Politics Analysis

Politics of immigration in 2024: More Dutton dog-whistling

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(Image by Dan Jensen)

Even just a few weeks into the new year, there is every indication the Opposition intends to use immigration as a political wedge in 2024 and in the lead-up to the 2025 Election.

While the Coalition will be keen to see more boat arrivals in 2024 (a large number of boat arrivals would be a sure-fire election winner for the Coalition), it may be disappointed as both major parties now have very similar policies in this area. Like a broken record, Peter Dutton will continue to scaremonger on boat arrivals at every opportunity, without explaining what he would do differently.

Does he really intend to reverse Labor’s policy of providing temporary protection visa holders — people who will live in Australia the rest of their lives — with a pathway to permanent residence? Or will he cease allowing refugees, who arrived by boat after offshore processing was re-introduced, to be re-settled in New Zealand as he did when he was Minister for Home Affairs? Highly unlikely, given the costs involved. Even he wouldn’t be that silly.

The Opposition will be keen to see the High Court again intervene in immigration detention policy, possibly by finding that the recently passed visa conditions legislation is unconstitutional, as it is more about punishment than community protection. Even though the Coalition introduced the punitive aspects of this legislation (and agreed to by Labor due to political fear, not because it thinks that is good policy), Dutton will happily blame the Government for any future High Court decision in this area.

Dutton will also be very happy if the courts decide to put very few (if not none) of the recently released detainees into preventative detention. The "dangerous immigrants under your bed" scaremongering will restart at every opportunity, especially as 2024 will be the year Donald Trump turns up the "immigrants poisoning the blood" campaign. Dutton’s scaremongering will seem mild by comparison.

But the two key immigration policy issues the Opposition will push hardest on are asylum seekers arriving by plane and the blowout in net migration.

Asylum seekers arriving by plane

Jumping aboard this highly misleading article in the Daily Telegraph, Opposition spokesperson Dan Tehan said the Government had been asleep by allowing asylum seekers arriving by plane to grow to over 2,000 per month. Deputy Opposition Leader Sussan Ley demanded a "crackdown", even though it was the Coalition Government that initially allowed this situation to arise with no "crackdown" and with no reference to the $160 million package to better manage the asylum system that Labor had just announced.

That strategy will take time to take effect. At end November 2023, there were 31,383 asylum applications at the primary stage; another 41,572 at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) (up from just over 5,000 in 2016) and a further 34,957 who have been refused by the AAT but have not departed. A total of 107,912 asylum seekers living in the Australian community - an unprecedented level. Only around 15 per month are actually removed from Australia.

The reality is that the $160 million strategy is very limited given the size of the challenge. It took Labor 18 months to put together despite knowing of the problem well before the 2022 Election. At best, the $160 million will eventually slow the rate of new applications with the faster processing of these.

While the Albanese Government has restored some of the Coalition’s cuts to immigration compliance funding, that will not be near enough to substantially increase the number of unsuccessful asylum seekers who are removed.

Australia will never return to the relatively small size of the plane arrival asylum caseload, which existed before Peter Dutton became Home Affairs Minister and negligently allowed a massive labour trafficking scam to boom.

Like Europeans and North Americans, Australians will have to accept that we too will have a large population of asylum seekers living in the shadows of society, constantly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The history of this issue, and in particular Dutton’s negligence in allowing the massive labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system from 2015-16 that led to the current situation, will not matter. With the able assistance of the Murdoch press, Dutton will use the asylum seeker scare for all its worth. He will know that most Australians are unlikely to ever recognise the role Dutton’s negligence played in bringing about this situation.

Record net migration and the "Big Australia" scare

The current record levels of net migration were not about "catch-up".

They were a function of three factors:

  • COVID-era immigration policy settings and the Coalition Government’s measures early in 2022 to rapidly boost immigration, particularly through use of fee-free visa applications;
  • a hot labour market during the second half of 2022, leading to the Albanese Government clearing visa application backlogs and increasing the permanent migration program; and
  • extensive delays in removing COVID-era policy settings and tightening immigration policy generally.

After letting net migration blow out to around 518,000 in 2022-23, the Albanese Government has forecast net migration falling to 375,000 in 2023-24 and 250,000 in 2024-25. From 1 July 2023, the Albanese Government has steadily tightened immigration policy, particularly in relation to students, to try and achieve this reduction.

But the first five months of data on net permanent and long-term movements (see Table 1 below) suggests the "estimate" of 375,000 for net migration in 2023-24 will be very difficult to deliver.

Table 1: Net Permanent and Long-term Movements
Source: ABS, Arrivals and Departures

Historically, net permanent and long-term movements are generally higher than net migration. But that wasn’t the case in 2022 when a larger than usual portion of short-term arrivals extended stay, and a large portion of permanent and long-term arrivals did not depart (possibly due to the strong labour market as well as delays in closing the COVID visa).

As a result, net permanent and long-term movements in 2022 were 173,180 while net migration was 422,231. This trend appears to have been repeated in financial year 2022-23 when net permanent and long-term movements were 353,670 while net migration was 518,000.

In the March quarter of 2023, net permanent and long-term movements were 154,890 compared to net migration of 157,684. Because of this outcome, IA was under the impression the relationship between net permanent and long-term movements and net migration was returning to normality (that is, net permanent and long-term movements higher than net migration for the same period).

In the June quarter of 2023, however, net permanent and long-term movements were 90,140 and net migration was 121,788. A possible explanation for this is that a significant portion of short-term arrivals extended stay — possibly using the fee-free COVID visa stream — applying for asylum or applying for other longer-term visas. The Department of Home Affairs would have the data to know better.

If net permanent and long-term movements are going to continue to be less than net migration in 2023-24, the fact these were 90,310 higher in just the first five months of 2023-24 compared to 2022-23, should be worrying the Government. The Government will be heavily relying on a marked slow-down in student arrivals in the March Quarter of 2024 (largely through a high refusal rate and slow processing); a large exodus of COVID visa holders in the first half of 2024 and a major reduction in short-term arrivals (particularly visitors) extending stay to get net migration down to 375,000 in 2023-24. Another challenge for the Government is that working holiday-makers are continuing to arrive in large numbers at a time when they can readily extend their stay well beyond 12 months.

As the ABS will report very high levels of net migration in 2024 and early 2025, Dutton will continue to argue this proves Labor has adopted a "Big Australia" policy by stealth even though the Coalition had Australia on a very similar population trajectory just prior to the pandemic.

Together with arguments the Government has allowed a return to large numbers of unmeritorious asylum applications (although still below the records set under Peter Dutton), that may well be a winning political strategy for the 2025 Election.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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