Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Migration Agent's view -- A rare spot of mirth in the population debate

Upton Sinclair once said "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

Our media have covered the population issue so poorly and reluctantly that one still meets people who are only just beginning to learn that there might be a problem with population growth. Sometimes their naivety is amusing.

Recently a man called Grant Williams took offence at Kelvin Thomson’s suggestion that high net migration imposes costs on the community. Mr Williams is a migration agent. In fact quite a big wheel.

Grant Williams, he tells us on his blog, “is the Principal Registered Migration Agent (MARN 0854799) at Immigration Pty Ltd” in Sydney. He writes columns on immigration issues “in various ethnically themed newspapers”, and he “has  been working (as a Migration Agent) and writing on immigration issues since 1997.”   [Not nearly as long as some of us have been thinking and writing about population and immigration, Grant!] His aim is “to provide as wide a range of potential users of Australia’s migration and temporary visas programs, their families and friends with up-to-date information…”

I get the feeling Mr William sees himself as a highly moral man. After all there are no moral grey areas (are there?) in  helping as many people as possible  to negotiate Australia’s immigration regulations. Mr Williams is convinced that “Business is finding significant skills shortages and Australian employment levels are very high” and “the only answer is migrants.”

That 100,000 young Australians dropped out of the workforce last year unable to compete with imported pre-trained workers, that many of our children don’t bother to get qualifications or, if they do, take them overseas to where employers are prepared to pay world market rates for labour – is the sort of thing he dismisses as union propaganda. That high population growth helps clog our roads, overloads public transport,  and produces crippling house-mortgages seems to be news to him. He, perhaps conveniently granted his profession, finds this connection unproven or too simple.

So Kelvin’s suggestion that massive immigration rates, producing population growth at 4 to 6 times the average of industrialised countries, might be impoverishing Australia struck Mr Williams as – well not as a revelation – he resisted revelation;  but as grounds for moral outrage. It was so different from the correct  view of  the benefits of immigration, which he had been exchanging at professional conferences and one assumes in “ethnically themed newspapers”. Instead of importing immigrants being an “industry” that “enriched” Australia by X billion dollars a year, these pesky critics of high immigration were suggesting that the infrastructure bill per extra Australian is something like $200,000  per person,  and can bankrupt states and cities or force them to let their infrastructure run down.

Yet however offended, Mr Williams is not a man to sink to vulgar abuse. Calm reason is his method; and in his blog he sets out calmly to show Kelvin is wrong.  He picks on Kelvin’s phrase “runaway population growth” as a use  of “emotive language to sway opinion”, and claims:
If we look at Australia’s population growth over a reasonable period say 1950 to today we see that it changes year by year (that’s to be expected) but the trend is unremittingly down not up…. So Kelvin it’s not running anywhere but let’s not let the facts get in the way of your point.
Oh dear! Mr Williams is no demographer. He muddles together the actual growth  of our population (which in fact continues relentlessly and always upward) with the “trend” by which he  probably means what mathematicians call the first differential --- the rate of change of population size. This may well sometimes dip sharply, even while population itself continues ever upwards.   Here for instance is the graph of Australia’s population growth.


As a substitute, here from Wikipedia and ABS is a table of Australia's population  at 5 year intervals.

2011 22.500.000  (estimated)

Not much truth in his claim that “the trend is unremittingly down not up”.  But let’s be generous and assume he meant to concede this, and to say not that our population was trending ever downwards, but that the annual rate of change, either in our population or in our net migration, was doing so.
Well, here’s a graph of annual net migration  by the Immigration Department’s own researchers.

[DRAT AGAIN !  THIS PROGRAM WON'T ACCEPT THE UPLOAD OF THE IMAGE --but you can find this one at p. 74 on the Immigration department's website inside  It's pretty striking]

Oh dear! Still not much of an unrelenting downward trend. In fact far more of an upward curve  - especially when you consider that this graph (taken from ) shows net migration by 2008 heading for the first time above 200,000, a figure it is still probably a little above. (Julia Gillard, you will remember, refused to match a promise by the Opposition to keep it “down” to 170,000. Treasury's projections are based on 180,000 a year.) And natural increase is also at a record high.

Despite offering little evidence beyond assertion for his own claims, Mr Williams inveighs censoriously against Kelvin’s careful documentation of the bizarre mortgages, infrastructure failures, traffic jams, and other evils that such rapid population growth promotes. He ends with a glorious peroration, full of moral superiority:

To suggest that the system encourages rorting, abuse and undermines Australian wages and conditions is a purely political ploy and has moved past the border of acceptable and fair to become outright offensive.

Amazingly Mr Williams, though a migration agent, has forgotten the long history of rorts (from both employers and would-be immigrants) that have affected all migration schemes, from the "special enterprise zones" of 2 decades ago (which turned out to be jail-like sweat-shops) right down to the very recent trick of buying your way into the country by doing a degree at a 'College' set up for the purpose.

It would be easy to be harsh about Mr William’s belief that logic and ethics must favor the views he assumes.

Yet let us, "however altered the shape of our smiles" (to quote Les Murray), remember that we are all susceptible to such influences. It’s easy to let Australia's pro-growth media shape our thinking. We ourselves may be just as misled on other issues where we have failed to establish the facts or think through the issues.

To be fair to Mr Williams, it is particularly easy to be unconsciously and innocently misled  when you are inside an industry, surrounded by its PR and by people who all have a vested interest in not questioning certain assumptions.

Upton Sinclair was right. Trust no one to be objective when their own vested interests are at stake – not even yourself!


  1. Australian Immigration Agents
    Great thoughts you got there, believe I may possibly try just some of it throughout my daily life.