Australia debates immigration as population hits record 25m

Australia’s population surpassed 25m people on Tuesday, almost three decades ahead of government projections made 20 years ago, due to strong growth in immigration. 

The high immigration rate — one person arrives to live in Australia every minute — has helped the economy rack up a record 27 years without recession and established the country as one of the most multicultural in the developed world. But it is raising public concerns about pressure on housing and other infrastructure, as well as controversial claims that Australia is veering towards a “European separatist multicultural model”.

“We are having a higher than ever number of people who are not speaking the English language and that’s often overlaid with a high concentration of the overseas born. When you start to have that you have a slowdown in integration,” Alan Tudge, Australia’s multicultural affairs minister, told Australian radio on Tuesday. 

He said the government was reviewing whether to introduce conditions on some migrant visas to force them to live outside Sydney and Melbourne, which attracted almost 90 per cent of new permanent arrivals. Changes to migration settings cut permanent migration to 162,000 last year — its lowest level in a decade — and temporary migration is expected to fall this year, said Mr Tudge.

The review coincides with a debate about the impact of migration on Australian values and social cohesion. Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs minister, recently said Melbourne residents were too “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang violence”. Last week an article titled “The foreign invasion”, which was published in News Corp titles, warned of a “tidal wave” of immigrants sweeping away the country’s national identity. 

Claims that Australians face a breakdown in social cohesion are hotly contested by opposition politicians and migrant communities, who accuse the government and elements of the media of playing the “racecard” to win votes and boost ratings. They argue Australia’s highly selective, skills-based migration system is a boon to the economy and integration has been a success. 

“There’s never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or a race-baiting commentator in Australia,” Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, told the Financial Times.

He said there was little evidence to support claims Australia was heading towards a “separatist European-style multicultural model”, meaning that migration is allowed but new arrivals are not integrated. He added migrants achieved better education and employment outcomes than Australian-born residents. Neither was there evidence to suggest that any one ethnic group dominated particular suburbs in Melbourne or Sydney. These suburbs were diverse and property prices had risen over recent years — they were not ghettos, said Mr Soutphommasane. 

Chart showing  Australia's overseas net migration since 2004

The 2016 census showed Australia was one of the most multicultural countries in the developed world with more than a quarter of residents born overseas — more than twice the rate of either the UK or US. The UK is the most common country of birth other than Australia, but for the first time most Australian residents born overseas were from Asia, rather than Europe — a result that reflected growth in Chinese and Indian migration. 

In 1998 the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ mid-range projection was for Australia’s population to reach 25m in 2051. But stronger than expected net migration fuelled by rapid economic growth over the past two decades has forced the bureau to progressively bring that target date forward. It projects Australia’s population will reach between 36.8m and 48.3m in 2061.

Liz Allen, a demographer at Australian National University, said population growth was putting pressure on services in Sydney and Melbourne but these reflected policy and planning failures, which had failed to keep up with community needs. She warned any rapid cuts to migration would dent the economy, which needed to attract skilled migrants to remain competitive. 

Research by Saul Eslake, economist and fellow at the University of Tasmania, showed Australia’s real gross domestic product had grown at an average annual rate of 3.2 per cent since its last recession in 1991 — nearly half of which has been attributable to population growth. But he said some of the consequences of Australia’s high immigration intake — housing affordability and traffic congestion — were not captured by these raw GDP statistics. 

“It would be a pity, in my view, if we had to forgo the benefits which our immigration programme has brought, and could continue to bring, because we are no longer capable of better housing provision and infrastructure planning, something we were perfectly capable of doing 50 and 60 years ago,” said Mr Eslake.