It’s rare to be able to hail politicians for enthusiastically implementing their election commitments in a short time. But both major parties went to the 2010 federal poll talking about how opposed they were to a “big Australia” and how much they favoured “sustainability” over high immigration. And, behold, our overseas migration level has been falling ever since, driving our population growth to its lowest level in four years.

Much of the drop, however, has come from a single decision: Labor changing the rules on temporary visas for foreign students. The goal was to demonstrate the government was in control of our borders, by ending a Howard-era policy-by-default that meant our international education sector functioned as a de facto, and entirely uncontrolled, arm of immigration policy.

The high level of expatriates returning to Australia as a consequence of the GFC, which inflated the 2008 and 2009 immigration figures, has also fallen away.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the immigration turnaround of the last 12 months is a trend a lot of politicians would like to see become a long-term one.

In the meantime, businesses are crying out for labour. And not just in the mining industry, which is now reaping the consequences of spending decades treating its workforce as an enemy to be ruthlessly crushed, but in many sectors requiring skills that are in increasingly short supply.

And in the meantime, our population ages. Immigration won’t somehow reverse the ageing of Australia’s population — only slow it down a little — but it will be a key mechanism for addressing the problem that will increasingly beset the western world in coming decades: the lack of labour.

In years to come, we may look back on the GFC and resulting global slowdown as a spectacular missed opportunity. Australia should have made the effort to massively boost immigration from other Western countries, luring skilled, educated people from Europe to Australia with the promise of a strong economy and high demand for labour. We should be stripmining countries like Greece and Ireland for young, educated men and women happy to move to Australia for the chance of a high-quality job.

Instead, we’re stuck with a bunch of politicians who can’t even discuss immigration policy without checking the results of a western Sydney focus group. We’ll still be paying for their shortsightedness for decades to come.

Peter Fray

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