National News

As Australia’s Cities Get Crowded, Its Leader Targets Immigration

Posted November 20, 2018 2:18 a.m. EST
Updated November 20, 2018 2:24 a.m. EST

SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia has proposed imposing stricter limits on immigration to control overcrowding in the country’s major cities, a plan that experts called a politically motivated gambit that could legitimize resentment against immigrants.

Population growth has played a major role in the country’s economic success, but people in Australia’s biggest cities are concerned about an influx of immigrants, Morrison said in a speech Monday night.

“They are saying: enough, enough, enough,” he told influential figures in Sydney’s business, media and urban planning sectors. “The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrollments. I hear what you are saying. I hear you loud and clear.”

On Monday, Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, said he supported the proposal as one way to confront worsening congestion in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s most populous cities. “We want people out of cars and spending more time with their families, more time doing the things they want,” he said at a news conference.

The move to reduce the current cap on immigration by nearly 30,000 people represents a turnaround for Australia, a country of 25 million that has relied on immigrant labor and skill to fuel its economic and population growth. It was also a stark change in tune for Morrison, who as the government’s treasurer, pushed back against cutting the cap in February, six months before he became prime minister.

Since 2012, Australia has maintained an annual cap of 190,000 on its permanent migration program. But in the yearlong period starting in July 2017, the number of immigrants dropped to 162,000, a 10 percent decline from the previous year’s figure and the lowest number in a decade.

The cap is likely to be adjusted next year to reflect that decline, Morrison said, after the government solicited feedback from Australian states and territories.

While some cities are looking to grow, others, like Sydney, the country’s largest, are suffering from “pressure points” in infrastructure, congestion and public services, and these need to be addressed, he added.

For the federal government, immigration has become a hotly contested issue, one that will most likely galvanize voters before an election next year. According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, about half of all Australians were born overseas or have one parent who was born overseas. More than 80 percent of those born overseas live in the country’s capital cities, with the biggest populations in Sydney and Melbourne.

But experts said that, given the success of the permanent migration program, any cuts to immigration should be carefully considered in light of the potential economic and social implications.

“These decisions have very long-term consequences — enormous consequences for congestion, for infrastructure, various businesses,” said Abul Rizvi, a former senior immigration official.

“I would strongly encourage him to slow down,” Rizvi said of the prime minister.

The permanent migration program has been a central component of the country’s successful economic growth, said Chris F. Wright, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School. “The people that come under that program contribute more to the economy through income taxation than it takes via government services.”

For Morrison to target that program, even as he expands other temporary visa categories, is “baffling,” Wright said.

Politically, it could fuel a “growing fire of populist sentiment” against immigrants, Wright said. “There is a real risk of giving credence and legitimacy to the views of the anti-immigration fringe.”

According to a poll last month, a majority of Australians support the current intake of permanent migrants, with 52 percent approving of the current cap or wanting more. But 45 percent of respondents said the cap should be cut.

Rizvi said the planned changes would have a disproportionate impact on businesses in Sydney, where federal and state governments have previously encouraged newcomers, particularly international students, to settle.

“Now you’ve got a huge success,” he said of efforts to draw students and other immigrants to Sydney, “and you’re complaining that they’re crowding out the roads?”

Urban planning experts said that while immigration does add to demand for services, poor urban planning has contributed to a sense of congestion and resentment against immigrants in cities.

In Sydney, for example, a division between an affluent, largely Anglo population in the city’s north and east and a denser immigrant population in the south and west has caused tensions, said Awais Piracha, an associate professor of urban planning at Western Sydney University.

“A complex problem is being simplified into migrants causing this difficulty,” Piracha said about blaming immigrants for urban congestion. “It’s not as simple as that.”

Given that the city’s developers are building projects based on population forecasts around the current immigration cap, a change in permanent migration levels may have implications for the housing sector by depressing housing prices.

“If the immigration is reduced, there would be some impact on house prices,” Piracha said, suggesting that builders might end up with unsold inventory. “All kinds of planning will have to adjust.”

Morrison’s speech is just the latest attempt to address concerns over immigration in Sydney and Melbourne. Last month, the government announced it was considering a plan to require new migrants to settle in different areas of the country for up to five years after their arrival in Australia.

The new immigration policy will be discussed with state and territorial leaders at a meeting next month, Morrison said.