more difficult to assess because there is no easy way to measure social harmony, but there is no reason to think that people from around the world can’t live in harmony side by side. Indeed, Australia is an immigrant country and has already successfully mixed people from the UK, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Vietnam, China and many other countries. Around the world, large minority populations flourish. Malaysia’s Chinese population makes up 20% of their country, while in some Gulf countries, workers from Pakistan and India outnumber the locals without trouble.
New immigrants do bring elements of their home culture with them. For some, this is a significant benefit as we have more access to good Indian food, can celebrate Chinese New Year (gong xi fa cai), and practice speaking Russian. Some Australians don’t enjoy foreign cultures and prefer to stick with other Australians similar to themselves. I think that is an absolutely legitimate lifestyle choice that inner-city sophisticates should learn to respect. But the beauty of immigration in a free country is that you can choose to eat meat pies instead of Indian curry, celebrate Christmas and ignore Chinese New Year, and play cricket instead of learning Russian. Multiculturalism should not be compulsory.
However, there are two problems with immigration that I think are more problematic — access to welfare and the impact on our democracy.
Australian taxpayers cannot afford to (and shouldn’t have to) pay for the health and welfare of anybody who wants to come to our country. Consequently, it is sometimes claimed that we cannot have a liberal immigration system until we have reformed the health and welfare system.
The second problem is less obvious, but just as problematic. A democracy is only as good as the voters. A continued stream of new voters coming from countries with different (and sometimes incompatible) values can undermine elements of our government that we find important.
I don’t think that different values are a problem so long as they relate to the private sphere, but when these values translate into politics they can be imposed on everybody. Some Australians understandably are concerned about the possibility of Sharia law, while others reject the authoritarian tendencies of some people from a Confucianist background.
Consequently, even if you accept that immigrants are not a threat to social harmony (as I do) it is still possible to prefer low levels of immigration to ensure that new arrivals don’t bias our political system towards policies you don’t want.
The “low immigration” v “high immigration” debate is a false dichotomy because it doesn’t draw a distinction between residents and citizens. I suggest that the benefits of immigration come from residency and the costs of immigration are linked to citizenship, and so the solution is to make it easier to come to Australia, but harder to become an Australian citizen.
This is the approach that is already used by many countries around the world, including developed countries such as Singapore and Japan.
The new “resident” category could build on the current “work visa” and “study visa” systems, but be made more liberal. Residents should be able to study and/or work without restrictions and stay in Australia as long as they like. They would still be required to extend their “residency visa” periodically and show that they have a place to live and a source of income (perhaps including a “bond” which they would get back later). Residents would be required to take out private health insurance, pay the unsubsidised price for any education, and would not be eligible for welfare payments. These are the same requirements that currently exist for people on a study visa.
Not only would residents add value to the country without the associated welfare and democracy problems, they would also have a strong incentive to follow the laws because they could have their residency visa revoked. The absence of welfare and the ability to deport residency should remove any remaining fear people have of immigrant violence.
After a certain period of time, residents should be able to apply to become “permanent residents” who would then have access to government health, education and welfare (as is the current system). Applying for PR should not be a simple process — including a time requirement (perhaps 5-10 years), a cost (an “immigration tariff”), and a range of economic, social and legal requirements such as proof of financial stability and references from Australian citizens. If somebody is able and willing to jump through those hoops then they are likely to be a valued permanent addition to our society… and if they’re not able or willing then they are still free to work and study in Australia as long as they like, while paying their own way.
Finally, after a certain period of time, PRs should be able to apply to become Australian citizens, who would then get an Australian passport, be able to vote, and cannot be deported. Application for citizenship should be much harder than it is today to ensure that only the most dedicated and high quality applicants succeed. There should be a long time limit (perhaps 18 years as a PR in imitation of how long it takes an Australian-born person to be able to vote, or perhaps even more), a high cost, and a range of economic, social and legal requirements, perhaps extending to evidence of community or military service.
Of course, people who are unable or unwilling to go through the citizenship process are free to remain in Australia as PRs, effectively the same as citizens but without the passport or vote.
Children born to residents in Australia should also be considered residents (under their parents protection), while children born to PRs should be considered citizens.
A local approach
Different areas in Australia should be allowed to have different policies regarding residents. Areas with a shortage of workers or simply a shortage of people could encourage residents to settle there, while other areas may want to limit the number of residents who can settle, or target specific types of residents.
By allowing local areas to discriminate for or against residents, it should be possible to have an immigration program that pleases people with different opinions about foreigners. Some places in Australia would become more multicultural, while others would be able to retain their historical culture.
There would be no need for a federal limit on the number of residents, as the total number would be a consequence of the limits imposed by each local area.
The residency approach extends easily into the humanitarian (refugee) immigration intake. Those people and non-government agencies who want to help refugees would be able to “put their money where their mouth is” and accept responsibility for bringing over and looking after refugees. This added flexibility means that Australia would be more easily able to accommodate a large number of short-term refugees in times of significant crisis.
This idea has an echo of the “temporary protection visa” policy, where refugees can stay for as long as somebody is looking after them and they are not in trouble with the law. If the money runs out, they can either stay on as residents and pay their own way (like any other resident), return to their home country (if it is now safe), go on to an alternative country, or accept internment in a refugee camp (which is where they would have been anyway).
The government may decide to also sponsor a limited number of “supported residents”, either on humanitarian grounds or perhaps as a sort of “immigration scholarship” for poor but promising young foreigners.
The people puzzle
Immigration is not an easy policy area, but I think we need to move past the “more or less” debate and instead start a discussion of “what safe-guards need to be in place to ensure we can easily accommodate new arrivals”.
The “resident but not citizen” approach should appeal to both sides of the debate.
For supporters of immigration, a more liberal residency system provides all the benefits of liberal immigration, but is more easily achievable and has fewer potential problems. By responding to some of the concerns about immigration, a residency approach is less likely to create a backlash, and will therefore be more acceptable to mainstream Australia.
For opponents of immigration, there must be a realisation that both sides of politics will continue with a policy of managed immigration. The state of our public finances and our need for skilled labour make it very unlikely that we will ever “close the door”, and so the important question is how we manage the flow of people. A residency approach removes the welfare and democracy problem, while also providing a strong incentive for new arrivals to be law-abiding and productive members of society. If people do go on to become PRs or citizens they will have to pay for the privilege (which will cover their share of the costs of Australian infrastructure). The residency approach will likely lead to fewer new Australian citizens.
We need to distinguish more clearly between residency and citizenship. The benefits of immigration come from residency, while many of the costs come from citizenship. So the solution is to allow more people to come to Australia, but make it much harder for them to ever become Australian citizens.