From Brisbane to Perth and all major centres in between, Australian cities are groaning under inadequate infrastructure, choked roads, unaffordable housing, failing public transport.

OK, maybe not Adelaide, but the real cities aren’t coping – all of them trying to play a belated game of catch-up with population growth they can’t handle.

But amidst it all, the Immigration Department continues to play down the real numbers driving the surge. Even as experienced a reporter as Kerry-Anne Walsh was fed understated immigration numbers over the weekend, and the understated numbers still print as a record intake.

Reports the Sun Herald:

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said the projected target of up to 148,000 new immigrants for 2006-07 would be met once the figures were tallied. It represents one of the greatest immigration influxes in decades…

This year’s intake and projections for coming years suggest the increase will continue. The Government is aiming to accept 152,800 new migrants in 2007-08, a far cry from the low immigration stance it adopted on coming to power in 1996.

But it’s really so very much more. As Crikey has previously reported, the real figure for new migrants this year will be nearly double the officially-claimed 152,800.

Once more for those who have missed the story (and Ross Gittins who ripped off the numbers without acknowledgement): To the “official” 152,800, add 13,000 humanitarian migrants, plus a couple of hundred who come under odds-and-sods categories to make a neat 166,000.

Add the Kiwis the Immigration Department numbers ignore — they’re running at about 24,000 a year — and quite possibly more in 2007-08 as higher interest rates in New Zealand bite and our skills shortages lure more across the ditch.

Then there’s the elephant in the lounge room — sub-section 457 “guest workers” and their dependents. Canberra might pretend they don’t count, but they are on four-year visas and must be housed and travel like everyone else. At the end of the nine months to March, they were coming at an annualised rate of 85,000 — up 15% on the previous year. Apply the same growth rate this financial year and the number will be about 100,000.

(And while employers complain about English tests for the more lowly-paid 457s are slowing down the process, standards are being lowered around the edges of this category to take in semi-skilled workers as well as skilled. For example, “aged-care workers” — not qualified nurses — are now being accepted as “temporary” migrants.)

Add an unspecified number of foreign students being offered new “transitional” visas after completing tertiary studies and the real migration number this year will be much closer to 300,000 than the “official” 152,800.

That is partly offset by some migrants returning overseas and young Australians heading off for their foreign adventures — but the influx remains beyond the planning and delivery capabilities of hapless state governments, never mind a federal government that underfunds the states.

The immigration surge plays a major role in keeping wages inflation under control and, therefore, interest rates down — but it’s putting plenty of strain on other parts of the system.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey