Populism, global economic woes behind recent immigration curbs in the region

Populism, global economic woes behind recent immigration curbs in the region
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection offices in Sydney, Thursday, April 20, 2017. Australia plans to tighten its citizenship rules to require higher English language skills, longer residency and evidence of integration such as a job. Source: AP

Populism, global economic woes behind recent immigration curbs in the region

SINGAPORE — Ms Rabina Singh has operated an Indian tandoori restaurant in the small Australian city of Wagga Wagga for the past 25 years, but she may soon find herself out of business following new immigration restrictions introduced by Canberra.

“I was shattered when I heard that the 457 work-visa scheme would be abolished. The four chefs I currently have are from India. They are here under the 457 system and so were all the chefs who had worked in my restaurant over the years,” she told TODAY in a phone interview.

“I have great difficulty recruiting Indian chefs from Australia as they prefer to work in big cities like Sydney and Melbourne, not a small one like Wagga Wagga,” she said.

“Ending the 457 scheme could mean that I would not have chefs in the future, and I may have to wind up my business,” Ms Singh added.

On Tuesday (April 18), Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull announced that the 457 temporary work visa popular with foreigners will be replaced with one requiring better English-language and work skills. Two days later, Canberra unveiled plans to put “Australian values” at the heart of tougher requirements to gain citizenship.

In a similar move, New Zealand announced on Wednesday (April 19) it will tighten access to its skilled work visas. Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said he was taking a “Kiwis-first approach to immigration”. He echoed the words of Mr Turnbull as well as United States President Donald Trump – who also moved to tighten skilled worker visas on Tuesday – when they announced policies to ensure jobs for their own countrymen.

Analysts interviewed by TODAY noted that these immigration restrictions could be explained by rising populist pressure and a global economic slowdown. This has given rise to the need for governments to prioritise the welfare of their citizens over that of immigrants – or at least be seen to be doing so.

“Conservative governments Australia and New Zealand are both very concerned at the ability of anti-immigrant politicians to attract supporters,” New Zealand-based population expert Paul Spoonley said.

“The move towards more managed and more skill-focused immigration policies (on the part of Canberra and Wellington) therefore sends a message of ‘the government is getting tough’ to those who are concerned that immigrants are taking the jobs of locals or undermining national identity,” added Distinguished Professor Spoonley, who is the pro vice-chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University.

Public policy consultant Chirag Agarwal said the immigration curbs introduced by Australia and New Zealand were “definitely a sign of politicians responding to populism”.

“The fact that the announcement to scrap the entire 457 scheme in Australia was made by the prime minister and in which he tried to undermine the opposition Labor Party and linked the 457 visa with people-smuggling demonstrates how politically charged the issue has become,” added Mr Agarwal, a former Singapore public servant now living in Australia.

He was referring to what Mr Turnbull said on Tuesday during the press conference on scrapping the 457 visa.

“Now, whether it is on border protection and Labor’s shameful record on people-smuggling – recall 50,000 unauthorised arrivals over 1200 deaths at sea – that was Labour’s record on the borders,” the prime minister had said then. “They failed to keep our borders secure, and they failed to manage a 457 system – a temporary migration system – in the national interest. We are changing that.”

Anti-immigration sentiments have been on the rise in Oceania. In New Zealand, traditionally leftist organisations like the Labour Party have jumped onto the anti-immigration bandwagon in the past few years.

Across the Tasman Sea, Australians are growing more disenchanted as the nation’s economy slows down, and this is driving more of them to support right-wing populist parties such as One Nation which is under the leadership of firebrand Pauline Hanson.

While populist pressure may be the impetus behind the new immigration policies of Australia and New Zealand, experts said that broader economic forces also have a role to play.

“It would be hasty in branding any alteration to a country’s immigration policy as populist,” observed Dr Norman Vasu, a senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) who researches on multiculturalism and immigration.

“States modify their labour policy over time and it is hardly surprising that changes are being made now in the context of a global slowdown.”

“The latest measures by Australia and New Zealand seem to be driven by a desire to refine immigration policy to attract the more skilled, as well as to reduce immigrant numbers to lighten the strain on public services and cool the property market,” added Dr Vasu, who is the deputy head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at RSIS.

In the case of Australia, the new visa restriction reflects the weakening labour market, Dr Bob Birrell, the president of the Australian Population Research Institute, observed.

“The very high application to vacancy rates in major professions like engineering, accounting and IT have all put pressure on the government to ensure that vacancies go to the locals.”

Analysts say that it is difficult to tell whether these policies would be effective in alleviating socio-economic woes. But ultimately, developed countries such as Australia need immigrants to support their economies.

“Developed nations face the pressures of an ageing population combined with a total fertility rate below the replacement rate. This means that there won’t be enough people to support the economy unless foreigners are allowed to immigrate and settle down in the country,” Mr Agarwal said.

“Contrary to popular belief, immigrants often don’t compete for jobs with the locals, but instead do jobs that the locals either cannot do or don’t want to do.”