Australia’s population and the global links

Australia’s population and the global links

Iredale, Robyn

The population of Australia has increased rapidly from 7.5 million at the end of World War II, and will reach the 18 million mark in 1995. This is small by international standards. Nevertheless population, as well as immigration, is the subject of considerable debate.

In 1991, the National Population Council’s report Population Issues and Australia’s Future (Population Issues Committee, 1991) highlighted the need for more attention to population, rather than just immigration, issues. This recommendation was reflected in the incorporation of Population into the name and research activities of the former Bureau of Immigration Research (BIR). In May 1993, the national BIR became the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research.

In late 1994, the name was again changed to reflect the inclusion of Multiculturalism in the Bureau’s activities. Hence by the time of the conference of February 1995, this peak research agency was known as the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research (BIMPR). This was reflected in the three themes of the Third National Immigration and Population Outlook Conference:

* Population change;

* Immigration: impact and implications; and

* Settlement and identity.

Naturally there was overlap between the three as is reflected in this report of the Conference, held February 22-24, 1395, Adelaide, Australia.

Population Change

Three subthemes were developed in the series of seven sessions devoted to this theme. The subthemes were:

* the environment and limits to population growth;

* results of demographic change;

* urban, regional, state and international consequences of population movement.

In the initial session Graeme Hugo presented an overview of Australia’s changing demography, pointing out that Australia remains one of the faster growing of the world’s more developed countries (MDCs) due in large part to immigration. Although fertility had leveled off below replacement level (at around 1.9 total fertility rate), the relatively large number of people in the reproductive ages means that there are twice as many births as deaths; even in the absence of immigration, population will continue to grow for the next four decades.

The composition of the population is undergoing substantial change with around a fifth of Australians now being of non-Anglo-Celtic origin, family structure becoming more heterogeneous and aging of the population being more rapid than in most MDCs. Substantial shifts in the spatial distribution of the population are occurring through internal migration, with the flow northward to Queensland being most prominent. Australia remains, however, one of the world’s most urbanized nations.

John Taylor, in his paper on “Population Shifts in Indigenous Australia,” assessed recent changes in the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. They make up 1.6 percent of the national population and their numbers are projected to grow from 268,000 in 1991 to 340,000 in 2001. They are a distinctive demographic group with significantly higher fertility and mortality, a young age structure with young adults comprising an increasing proportion of the population and a distinctive distribution in which the majority live outside the major cities. The challenges created by the demographic changes in this group include a doubling in the number of jobs needed for them over the decade of the 1990s and the need to regionalize indigenous affairs policy.

Don Rowland analyzed the Australian elderly population using a cohort perspective. Through this he showed that Australia is in the final and most critical stage of population aging. Population momentum is declining and most growth potential is in the older ages; family resources available to support the elderly are beginning to decline.

The second session in this theme addressed the critical question of Australia’s Population Size and the Environment: Future Options. The first paper, by P. K. Ruthven, argued for a national population of 200 million by the year 2100. An alternative view was presented by Patricia Caswell of the Australian Conservation Foundation, who called for a government population policy which stabilized Australian population at a level that is precautionary and ecologically sustainable and an associated progressive reduction in immigration levels. The question of whether there are limits to population growth was addressed by Ian Lowe, who stressed the complexity of global ecosystems and the need for recognition that people are part of that complex ecosystem which is little understood. Ecological realities must be recognized, and like several other speakers, Lowe argued that we must strive toward a sustainable level and distribution of population, which can only be achieved through the nation having a population policy. Also, the question of whether there is an optimum population size was addressed by Pamela Bone.

The third session was entitled Population Growth, the Environment and Australian Cities. Rod Oxenberry presented an overview of the major issues, centered around the questions of “Where We Live?,” “Who We Live With?” and “How We Live?” Peter Murphy expanded upon the first of these issues and reflected on the increasing tendency for newly arrived immigrants to Australia to settle in Sydney. He argued strongly that there is a tendency to blame population growth, population size, and immigration for diseconomies and other problems in metropolitan centers such as Sydney when, in fact, they are essentially the result of poor urban management. Julian Cribb lamented the increasing concentration of the Australian population in the eastern, southeastern and southwestern coastal areas, and depopulation of the inland.

In the fourth session, entitled Population Trends and the Labor Market, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Martin Ferguson, began with a statement of the trade unions and their involvement with migrant workers. Clive Brooks and Lynne Williams examined the issue of “Immigrants in the Labor Market: Recovery from the 1990-1992 Recession.” They showed that, during the last three recessions, immigrants have suffered most in the labor market, and have been slower to benefit from economic recovery than the Australian born. In the 1990-1992 recession, however, quite different experiences to those previously were recorded by male migrants from mainly English-speaking (MES) countries and those from non-English-speaking (NES) origins. They explored some important policy implications of their findings.

Jon Altman and Anne Daly addressed the issue of “Indigenous Australians in the Labor Market: Historical Trends and Future Prospects.” They demonstrated the marginality of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders over the last two decades. While there have been minor improvements, the outlook continued to be bleak with the major need being to improve education levels and work experience among this group if their economic status is to be enhanced. This theme was taken up again in the fifth session which dealt with population change and indigenous communities. Patricia Turner stressed the unique pressures that the Aboriginal population are subject to, their distinctive demography, and the great diversity within that population. She warned against the stereotyping of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in policymaking. John Taylor and Martin Bell’s paper on the “Internal Migration of Aboriginal Populations” showed how the major patterns differed substantially from the remainder of the population, especially in spatial patterning. They explored some policy implications of these movements. John Ah Kit addressed “The Impact of Mining on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Populations,” and Paul Seaman discussed “Providing a Sustainable Economic Land Base for Aboriginal Populations.” Michael Dodson summarized social justice implications of population change in the indigenous population.

The sixth session was entitled “Population Movement and Trade Links with Asia.” The first paper, by Florence Chong, presented an overview of Australia’s economic links with Asia. Peter Dawkins examined the Australian Government’s view that the diversity of origins of the immigrant population provides Australian business with skills and contacts in a range of countries to enhance their ability to exploit expanding international business opportunities. Empirical evidence was summarized which indicated that the concept of “productive diversity” can work but that management has been slow to recognize its value. It was not clear how these links worked–though it seems that Asian language skills are not as important as knowledge of business ethics and practices and cultures, as well as extensive contacts. Dawkins concluded by saying that:

There is a question mark over the extent to which Australia will be able to make use of East Asian skills, bearing in mind the numbers of apparently highly qualified East Asians who are not using these qualifications in Australia.

Tess Rod and Elizabeth Webster presented a case study of “Immigration and Trade with East Asia in the Food Industry” which also showed that the potential for using the cultural and language skills of Asian immigrants by companies is underdeveloped and that there is a need to extend awareness of this potential. Alan Matheson reviewed “Industrial Relations, International Trade and Immigration.” He made the interesting observation that academic study of immigration has failed to see the workplace as a serious institution for study. He discussed important issues relating to labor standards and migrant workers and the implications for Australia of our changing role in Asia.

The final session on this theme involved an international perspective on population growth. Dianne Proctor presented a perspective on the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development from the viewpoint of nongovernment organizations, and Renata Klein presented “A Feminist Perspective on Population Control.” These two papers represented very contrasting views. Helen Ware’s paper, “The Relationship between Population Growth and Development,” showed clearly the complexity of the relationship and discussed Australian government policy response to the Cairo conference. Jenny Goldie from Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population addressed the issue of defining an appropriate Australian response to international population pressures. She argued that mass migration offers no solution to population pressure problems and that the only answer is for nations to live within their own means. She advocated a smaller immigration program for Australia, but with a proportionately larger humanitarian component. At the same time, she pressed for a global perspective that includes helping other countries to develop and stabilize their populations, abiding by international treaties in relation to natural resources and the environment, and sharing our advanced technological innovations in agriculture and energy.

Global population and development issues and their impact for Australia, emerged as one of the most important strands of the conference. Woolcott’s paper, “The United Nations Population and Development Conference: Its Message for Australia,” stressed:

* the need to commit adequate resources to implementing the Cairo Program of Action;

* the need to help promote internationally the status of women and their centrality to all family planning and development programs;

* the need to continue to recognize the importance of family reunion policies in its migration program;

* the need to place increased emphasis on the status of our indigenous peoples.

Woolcott, in his speech, urged a greater commitment from Australia to global issues of population and development–rather than arguing for a “best endeavors” clause to be inserted in the agreement on the allocation of resources to population programs, as had happened at the conference. A target of US$7 billion in the year 2000 (based on 1993 values) was strongly supported by the European Union, the USA, and Japan but Australia, Canada, and New Zealand accepted the revised figures provided they were qualified by “best endeavors” clauses.

Immigration: Impact and Implications

The global impact of high population growth and low economic growth in some regions of the world and the impacts for countries such as Australia was the major theme in the paper “The Importance of International Migration” presented by Jim Purcell, Director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). According to Purcell (1995:4):

migration is seen by an increasing number of the world’s disadvantaged as the solution to a whole range of problems, it has become one of the most visible manifestations of economic and societal failure: failure to achieve sustainable development, failure to provide adequate jobs and shelter, failure to protect the environment, and failure on the part of too many governments to protect, defend and support the rights and legitimate needs of their citizens.

From a global policy perspective, the international community’s aim should be for a world in which no human being would be forced to migrate in order to survive; phrased another way, there should exist the fundamental right to survive and prosper in one’s own country, with help if need be from the broader international community. Migration should be a free and planned choice, using legal and orderly means, to improve skills through training, to contribute skills to others, to reunite with families, or to achieve other reasonable career or personal objectives.

Besides Woolcott and Purcell, Australia’s national perspective on migration was discussed by most people without taking adequate account of the global position. Australia plays a valuable role in the global arena especially in terms of supporting development programs and assisting refugees–but this is within the context of maintaining the national interest at the forefront.

The level of permanent migration to Australia has been around 80,000 for the last three years. This was considerably down on earlier years and was a response to the recession in Australia in the early 1990s. Skilled migration, in particular, was reduced as a response to the high level of unemployment (11%). On the other hand, family reunion increased its share of the program. In fact this has escalated considerably as some people who are in refugee-like and other situations have found it easier to enter in this category.

On the whole, there was very little debate at the conference about the level of immigration, except from a couple of fringe groups, as mentioned earlier. An overview of the migration program was provided by Dennis Richardson, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (DIEA). In his paper he outlined how the fact that 70 percent of Australia’s total trade is now with APEC member economies has impacted on migration. He discussed the rise in temporary migration–especially from Japan and the United States.

In theory, temporary migrants generally come to specific jobs (therefore not adding to the welfare bill) and for contract periods–so that if the job runs out they leave Australia. This does not always occur in practice. Nevertheless, temporary migration is a growing and important phenomenon in the global economy and needs to be provided for and managed.

One aspect of the migration intake that has attracted considerable public and government attention in recent years has been the arrival of undocumented or unselected migrants, the subject of a paper by Senator Jim McKiernan, “Asylum, Border Control and Detention in Australia.” There has been a renewed arrival of boat people from the Asian region, including 800 from southern China since December 1994. These people are ethnic Chinese who were resettled in China from Vietnam, in the 1970s. This renewed influx, as well as the long standing issue of the more than 300 Cambodians who have been detained in camps for over four years, has encouraged the DIEA to tighten its policies on unselected arrivals. The detention camp at Port Headland in the northern part of Western Australia has been the subject of considerable domestic and international debate, as well as numerous court actions. This is reflected in “an apparent shifting of emphasis within DIEA towards control and compliance and away from client service, though this is currently under review” (Jupp, 1995).

Largely as a result of government actions in respect of the Cambodians who sought asylum in Australia, a much more litigious atmosphere has developed in the last five years or so. Australia’s refugee policy and its treatment of asylum seekers has been put to a severe test. This was reflected at the conference by two sessions on Immigration and the Law. These sessions were oriented to explaining government policy in relation to the law, the Immigration Review Tribunal, and the Refugee Review Tribunal.

In 1989, Australia’s migration law was changed and moved from an old discretionary system “designed to covertly implement the White Australia policy…” to a codified one “subject to the controls similar to those in other government departments” (Cooney, 1995:5). According to Cooney, this change has been a qualified success, but he cautions that:

simply passing a new law will not remedy a problem unless adequate consideration is given to how the law will operate: including questions of public administration (particularly training of officers), public comprehension of the law, clarity of the law’s purpose and mechanisms for dealing with unexpected cases. (Cooney, 1995)

It is the latter which have caused the most controversy in recent years. Striking a balance between providing refuge for those who need it and controlling the borders against unwanted entrants is not easy. Successive Australian governments have been relatively successful at being able to protect the borders, compared with the rest of the world, and this continues to be a very high priority. “Sending the right messages offshore” and “stopping the floodgates from opening” are commonly heard terms in the media and in official circles in Australia.

Many groups feel that this is often at the expense of individuals or groups who need protection. The Refugee Council of Australia and the National Council of Churches in Australia have been particularly vocal in their criticism of some recent government policy decisions. The introduction of new laws in Parliament to prohibit the future entry of southern Chinese from Beihai and others associated with the granting of refugee status on the basis of a country’s (in this case Chinas) family planning policy are examples. These new and complex issues deserve widespread debate but this was not provided for at the conference. The question of fertility regulation in various parts of the world was raised in a session on family planning (international perspectives on population growth) but it was left for individuals to draw their own linkages.

On the other hand, other components of the migration program received considerable attention–in particular, the levels of the intake in terms of employment skills and English language skills. The nexus between immigration policy and the Commonwealth Government’s Multicultural Policy was also debated. Hughes’ paper, “Appropriate Targeting? A Critique of the Australian Immigration Program,” drew attention to two aspects of a clash between immigration and multicultural policy. On the one hand, the government strongly maintains its adherence to a nondiscriminatory migration policy but on the other does not provide adequate settlement services to enable the full societal integration of migrants who do not speak English. Hughes criticized the lack of adequate English language training for children and adults as well as the continued nonrecognition of many overseas acquired qualifications and skills On the latter Hughes said:

After more than a decade of committees, councils, boards and endless papers and discussions, little has been achieved. Australia thus wastes resources it needs to be a clever country.

D’Souza, an immigrant engineer, took this one step further by describing his personal experiences in the eighteen months that it took him to find work in Australia. He called for:

…federal and state governments to review their policies in respect of support services for migrants and to look at setting up resources to address the problems….I would also request organizations throughout Australia to give migrants a chance to prove themselves.

Settlement and Identity

The relationship between migration policy and settlement policies constantly re-emerges and the 1995 conference program made much more provision for community representatives to provide personal or group cameos. These invariably focused on the inadequacy of service provision and on the interaction between “mainstream and ethno-specific” services.

This subject has been consistently discussed since the increased emphasis that began to be attached to mainstream services in the early 1980s. As part of the policy of multiculturalism, mainstream service providers began to be charged with the responsibility of servicing all of their clients–not just those who could speak English or who operated in the same cultural milieu. This inevitably led to ethno-specific services being squeezed out at times and to claims of inappropriate and inadequate mainstream service provision. The debate about the efficiency and efficacy of the Commonwealth Government’s Access and Equity Policy and the policies of various State Governments continues.

Jupp’s paper, “Australia’s Settlement Service Provision: An Overview,” provided a summing up of the current situation, listing the failures and successes of settlement policy and programs. The former included inadequate English language provision, unemployment, and lack of adequate attention to refugees, small groups, women and the elderly. The latter mainly referred to the policies and structures that have been put in place for access and equity, to combat racism, and to educate the whole society. Jupp’s conclusion was that: “Relative success should not blind policymakers to certain remaining problems.”

Questions of identity and citizenship were addressed by a number of speakers. Senator Jim Short, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, tackled the question of the relationship between national identity and citizenship in his paper, “Australian Citizenship and Multiculturalism.” In particular he drew attention to the fact that in its Report on Citizenship, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration recently recommended a widening of the conditions for dual citizenship.

In her paper, “Civic Pluralism: Australia’s Opportunity,” Mary Kalantzis posed a challenge for Australia to manage new issues that have emerged. She urged for a negotiation of diversity as “the only way to produce social cohesion,” pluralistic citizenship as “the most effective way of holding things together,” and an outward looking approach to the world as the way “to maintain the national interest.”


The open discussion of issues is essential for the development of government policies that are responsive to community attitudes and needs. On the whole the conference provided a forum for such discussion but a number of issues were not given adequate attention as previously mentioned. A final one was the role of women in migration. This was possibly a reflection of the continued imbalance in the gender of the speakers. Of the 121 speakers and chairs of sessions, 63 percent were male. The 45 women speakers were heavily concentrated in the “women’s sessions”–such as “Migrant Women in the Workforce” and “International Perspectives on Population Growth.” The adequate incorporation of women needs to be addressed in all forums, including Australia.

References available upon request.

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Fall 1995

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