Population and immigration are two key issues hotly debated in the current Australian election campaign.
While the conservatives hint unchecked immigration is the source of many evils bedeviling the country, business, their natural ally, tells them shortage of skilled labour still haunts Australia and anything precipitous now could affect future growth.
AdvertisementOpposition Leader Tony Abbott asserts though he is not using the population debate as a smokescreen for anti-immigration sentiment.
''The Coalition parties are pro-immigrant but it's very important that our immigration program has the support of our people,'' Mr Abbott said last week. The coalition led by the Liberal Party said it would reduce the annual migration intake within three years from 277,000 to 170,000.
Both Labor and the Greens seem to realize that immigration is a sensitive issue and scaremongering could succeed in these troubled times. Hence they would not take on the conservatives aggressively, if anything the ruling Labour tacitly acknowledges the need to keep a check on immigration, though they would not talk of any numbers.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who frequently talks of her experiences as a child coming to Australia from Wales in the 1960s, said recently, ''It is the government's job to take control of our future and put Australia on to a path of sustainable population growth.''
The Greens says they are concerned about Australia's ability to produce enough food and water to support a growing population. Leader Bob Brown is also worried about the effect skilled migration has on the ability of Australians to get training opportunities.
''Bringing in skilled immigrants instead of investing in developing the skills of our own people is a cheap way for business to get the skilled workers it needs,'' Senator Brown said in a recent interview.
But business, training and education groups are against any plan to significantly cut migration, arguing it would slow economic growth.
"Population growth, and immigration as a part of it, are an important and positive aspect of our nation's history," Business Council of Australia chief executive Katie Lahey said. "We need continued, sustainable growth to ensure our children inherit a strong economy and the opportunities that offers for fulfilling jobs, global engagement and well-funded services for our communities."
Ms Lahey said a growing population was to ''offset the effects of Australia's ageing population and ensure that governments have the revenue they need to pay for healthcare, education, infrastructure and environmental initiatives".
Skills Australia said the labour force was not adequate to meet the needs of the economy. In a report released this year, it found that the workforce by 2025 would be ''less skilled than is desirable and Australia will continue to depend on a targeted skilled migration program''.
Continuing to allow people to move to Australia on the basis on their profession would ''help future-proof Australia from the damaging skill gaps and shortages that tend to re-emerge when economic growth accelerates,'' the Skills Australia report said.
The National Farmers Federation has concerns about labour shortages if skilled migration was reduced but is equally worried about Australia's ability to feed a growing population.
''Today, 93 per cent of the food Australians rely on each day is grown and produced on our farms,'' president David Crombie said in the federation's election platform. ''However, with the current low level of agricultural research, plus the threats to our water and farmland security and with the lack of vision for nation-building infrastructure, this high level of productive capacity is no longer a certainty, and nor is our ability to remain globally competitive.''
Australia is one of many nations that have ratified the Refugee Convention, but its record and policies over the past decade in fulfilling its humanitarian obligations to offer international protection to those facing insecurity and persecution has been the subject of international criticism.
Under the notorious Pacific solution of the previous conservative Prime Minister John Howard, the country banished asylum seekers to immigration centres on small Pacific Islands, such as Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected with a Labor government in 2007, worked to repair Australia's international humanitarian reputation, promising a more humane approach to asylum seekers and the closure of offshore detention centres.
But as his popularity nosedived thanks to his own vacillations elsewhere, Mr Rudd sought to win over some sections of the population by abruptly suspending the processing of all new applications from asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, for three months and six months respectively. Still he couldn't save his job anyway.
Now the Australian government "is in discussions with East Timor, New Zealand and UNHCR about establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region, including those who are intercepted trying to reach Australia by boat."
Meantime Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney claims: "Thousands of asylum seekers remain in detention in Christmas Island, Darwin and Curtin. They are already becoming 'factories of mental illness' as the suicide and self-harm incidents become weekly if not daily events."
The only good news is that the processing of Sri Lankan asylum applications has also resumed, but the suspension of Afghan asylum applications remains. Otherwise while the global crisis worsens, hitting harder the more backward regions, the better-off would continue to fend off immigrants - though they too could be suffering in the process.
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