The neo-liberal Economist and the leftist English newspaper The Guardian don't have a lot in common. But
they both, in recent weeks, have argued that the economic case for freeing up the borders of countries like ours to people just as we have freed up our borders to capital, goods and ideas is compelling.
But judging by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock's comments yesterday, the Australian Government is taking a very different view.
Ruddock is apparently preparing legislation to tighten the definition of who is a refugee. He's angered by what he believes is the courts' liberal approach in such cases.
One of the impacts of globalisation is the freeing up of borders and better communications. An outcome of this is that desperate and anguished people will seek to move to areas of the world where their economic and social prospects are even a
marginal improvement on their current lot in life.
If, however, Australia's political leaders feel that it's easier to pander to the xenophobic tendencies of some in our community by expelling "illegal" migrants in vast numbers, or loading the judicial dice to ensure the sick, the
old and the ailing have one more hurdle to jump before being allowed to stay here, then they are doing our nation a disservice and damaging our long-term economic and social interests.
Australia's economic relevance to international capital, and thus investment and jobs, is on the line at the moment. We're too small, and of limited strategic importance, for international investors.
Consumer savings have been increasing exponentially over the past decade or so as mostly US baby boomers begin to save for their retirement. Their savings have been managed in a variety of ways, but mostly through mutual funds. As these funds
have grown, and fund managers have sought to save costs and send a greater percentage of returns back to investors, their capacity to make investments in smaller economies has shrunk.
Put another way, they have a choice of investing in 10 $100 million deals or a hundred $10 million deals. They simply don't have the management bandwidth to make the latter choice. In this investment environment countries like Australia, with
limited investment options, lose out.
As one fund manager, Partnership Planning's Lynne Curtis, put it in this newspaper recently: "Separate regional markets are moving into one global market - and there are few truly global businesses in Australia to attract the attention of
global fund managers."
There are some who argue that there are plenty of countries whose economies are not much larger than ours who thrive. While this is true it's always the case that these countries are part of large trading blocs such as the European Union or
NAFTA. Or they neighbour large and growing economies. Australia has one active free trade agreement with New Zealand.
Some argue that the environment would suffer if we increased our population substantially. This argument reflects the fact that economic and environmental policies should be more closely integrated than is currently the case. As a community we
should examine energy market-based incentives such as carbon credits or fuel pricing, water conservation and land use in a way that meshes the twin objectives of a major increase in population and a sustainable natural environment.
Then the doomsayers will throw up the social dislocation argument: that increasing immigration creates unemployment, ghettos and strains social cohesion. None of these arguments has held up over time.
Australia is a great example of a country that has accepted large numbers of migrants and found the opposite to be true. Social cohesion was improved; diversity led to a stronger society not a weaker one. Crime has not increased and
immigration did not create large numbers of unemployed. If anything, the need to house new arrivals has created a far greater number of jobs than new arrivals have taken.
This phenomenon has been repeated in the United States, Hong Kong, Israel and elsewhere. Migrants have provided new ideas, vigour, diversity and networks. In Los Angeles, Korean migrants have invigorated the central business district. In
Australia, migrants undertook much of the dangerous work on the Snowy Mountain scheme, and were part of our greatest period of economic growth. According to Alejandro Portes of Princeton University: "Overall, the weight of evidence is that
it has been a major boon to the economy to have such a supply of labour at many levels."
In Australia, some have argued for only skilled migrants because they cost a society less money. This is undoubtedly true in the short run, but also misleading in the long run.
David Sarnoff, the inventor of modern television, came to America with his uneducated refugee parents. Every year when the HSC results are announced the children of migrant parents, who were mostly refugees, inevitably dominate. Being
selective is very short-sighted.
Finally, there is the moral argument. How many of us would voluntarily choose to pay thousands of dollars to sit on the bottom of a leaky boat for months on end to be dropped off in another country where we know no-one and do not speak the
language? It is not something that we, as a nation, should shun, but rather welcome as an affirmation of our nation in the eyes of the truly needy. The fact that many of these refugees are victims of pirates and crooks is merely a reflection of
their desire to be here.
By removing the restrictions on those wishing to move to Australia we would improve our prospects in growing our market. We'd improve our networks and innovation. And we'd make ourselves once more relevant to the world. History has shown that
those countries that warmly embrace new migrants enjoy these outcomes. Australia's stance should be clear - let them come, and hope they stay.