Thursday, July 27, 2017

Foreign is what Australia is

Australia is overwhelmingly foreign. Half of us were either born overseas or have an overseas-born parent. Many, many more (like the Coalition's unfortunate Matt Canavan) have at least one overseas-born grandparent.

A section of the Constitution that prevents an Australian being elected to the Australian Parliament because they happen to also be a "citizen of a foreign power" makes no sense given the number of forgotten foreign passports lying unused in sock drawers.

It ought to be enough that you've been declared Australian, made to pay Australian taxes and forced to vote.

It made just as little sense back when the Constitution was being drafted in the 1890s. Back then, as now, around a third of the population was born overseas. But in those days most were born in Britain which wasn't counted as a foreign power. Since a High Court decision in 1998, it has been.

We're a blended mob. And we are continually reblending in new and enchanting ways.

If you marry, there's a one-in-three chance that (like me) you'll marry someone born overseas. If you were born in Australia of two Australian-born parents there's a one-in-three chance that (like me) your children won't be. And they'll look delightful.

Yet, by quite a huge margin, we dislike immigration.

An Essential survey finds 59 per cent of us think there's been too much immigration. And it isn't a result driven by locally-born Australians. Among migrants the proportion is 60 per cent.

Central to these concerns are crowded cities, and jobs.

Inside Story's Tim Colebatch finds that between 2008 and 2016 Australia's labour market created an extra 474,000 full-time jobs. But only 74,000 went to people born in Australia. The bulk (400,000) went to migrants. Around 364,000 went to migrants who had arrived here since 2001.

You'd be forgiven for thinking these migrants had elbowed longer-term locals to get the extra jobs, and you would be right. But that's only part of the story; the part we can see. The part we can't see is where those extra jobs came from.

Most came from migration.

Calculations unveiled by Professor Peter McDonald at last week's Melbourne Institute economic outlook conference suggest that, without migration, total employment would have grown by just 126,000 between 2011 and 2016. With migration, it grew 739,000.

Migrants create jobs because they spend (often spending more than they earn at first if they brought money with them) and borrow to buy houses.

Bob Gregory from the Australian National University says they boost the demand for workers as well as the supply.

"There is no sense in assuming, as many people do, that they add only to supply," he says. "There is no sense in assuming that if you removed the migrant, the job would stay and go to a local."

It's easy to see, if you imagine excising half of Australia. Half of the people competing for jobs would go, but so too would roughly half the jobs. It might be slightly more than half of the jobs that go, it might be slightly less, but the number of jobs per job seeker would change little.

Gregory thinks it would change for the worse. Australia's highly selective program brings in migrants with money to spare (as well as temporary workers such as backpackers and students who do the jobs many of us won't). The skilled workers lift the skills profile of the entire workforce, boosting productivity and wages, which itself creates the demand for more workers.

Even the partners of skilled migrants are more skilled than the rest of us. A conference paper by Melbourne University economist Barbara Broadway revealed that 55 per cent of the female partners of skilled migrants have university degrees, compared to 30 per cent of women already here.

If it's true that migrants on balance help the labour market, and a study just published in Economic Record reaches similar conclusions, we should be importing more of them when we want to boost someone's chance of getting a job, and importing fewer when the jobs market is hot, rather than the other way around.

The idea that migrants boost rather than hurt the economy shouldn't be surprising. Opponents of high immigration often complain about the extra cars on the road and the extra houses and schools and teachers that are needed and the extra freeways and transport links that will have to be built to cope.

These complaints are inconsistent with those about migrants taking jobs.

And migrants are Australian. We used to think of Scott Ludlam as an Australian before we discovered that he was born to the south-east; we used to think of Larissa Waters as Australian before she discovered she was born to the north-west. We almost always thought of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as Australian (the accents!) even though both were born in Britain.

We're all of us a bit foreign, apart from the few First Australians whose families have avoided intermarriage. There's room for debate about the size of Australia's population, but not room for debate about whether we are Australian.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald