State and federal leaders are considering changes to immigration amid reopening borders and shifting public perception

State and federal leaders are considering changes to immigration amid reopening borders and shifting public perception
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  • New polling suggests Australian’s perspective on immigration has softened since the start of the pandemic.
  • It comes as federal and state leaders signal they are reconsidering migration programs as the country reopens.
  • The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for skilled migration to nearly double to 200,000 people.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

As Australia reopens, a newly released poll points reveals how public sentiment squares with the government’s proposed plans to retool migration. 

Newly released polling conducted by Guardian Australia suggests that while over 18 months of closed borders have softened many people’s sentiment around immigration, the financial hardship brought on by pandemic lockdowns and sluggish wage growth mean expansive changes may not be met with public support. 

The findings signal hesitancy around skilled and short-term migration, both of which have been slowed to a halt since Australia closed its international borders in early 2020.

It comes amid a push for federal and state governments to reconsider current immigration programs as borders reopen.

Voters rethinking immigration 

Last financial year, a net 96,600 people left the country, marking the biggest exodus from Australia since World War 1, with net overseas migration expected to drop to minus -77,400.

In August this year, 4900 people moved to Australia as permanent or long-term residents, while 15,700 Australians or long-term residents left the country.

The Guardian Essential poll found that while the overwhelming sentiment was unclear, the number of Australians who believe immigration levels are too high dropped from 64% to 37% since 2019. 

However the latest poll of 1,781 respondents suggests immigration remains a divisive issue, with 63% of respondents saying increasing immigration levels would add more pressure on the housing system and infrastructure, countered by 11% who disagreed.

Around 50% of those surveyed think boosting immigration will help businesses recover from the economic shock of the pandemic by giving them the skilled labour they need — with 22% disagreeing, and a majority of respondents were not convinced immigration helps Australia deal with skills shortages as the population ages. 

Furthermore, 72% expressed skepticism around the role temporary work visas can play in the labour market, with this majority agreeing with the statement that “temporary work visas should be used to cover genuine skills shortages, not to provide cheap labour”.

Overall just over half of respondents said migration levels were either too low or about right, with 37% said they were too high and 11% were undecided. 

It found 51% of those sampled agreed that immigration is vital for Australia’s business and economy, with 20% opposed to that view. 

An economic case for migration

As Australia gears up to reopen international borders, governments at a federal and state level are reevaluating migration programs, seeking to address warnings the living standards of Australians could fall behind the rest of the developed world in the wake of the pandemic.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for skilled migration to nearly double to 200,000 people a year in response to its own analysis, combined with warnings from a major global ratings agency that Australia could see an enduring hit to its migration intake that could impact the economy for years.

Fitch Ratings said in a report released earlier this month that the shock of the pandemic meant the country would pay a major economic price as immigrant numbers remained low, following growth fuelled by migration over the past four decades.

It said this hit could be significant enough to shrink the economy by 2%, or more than $40 billion, smaller than it otherwise would have been as a result of a drop in migrant numbers. 

“This will have huge consequences on the economy, knocking near-term potential growth and building underlying wage and inflation pressure,” the report said. 

It has pushed Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet toward reconsidering migration policy as borders open. 

Earlier this month Frydenberg said a change in immigrant numbers and composition was being considered, as record low population growth threatened to leave the nation far behind its pre-pandemic growth projections. 

“This will impact upon the economy, and including the ageing and the demographics of our population because we know that migrants tend to be of a younger age than the broader population,” Frydenberg said.

“These are obviously issues that I’m thinking through and the government is thinking through, both in terms of the size and the composition of our migration program.”

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has indicated his intentions to build a “big NSW”, responding to pressure by business leaders in the state for Australia’s migration intake to double over the next five years.

“The pause in migration has naturally resulted in a corresponding reduction in economic activity and slowing in population growth, which has been especially felt in areas that benefit from skilled migration,” Perrottet said.

Beyond ‘fortress Australia’

Natasha Kassam, director of the public opinion and foreign policy programs at Lowy Institute, told Business Insider Australia in July her research showed Australia’s border closures had precipitated a notable shift occurring among a minority of the population.

Kassam said in recent months the “fortress Australia mentality” had strengthened, adding her data suggested a shift that could influence the attractiveness of the country for both Australian talent and highly skilled migrants.

“I think there is a distinction where the vast majority of Australians support free trade and of globalisation,” she said.

“But the growing minority of Australians want more restrictive immigration policies and harder borders.”

Kassam said the contrast between those groups “is really interesting” as it suggests a small but growing cohort of isolationist Australians that could have a more profound political impact moving forward.