Originally published in The Australian, 27 July 2018

Back in 2002, in his first Inter-Generational Report, then-Treasurer Peter Costello forecast that it would take 40 years, until 2042, for Australia’s population to reach 25 million. In fact, we are going to reach this milestone within the next month, 24 years early. We are in the midst of an unprecedented population boom, and immigration is driving it. Through immigration alone, we are adding a city bigger than Canberra to our population every two years. And if you believe the so-called experts, immigration is like a runaway train that can’t be slowed down without crashing the economy, even though immigration averaging 220,000 a year for the past decade has contributed to stagnant wages, unaffordable housing, clogged roads, bursting public transport and an African crime wave in Melbourne.

Good on my colleague, Senator Dean Smith, for proposing a population enquiry to consider all the consequences of such rapid population growth and what might be done to ensure that immigration numbers work for Australians and not just for newcomers. I hope he gets the numbers in the Senate to make this enquiry happen because that would help the government to get off the ultra-high immigration hook that it should never have been on.

As John Howard famously declared (albeit in a slightly different context), “we will determine who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come”. Although my government stopped the boats and prevented illegal migration by restoring control over our borders; when it comes to legal migration, it’s still not really the government that’s in charge. Legal migration is largely determined by businesses that want to bring in temporary workers to keep wages down; universities that want to bring in overseas students to boost their incomes; and the Treasury which insists that permanent migration stay high to improve the budget. This means that immigration numbers can only ever ratchet up, not down. Having stopped illegal migration, it’s legal migration that the government must now urgently get back under control.

To his credit, and against the wishes of his senior colleagues, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has tightened the system to cut permanent immigration by 20,000 this year, but that won’t stop “temporary” business and student numbers from keeping total migration at near-record levels. People coming on short-term business and student visas don’t all become permanent migrants but they all need housing, seek work and have to move around our cities. There are now more than 2 million people here temporarily, nearly 10 per cent of our total population, and they all have to live; which means a much greater need for jobs, accommodation and infrastructure. And when nearly a million don’t speak much English, there’s inevitably more pressure on services, and some who don’t fit in.

As someone born overseas, I can hardly be anti-immigration. My problem is not with immigrants, all of whom chose our country and nearly all of whom make a fine contribution. It’s not with immigration itself which, since 1788, has always been at the heart of modern Australia. My problem is with the rate of immigration that’s double the average of the Howard years, and that’s now putting millions of Australians’ lives under strain. It’s an iron law of economics that more supply cuts price, hence the impact of high immigration on wages; similarly more demand boosts price, hence the impact of high immigration on housing affordability. And plainly, more people mean more pressure on roads and public transport, as anyone trying to move around Sydney and Melbourne knows only too well. We owe it to the people already here to scale back the rate of immigration very considerably, to take the pressure off communities, at least until infrastructure, housing and integration have caught up.

When the population enquiry was first proposed, my fear was that the government might use it to put off decisions until after the election. Still, Senator Smith understands that immigration is the one population lever that the government controls; so any enquiry that he chairs would, I’m sure, soon start issuing interim reports to keep up the pressure for policy change.

Some of the policy issues that the enquiry should consider are: requiring permanent skilled migrants to have an actual job, not just a skill that might be in demand; insisting that temporary business migrants can’t do below-average-wages-jobs; suspending unemployment benefits in areas where unskilled jobs are filled by seasonal migrant workers; moving humanitarian migrants to regional areas with labour shortages; and requiring overseas students to be competent in English before starting degrees. Policy changes along these lines wouldn’t just reduce overall immigration numbers quite sharply; but they should stop, or at least reduce the phenomena of overseas engineering graduates driving taxis, Australian IT specialists that can’t get jobs in their field, backpackers picking fruit while locals are on the dole, and universities putting revenue ahead of academic standards.

Inevitably, the question will come: “why didn’t you do this when you were PM?” Actually, I did. Net Overseas Migration fell from 230,000 in 2013 to 180,000 in 2015 before rising again to 245,000 in 2017. Sure, critics will denounce any change as “populist” but that’s what snobbish elites always say about something that the public want, but they don’t. A recent Newspoll showed 72 per cent support for Dutton’s cut in permanent migration and the latest Lowy survey showed a 14 percentage point leap in opposition to current migration levels – so the government has every reason to move decisively in good time for the next election.