Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said refugees “would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that”. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Asylum seekers detained in Nauru protest this month against their treatment. Photo: Supplied

Full federal election coverageMore political +opinionDutton shows the Coalition has yielded to panic

At least Immigration Minister Peter Dutton highlighted one point this week: it costs a lot of money to bring people to Australia. He restricted his remarks to refugees but there’s a cost in bringing family-reunion and economic migrants to Australia, too.

The difference, however, is that we have a moral duty to help the world’s refugees but no moral duty to take economic migrants, who just like the idea of living and working in Australia.

One of the best indicators of these costs and duties can be found in Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Databook. The bank is well placed to measure wealth: Switzerland has topped the world’s national wealth table for every year of the databook’s five-year history.

The databook shows that Australia is a very wealthy country and with wealth more evenly distributed than in almost any other nation. In 2013, Australia’s average personal wealth was second only to Switzerland’s. We can and should do more to help the planet’s refugees.

So that’s the duty side. Now for the cost.

Since 2013 – in the term of this Coalition government, as it happens – little New Zealand crept up the wealth table and overtook Australia, with an average personal wealth of $US400,800 compared with Australia’s $US365,000. New Zealand is now second to Switzerland and Australia third.

New Zealand’s population (about 4.5 million) is growing at a rate of about 1 per cent a year, whereas Australia’s is closer to 2 per cent. New Zealand had zero net immigration in 2012, though it’s usually about 12,000 people a year. Australia’s net immigration runs between about 170,000 to 300,000 a year – up to four times New Zealand’s rate.

Our birth rate is higher, too. Increased population means less wealth per person.

Australia’s higher population growth may improve the wealth of some people in the property game, but overall it costs everyone else. Even with very high visa fees and sponsored immigration lowering the immediate cost to the government, the longer-term cost of immigration remains high.

As it happened, Dutton mentioned literacy, numeracy and Medicare – in other words, health and education. His remarks were directed at refugees, but are true of all immigrants. Extra schools, hospitals, roads and the like need to be built for them. As Dutton said: “So there would be huge cost and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that, that’s the scenario.” He was referring to the extra refugees that the Greens want to take but it’s equally true of all migrants who come to Australia.

Higher population also puts a strain on the environment.

The cost of high population growth is borne out by the fact that, even though Australia’s income per person has been higher than New Zealand’s in recent times, Australia has still fallen behind New Zealand for total wealth per person.

Dutton also mentioned jobs. He said of refugees: “These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that.” But to the extent that that’s true, it’s also true of all migrants.

Then Dutton got a bit jumbled because he said of refugees: “For many people, they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English … For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues.”

It’s an odd image: people in dole queues taking Australian jobs.

It’s also odd to draw a distinction between “Australian jobs” and jobs taken up in Australia by refugees. Surely, they are all Australian jobs. And in any event, to the extent that a job taken up by someone who arrives in Australia is one fewer job for a person already here, it’s true whether the arrival is a refugee or another sort of migrant.

All of Dutton’s arguments about costs and jobs with respect to refugees apply also to migrants in general, although refugees are initially more costly to government education and health services because they often come from places where education and health are poorso there is some catchingup to do.

But that said, refugees generally want to make a new home and get ahead like everyone else. And Australia is the place to do it. Australia has the lowest percentage of its people owning less than $US10,000 of wealth than any other country. It would be far cheaper to integrate refugees into the community than imprison them indefinitely on third-world islands.

We should recognise our duty to help more with the international refugee crisis.

We should drastically reduce the number of economic migrants we accept.

We should make an arrangement with Indonesia and other neighbours so that they take back any refugees who arrive in Australia through people smuggling, with no chance of them ever settling in Australia. In return, we would take as many or more people from among the refugees in those countries. And if there are no boat arrivals, we should concentrate on taking refugees from our region anyway.

That would wreck the people-smugglers’ business plan because refugees in Indonesia would know that any attempt to reach Australia by boat would mean permanent disbarment from Australia. That idea would compare poorly against the better option of waiting their turn in Indonesia with some hope of being resettled.

We should empty the prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru by bringing the occupants to Australia and accepting New Zealand’s offer to take some of them. After all, New Zealand can afford it now that it’s pipped Australia and taken second place on the world wealth table.

Alas, all this is so unlikely. Too many people with money and power profit from high immigration even if the great majority loses from it. And no one lost a vote playing the fear game and kicking refugees while they are down.


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