The coronavirus pandemic has obviously halted a number of conventional aspects of how a country like Australia operates. One notable regular function that requires consideration is migration. As a migrant nation, the ability for people to settle in Australia is usually an ongoing and integral part of how the country manages itself. With its borders closed, Australia’s immigration program has been effectively paused. There should arguably now be a significant number of people who have approval to migrate to Australia, but whose plans to do so are on hold. For how long, at this stage, remains a mystery.
In recent decades Australia’s immigration program has been a significant driver of the country’s economic growth, which had been uninterrupted for 28 years until the pandemic hit. The program has primarily been designed to maintain an advantageous demography, to provide a steady stream of skilled and young workers in order to stave off the pitfalls of an aging society and low fertility rates. Last year the government made adjustments to its intake numbers, cutting the program to around 160,000 people a year. This intake is now at the low end of what would be considered demographically responsible.
However, with the pandemic’s considerable upheaval, including the challenging of many political norms, there is now the question of whether Australia’s immigration program will be further affected once the pandemic has subsided. This year’s intake will obviously be heavily reduced, but will Canberra increase next year’s intake to make up for the shortfall? Or will there be an entire reassessment of the program, with new political forces emerging that could revise Australia’s approach?
Beyond the maintenance of advantageous demographics, Australia’s immigration program has also been an essential component of the state’s capacity building. Among immigrant-accepting countries in the world there is low-intensity competition for the world’s best and brightest, an understanding that it is not just workers these countries need, but productivity and ideas. Alongside this, influence and external capabilities also need to be enhanced. States that are actively seeking to expand their populations — like Australia — have ambitions to improve their relative power in the international sphere.
This makes immigration also an important approach to security, in all its forms. While the pandemic seems to be pushing states away from the idea of global interdependence and toward self-sufficiency, it would be a mistake for Australia to see its current capabilities as sufficient. While it is a wealthy middle power with abundant natural resources, it has limited human resources in a region of populous giants — a region that is also experiencing significant and concerning shifts in power.
The pandemic may spark an acceleration of these power shifts in the Indo-Pacific, especially as there continues to be an anxious uncertainty around the U.S. commitment to the region. U.S. President Donald Trump’s instincts are to retreat from the world, and as C. Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express this week, the coronavirus provides him with a confirmation of his suspicions toward globalization. A post-pandemic election victory for Trump could see these instincts become even more pronounced, and intensify an American retrenchment from Asia. This would be deeply concerning to Australia and require a serious and holistic reassessment of its national strategy.
This reassessment would have to include a more ambitious immigration program in order to dramatically enhance the country’s human capital and its security capabilities. Greater self-sufficiency in the face of a less engaged United States would need to come from greater openness to the world, not a timid retreat from it.
The irony of any retreat from maintaining a substantial immigration program would be that an enhancement of the country’s population will now be an essential component of its economic recovery. The major dilemma will be whether, after the debt the country will amass during the pandemic, governments in Australia — at both state and federal level — will be able to afford the necessary infrastructure improvements required to facilitate a significant growth strategy.
What could prove decisive is not just the shifting approaches to statecraft that may emerge after the pandemic, but also new ideological conceptions, particularly for conservative parties. These parties were already in a state of flux prior to the pandemic, with a number of competing ideologies vying for traction within them. The coronavirus looks set to accelerate this process (although the Republican Party under Trump was already well on the way). For Australia it will be vital that the Liberal Party’s professed liberalism (in the broad sense) can be resistant enough to these forces to maintain a commitment to an active and purposeful immigration program.