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The immigration debate continues with Senator Peter Walsh arguing for a reduction in the number of migrants

PRU GOWARD: Well, former Finance Minister, Peter Walsh, has done it again. In his first column for the Financial Review, Peter Walsh argues that the Government allowed the migration intake to increase, for fear of a political backlash from ethnic communities. When Labor came to power in 1983, he says, immigration was at about 80,000 people a year. Labor increased this figure by 20,000 a year and it now sits at 140,000. Peter Walsh argues that large numbers have put pressure on our roads, our schools, our infrastructure, and he points to 1986 census figures which show that 42 per cent of immigrants without English have an unemployment rate of 42 per cent.

Well, was there political pressure, or not? Joining me now, is the man who presided over immigration for the Hawke Government in those early years, and now sits on the back bench, Stewart West. Good morning, Stewart West.

STEWART WEST: Good morning.

PRU GOWARD: Mr West, do you agree that the Government increased migrant numbers in response to fear of a political backlash?

STEWART WEST: No. That's the section of Peter's article that I don't agree with. I think that Peter Walsh is partly correct in what he says in this morning's article, particularly with regard to the effect of immigration on the capital cities. In a situation where, because of the current account deficits and external debt problems, that we rely very much upon very tight monetary policy and high interest rates and a very tight fiscal policy and a squeeze on State expenditures, there is a basic contradiction in bringing 140,000 people a year - and, of course, that entails an added rate of family formation and so on, and people being born in Australia as a result of the migrant intake, at a time when this squeeze is on.

In other words, if you are not building enough houses and you are stalling on infrastructure projects and squeezing the States' capacity to supply infrastructure, well, there is a basic contradiction and Walsh is quite right there. But where Walsh is wrong, where Peter is wrong, is where he says that the current level of 140,000 is a result of blow-outs year by year and cave-ins to ethnic leaders and so on. I don't believe that is so. It wasn't so in my day, and it certainly wasn't so in Robert Ray's day.

PRU GOWARD: Well, then why did you increase the migrant intake each year by 20,000?

STEWART WEST: Well, let's have a look at the last seven years. When I became Minister for Immigration in 1983 when we won government, the intake was already at a low level, and we kept that at about 70, 80,000 a year, not counting the change of status cases in Australia for several years, that is, as we came out of the 82-83 recession. But as the economy picked up over the years, well, it was quite legitimate to increase the program?

PRU GOWARD: Why?

STEWART WEST: Well, for a number of reasons: firstly, on humanitarian grounds. It's necessary for a country that runs a very strong migration program - and we're about the only country in the world that I know of that actually runs an organised migration policy in the sense that you set ceilings and targets and so on. So for a nation that does that, and which consequently carries about six million people who were born overseas or have a parent born overseas, family reunion is humane and necessary.

PRU GOWARD: But didn't it worry you at the time, as Immigration Minister, that the numbers were going up and, yet, as you say, there was no increase in infrastructure to cope with them?

STEWART WEST: Yes. Well, I pointed out that that's a basic problem, and as ....

PRU GOWARD: But did you point it out to Cabinet?

STEWART WEST: .... problems developed for Australia which are basically on the external accounts - foreign debt and imports and so on, and current account deficits - well, then, of course, we've squeezed monetary policy and fiscal policy, and that's meant a squeeze on the States, so there is a basic contradiction there and I agree with that.

However, the fact is that Walsh is wrong when he says that we simply increased the numbers as a result of blow-outs and cave-ins. It was a conscious - it was certainly a conscious policy effort, and it was done so, in my view, because (a) there's a need to cater for family reunion, and (b) as we came out of the '82/'83 recession and enjoyed - except for '86 - a fairly long, economic boom, which is now only recently sliding into recession as a result of macro-policy, there was a need to bolster the labour market with skilled migrants to cover certain areas where labour shortages existed, and to take the pressure off wages policy.

PRU GOWARD: Well, in that case, why does Peter Walsh point out that 42 per cent of immigrants without English were unemployed, in other words, you weren't increasing the numbers of skilled ....

STEWART WEST: Well, that's the point, you see. You have to regard the migration program basically in two sections. You've got family reunion and refugees, which I think, from memory, make up about 50 per cent of the 140,000 intake; then you have basically the - what you might call the independent skilled categories; and, to a lesser extent, employer nominations and business migration. So you see, the people who don't have English and so on and contribute to that 42 per cent unemployment rate, are basically people who are coming in for humanitarian reasons, not the people who are coming in on the skilled migrant intake. So there are basically two components of the program.

But, look: the 140,000, I think, has been all right, up until now, and the big question is, that is, as we have enjoyed - if I could use that term - an economic boom period, but of course, the Government has decided that that should be terminated by the use of fiscal and monetary policy because of problems on the external account sides. So the big question from here on, as I think the economy slips into recession - as a result of these macro-policies, is whether you want to continue bringing in 140,000 people a year if you are going to continue - for macro-policy reasons - the squeeze on the States and so on.

Now, I think Walsh is partly right, therefore, in what he says, but basically, he's making his criticisms too early if he means that we should immediately curtail the program. My view is that we should keep a very close watch on it, Pru, and if the recession is prolonged, and if the Government, Cabinet and the Treasurer consider that it's necessary to continue the squeeze on the States, say, over the next two or three years - which, to me, seems probable - I think, then, you have to review the 140,000 a year. And I personally would think that we shouldn't listen to the calls of those who say that we should virtually wipe out the program or that we should bring it down to 80 or 90,000. I personally think that you wind it back probably to about 100, 120,000 a year.

PRU GOWARD: And finally, Stewart West, you say no political pressure, but I'm surprised that there wouldn't have been lobbying from ethnic groups, of various complexions and natures, to say: `Well, we would like to see the family reunion program expanded; we feel that these people have a right to be here, and that ....' - in some seats in Australia they make up considerable political groupings. They actually could decide the fate of a seat, so I'm surprised that it didn't happen at all.

STEWART WEST: Well, I didn't say it didn't happen. I said that it - I would say that it certainly happens. I assure you that it does happen, that the ethnic lobby is alive and well and tries to put heavy pressure on the Government. What I said, Pru, was that the Government has not increased the migration intake, particularly on the skilled labour side, to 140,000 a year - and that's basically where the increases have come from - as a result of that pressure. I'm saying that of course there's been pressure - and always will be for family reunion - and from some for a high migration program across the board. I'm saying that pressure's been there, but it doesn't necessarily mean that that's the reason why the Government has lifted the figures.

I think Walsh is 50 per cent right on the economic side as we move into recession and as we squeeze the States; but he is wrong in saying that we should act immediately, it should be a shoot from the hip proposition - we shouldn't do it like that - and he is wrong when he says the Cabinet increased the program simply to please the ethnic lobby.

PRU GOWARD: There were, in fact, a range of reasons.

STEWART WEST: A range of reasons.

PRU GOWARD: And of course, you, as Immigration Minister, were there with, I guess, the sound policies that Walsh is talking about, but there might have been other members of Cabinet conscious of what's going on in their electorate.

STEWART WEST: Well, I remember the debate in Cabinet very well, after the FitzGerald Report. I thought Ray did a very good job with both the program for this year and ensuing two or three years, and on the revamping of the Migration Act, which I understand from press reports that Gerry Hand is going to modify slightly today. But make no mistake, Pru. That was not just a puerile debate in Cabinet where everyone just sat back and said `Oh, well, the ethnic leaders want this so we must give it to them'. There was a long, rational debate over quite a number of hours about this program.

Now, Walsh is partly right when he questions whether the decision was right or not, given the problems on the external account and the fact that we, sure as hell, are going to squeeze the States this year, and you have to ask yourself: does it make sense to bring 140,000, 150,000 a year in now that we are sliding into recession, and given that we're going to squeeze the hell out of the States on infrastructure funding.

PRU GOWARD: Stewart West, we'll leave it there. Stewart West, a former Minister for Immigration, as you heard Stewart West say, in the early days of the Hawke Government and then, of course, continuing on as a member of Cabinet and an interested observer.