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Residency & citizenship

March 4, 2010

The immigration debate is generally between those who want fewer people to come to Australia and those who are happy with continued high (or higher) immigration. I think both groups are right.

I agree with defenders of immigration on the economic, social and environmental arguments.

The evidence shows that foreign workers unambiguously help our economy by providing extra skills, a bigger market, and more opportunities for trade. For economists, this outcome is no surprise. Restrictions on labour movement is just as costly as restrictions on trade or restrictions on foreign investment.

Likewise, the environmental complaint has little weight. There are many countries and cities around the world that easily cater for a greater population density on less arable land and with fewer resources available. Technology and trade has solutions for all these problems. The greenhouse argument is the weakest of all. When a person moves from New Zealand to Australia that may increase Australia’s greenhouse emissions, but it will not increase the global greenhouse emissions.

The social argument is more difficult to assess because there is no easy way to measure social harmony, but there is no reason to think that people from around the world can’t live in harmony side by side. Indeed, Australia is an immigrant country and has already successfully mixed people from the UK, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Vietnam, China and many other countries. Around the world, large minority populations flourish. Malaysia’s Chinese population makes up 20% of their country, while in some Gulf countries, workers from Pakistan and India outnumber the locals without trouble.

New immigrants do bring elements of their home culture with them. For some, this is a significant benefit as we have more access to good Indian food, can celebrate Chinese New Year (gong xi fa cai), and practice speaking Russian. Some Australians don’t enjoy foreign cultures and prefer to stick with other Australians similar to themselves. I think that is an absolutely legitimate lifestyle choice that inner-city sophisticates should learn to respect. But the beauty of immigration in a free country is that you can choose to eat meat pies instead of Indian curry, celebrate Christmas and ignore Chinese New Year, and play cricket instead of learning Russian. Multiculturalism should not be compulsory.

However, there are two problems with immigration that I think are more problematic — access to welfare and the impact on our democracy.

Australian taxpayers cannot afford to (and shouldn’t have to) pay for the health and welfare of anybody who wants to come to our country. Consequently, it is sometimes claimed that we cannot have a liberal immigration system until we have reformed the health and welfare system.

The second problem is less obvious, but just as problematic. A democracy is only as good as the voters. A continued stream of new voters coming from countries with different (and sometimes incompatible) values can undermine elements of our government that we find important.

I don’t think that different values are a problem so long as they relate to the private sphere, but when these values translate into politics they can be imposed on everybody. Some Australians understandably are concerned about the possibility of Sharia law, while others reject the authoritarian tendencies of some people from a Confucianist background.

Consequently, even if you accept that immigrants are not a threat to social harmony (as I do) it is still possible to prefer low levels of immigration to ensure that new arrivals don’t bias our political system towards policies you don’t want.

The solution

The “low immigration” v “high immigration” debate is a false dichotomy because it doesn’t draw a distinction between residents and citizens. I suggest that the benefits of immigration come from residency and the costs of immigration are linked to citizenship, and so the solution is to make it easier to come to Australia, but harder to become an Australian citizen.

This is the approach that is already used by many countries around the world, including developed countries such as Singapore and Japan.

The new “resident” category could build on the current “work visa” and “study visa” systems, but be made more liberal. Residents should be able to study and/or work without restrictions and stay in Australia as long as they like. They would still be required to extend their “residency visa” periodically and show that they have a place to live and a source of income (perhaps including a “bond” which they would get back later). Residents would be required to take out private health insurance, pay the unsubsidised price for any education, and would not be eligible for welfare payments. These are the same requirements that currently exist for people on a study visa.

Not only would residents add value to the country without the associated welfare and democracy problems, they would also have a strong incentive to follow the laws because they could have their residency visa revoked. The absence of welfare and the ability to deport residency should remove any remaining fear people have of immigrant violence.

After a certain period of time, residents should be able to apply to become “permanent residents” who would then have access to government health, education and welfare (as is the current system). Applying for PR should not be a simple process — including a time requirement (perhaps 5-10 years), a cost (an “immigration tariff”), and a range of economic, social and legal requirements such as proof of financial stability and references from Australian citizens. If somebody is able and willing to jump through those hoops then they are likely to be a valued permanent addition to our society… and if they’re not able or willing then they are still free to work and study in Australia as long as they like, while paying their own way.

Finally, after a certain period of time, PRs should be able to apply to become Australian citizens, who would then get an Australian passport, be able to vote, and cannot be deported. Application for citizenship should be much harder than it is today to ensure that only the most dedicated and high quality applicants succeed. There should be a long time limit (perhaps 18 years as a PR in imitation of how long it takes an Australian-born person to be able to vote, or perhaps even more), a high cost, and a range of economic, social and legal requirements, perhaps extending to evidence of community or military service.

Of course, people who are unable or unwilling to go through the citizenship process are free to remain in Australia as PRs, effectively the same as citizens but without the passport or vote.

Children born to residents in Australia should also be considered residents (under their parents protection), while children born to PRs should be considered citizens.

A local approach

Different areas in Australia should be allowed to have different policies regarding residents. Areas with a shortage of workers or simply a shortage of people could encourage residents to settle there, while other areas may want to limit the number of residents who can settle, or target specific types of residents.

By allowing local areas to discriminate for or against residents, it should be possible to have an immigration program that pleases people with different opinions about foreigners. Some places in Australia would become more multicultural, while others would be able to retain their historical culture.

There would be no need for a federal limit on the number of residents, as the total number would be a consequence of the limits imposed by each local area.


The residency approach extends easily into the humanitarian (refugee) immigration intake. Those people and non-government agencies who want to help refugees would be able to “put their money where their mouth is” and accept responsibility for bringing over and looking after refugees. This added flexibility means that Australia would be more easily able to accommodate a large number of short-term refugees in times of significant crisis.

This idea has an echo of the “temporary protection visa” policy, where refugees can stay for as long as somebody is looking after them and they are not in trouble with the law. If the money runs out, they can either stay on as residents and pay their own way (like any other resident), return to their home country (if it is now safe), go on to an alternative country, or accept internment in a refugee camp (which is where they would have been anyway).

The government may decide to also sponsor a limited number of “supported residents”, either on humanitarian grounds or perhaps as a sort of “immigration scholarship” for poor but promising young foreigners.

The people puzzle

Immigration is not an easy policy area, but I think we need to move past the “more or less” debate and instead start a discussion of “what safe-guards need to be in place to ensure we can easily accommodate new arrivals”.

The “resident but not citizen” approach should appeal to both sides of the debate.

For supporters of immigration, a more liberal residency system provides all the benefits of liberal immigration, but is more easily achievable and has fewer potential problems. By responding to some of the concerns about immigration, a residency approach is less likely to create a backlash,  and will therefore be more acceptable to mainstream Australia.

For opponents of immigration, there must be a realisation that both sides of politics will continue with a policy of managed immigration. The state of our public finances and our need for skilled labour make it very unlikely that we will ever “close the door”, and so the important question is how we manage the flow of people. A residency approach removes the welfare and democracy problem, while also providing a strong incentive for new arrivals to be law-abiding and productive members of society. If people do go on to become PRs or citizens they will have to pay for the privilege (which will cover their share of the costs of Australian infrastructure). The residency approach will likely lead to fewer new Australian citizens.

We need to distinguish more clearly between residency and citizenship. The benefits of immigration come from residency, while many of the costs come from citizenship. So the solution is to allow more people to come to Australia, but make it much harder for them to ever become Australian citizens.

  1. March 5, 2010 at 2:46 am

    I agree. I came from a bit more of an anti-immigration background, but my own opinion is now roughly what you’ve expressed here.

  2. March 7, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Up to 28 years from arrival to become a citizen? Isn’t that a bit long?

    I don’t understand the rationale for the duration (assuming it’s not arbitrary, or ‘just feels right’). Why not, for example, make it 5 years to PR, then another 5 years to citizen?

  3. March 7, 2010 at 8:15 am

    PS I just recommended you to the editor of an academic journal who was looking for an economist doing some analysis of the over-reaction to the terrorist threat. Of course, they may take one look at your blog and run away, but you never know 😉

  4. March 7, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Thanks Jarrah.

    Having a long time is the point. Perhaps it should be even longer… 50 years? Or even life (ie you have to be born in Australia to permanent resident parents)? And more than time, there need to be other difficult hurdles to jump. Monetary cost. References. Evidence of contributions. Evidence of self-sufficiency.

    The easier it is to get citizenship, then the easier it is to argue *against* letting people come to Australia in the first place. As all the benefits (to immigrant & Australians) come from residency (not citizenship)… we should be removing barriers to residency. Making citizenship harder lets us have more residents. Win-win outcome.

  5. TerjeP (say taya)
    March 12, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    When a person moves from New Zealand to Australia that may increase Australia’s greenhouse emissions, but it will not increase the global greenhouse emissions.

    I suspect this is a flawed example. Firstly people living in Australia do over time tend to earn more than those that live in New Zealand and will hence consume more energy directly as well as energy embedded in products and services. Secondly a greater proporation of electricity in New Zealand comes from low emission sources such as geothermal and hydro.


  6. Peter Cunningham
    March 12, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    Substantially I agree, but John fails reasonable argument in three areas – likely not to dwell on the point due to stronger being made later. One area is the impact on the environment – totally unconvincing.
    He puts forward some solid argument (and I agree) regarding the historical benefits of controlled migration, but fails totally to deal with the the need to be selective, and by that I mean by skills based priority rather than mass indiscriminate importation – and the very real risks of importing those with Islamic beliefs (proved to be very high risk elements) and of course the experience of ALL other countries that have wittingly or unwittingly harboured Islam. Commonly it’s followers actively seek to dominate other cultures and politics with Islamic beliefs. As an atheist – I consider most all religions are callow or just outright businesses, but people can believe what they want so long as they don’t bother me.
    He highlights two issues that are often not discussed (taxpayers footing the bill & democracy issues) and I again agree with him because they are my arguments.
    I don’t have the time to do a full review, but in essence it’s pretty good.

  7. March 13, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Peter — my system would select for people who are peaceful, can look after themselves and add value to society. What more do you want? I don’t see a problem with allowing Muslims into Australia, so long as they aren’t able to impose their personal morality on other people. My system achieves that.

    Terje — I was hoping somebody would raise the “getting rich” element. I agree there is an indirect link between all policy and the environment because policies impact on wealth and richer people use more resources. But this leads to the choice between (1) allowing people to get rich and use more resources; or (2) have the government try to keep people poor (or make them poorer) to save resources. Once the choice is made explicit, I think most people will (and should) choose (1).

    But on the NZ hydro… touche. I should have said “in general, people movement wil not much much of a direct impact”, though there will be slight positives and negatives depending on the resource efficiency of different parts of the world.

  8. Peter Cunningham
    March 13, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    Terje – I am sure John used the NZ analogy as a rough example, and wanted to deal with stronger ‘argument’ later than dwell on that.
    In the washup, it’s the burgeoning population that is the real cause of the world’s problems – and worsened by the natural human desire to have a more comfortable and secure life.
    When China and India come ‘online’ and their expectations are progressively being met – then is when the real problems will arise.
    Those problems will obviously include greater impact on earth’s resources and inevitable pollution in all it’s forms, and the challenging of international borders as both population and it’s demands increase.
    Therefore a level of controlled migration is both necessary and prudent.
    That said – nature has for some decades belting us around the ears ‘saying’ that Australia cannot sustain the demands the existing population and exports.
    We are too often farming in land that should not be farmed (eg rising salt) and farming animals that are traditional food sources, but which are generally incompatible with Australia’s scant top soils and severe climates.
    Add to that incompatible cropping that not only contributes to rising salt levels (eg: cotton) and massive scale cropping that is efficient, but too often is sustainable only by introduced nutrients.
    We are engineering an artificial world, and when a link in that chain fails, civilisation can collapse into anarchy. Cast your mind back to the LA riots? The veneer of civilisation melted in days when systems failed.

    Given those few examples – and there are more – to my engineers mind it is foolhardy to deliberately increase our population beyond the limits that nature has set for us.

    Regarding Islam. Only the naive or fools cannot or will not recognise the threat of Islam poses. Islam has infected nations around the world – and violently. It’s a fact that Islam cannot or will not halt the excesses of factions either in it’s ranks or those masquerading as being so.
    Given the dismal track record of Islam in countries that have harboured the religion (which is in fact a way of life) where the intolerant demand tolerance, often by threat of ,or the direct and real application of force; WHY would a sane person invite such a high risk element onto it’s shores? The followers of Islam have proved THEMSELVES to belong to a regressive and violent belief structure, and one that in it’s writings is deliberately setting out to be the “single and dominant religion”.

    I would like you or anybody here or on any other forum to demonstrate examples of where in host nations the good deeds of Islam have outweighed the bad, and just how Australia can benefit by importing a known high risk element.

  9. March 15, 2010 at 8:01 am

    I disagree. You argue that we can’t manage more people because we don’t have enough resources. But the prosperity of a country is not linked to the physical resources within that country. Australia has been getting ever-richer despite ever-more immigrants. Singapore (with no farming) and Dubai (with effectively no fresh water) are rich and getting richer. Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Burma (with good farm-land and lots of resources) are dirt poor. The leftist fixation on the location of natural resources has always been wrong, and repeatedly shown wrong by pro-market economists. What matters is people, institutions and ideas.

    The examples you give of Australian farmers perhaps farming the wrong products has nothing to do with the size of our population. If you get the incentives right, people will tend towards the most effective businesses, irrespective of how many people just moved to Newcastle or Hobart.

    Indeed, the international competition for resources and need for growing productivity are actually an argument for a *more liberal* immigration system, as that will improve efficiency.

    I disagree that Islam is a problem, so long as nobody wants to impose it on other people. Most of the examples that you could cite where Islam has been a problem could equally well be explained by the existence of welfare ghettos. The same is true of aborignal welfare ghettos, or white welfare ghettos. When welfare dependency destroys a community I think it makes more sense to blame the welfare, rather than some inate element of the community. The existence of libertarian Musims (like Amir Butler in Australia) and socialist non-Muslims show that it makes no sense to just worry about any one sub-group.

    My suggestion removes the welfare problem, reduces the problem of enforcing views through government, and provides a very strong incentive towards peaceful behaviour. That leaves us with hard-working families in voluntary communities. Sounds good to me.

    And don’t forget that I also allowed for different approaches in different regions. If it was true that no community in Australia wanted to incorporate more people, then immigration would stop. However, while some places may want to restrict new members (for example, Noosa has been restricting resident numbers for a long time), I am confident that other places will see the benefits of a growing population. To each their own.

  10. Peter Cunningham
    March 15, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    John – some fairly solid argument – but first a definition:
    “Sustainability” is an oft misused ‘rubber’ word. As an engineer I ask; is it not wise to first determine a benchmark / foundation before developing systems on it?
    To me, that benchmark is of what nature can provide at it’s weakest point, and from there develop systems that then determine what is a viable population that can comfortably feed itself? To me, that is sustainability. Modification from that point introduces systems and engineering that generate greater output – ultimately for profit. Be it for export or internal use, that output beyond the benchmark becomes unsustainable, but it all helps to create a better life for increasing numbers of people who in turn are part of the economy of a nation – but a nation relying on systems and already prohibitively priced fuel.

    Back to your reply: No – my argument was not that we don’t have enough resources. My argument is that our existing demands on this country to satisfy our internal needs, and the external needs of exporting food to other places in the world (as you mentioned) to help keep them ‘alive’ have proved to not be ‘sustainable’ due to nature itself not delivering a reliable source of water. If it were, why then do we already suffer increasing droughts and water rationing?

    To make matters worse:
    a) That large scale farming (cropping and stock) in marginal lands with little or no topsoil, that is forced to be productive by many artificial means.
    b) That animal production is based on historical preferences that were imported when whiteman arrived, but which are all too often hugely damaging to the environment by soil compaction, and accelerated soil erosion by water and wind.
    c) And where do housing estates get placed? Not in bushland – the greenies will object with “the rare and endangered (insert name of species here)”, so why not on that wonderful pasture that sheep and cattle eat? And who eats the sheep and cattle and the crops that land once provided?
    d) And then the absurd criminal folly and hypocrisy of Federal and State governments: The Liverpool plains – selling off a huge and unique area of THE most consistently agriculturally productive land in Australia to the Chinese for massive scale open cut mining for coal – and then so we must pay our ‘carbon penalties’ via a useless international bureaucracy for digging the stuff up in the first place. If you don’t know, the Liverpool plains have comfortably withstood all droughts and maintained productivity to keep us fed and alive, and this is due to the massive aquifer below.
    e) And what quality of life will cities have when they are jam packed with people – housed inevitably in vertical developments? Sydney to this day is using many convict built sewers and systems that are not only failing, but are inadequate. Our roads are a nightmare with regular gridlock and billions of hours of wasted time – and more people is going to make this better? Who can contemplate demolishing buildings and infrastructure to provide for adequate sewerage, and for roads, and for mass people transport? Who will / can pay for it all – and do so in advance of allowing more into the nation?
    f) And what of the creation of new cities that can utilise modern technology and planning to minimise impact and increase quality of life? NIMBY is the first response and what government has the vision to put it all together anyway? The tenure of government stimulates only crisis management, and a reason why Governments have demonstrably failed to ‘deliver the goods’ on a range of issues.

    In the washup growth is inevitable, but eventually when the ‘sheep’ eat out the paddock they will die. It will ultimately prove folly that relying on engineering and overly large / complex systems that if / when they fail, all hell breaks loose and only king rats will survive – hence my mention of the LA riots.

    “If you get the incentives right,” I agree because market forces are powerful and valid, but I disagree because until an absolute crisis when all options have been exhausted, I cannot see that market forces will convince people to cease production of meat from cloven animals and replacing with kangaroo (and perhaps some wombats and koalas thrown in for a variety).

    Australia and New Zealand are primary producing countries. Our output combines with that of other developed countries to be traded and sustain other countries, such as you mention. It is also an example of being artificial – non sustainable. Remove that supply of food – be it by failure in transport or in production itself, and anarchy in nations that rely on systems is inevitable.

    Regarding Islam – Your argument is weak. “…so long as nobody wants to impose it on other people.”
    But that is exactly what the followers of Islam commonly do – in fact DEMAND. I can but won’t go into detail with numerous citable examples, suffice to say – every country that has harboured Islam has seen great demands placed on it / them by Islam where Islam must be accommodated – or else. You cannot switch focus from the very real negative issues that surround Islam to explain as a mater of ghettos. The fact remains – the followers of Islam (as a group) are a high risk element that by their own actions have proved themselves and their belief structure to be both violent and intolerant. In times of war, people were rounded up and interned for less. All that said about a group – I know personally perhaps 50+ muslims and in ordinary day life, most are perfectly decent people, and most are frustrated that the very ‘democratic’ workings in Islam allow practically anybody to become an Imam and there is nothing a moderate can do about it. Any group will suffer it’s ratbags, and this is where a problem lies for them. An individual can focus on certain element(s) in the Quran and develop a following – more often that is among young, testosterone filled males. Regardless – Islam remains a high risk element, so why import more? (unless as a means to govts introducing greater people control)

    I personally believe that sensible and coordinated approaches with long term objectives well beyond government tenure are necessary and beneficial to Australia. That includes progressive controlled migration as distinct from being the ‘dumping ground’ for those who flee perpetually war torn nations – where after a short stay, legal residency and eventual citizenship are effectively guaranteed. Core to that is the ability of the diminishing taxpayer / productive element being able to finance the maintenance of what we have, and the provision of more infrastructure to support that larger population.

    I believe that governments will never so act, because as HL Menckin said in 1923 “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” In that mire our liberties and individuality are progressively destroyed as governments and bureaucracies lurch from crisis to crisis – most often the very crises they create!

  11. March 16, 2010 at 11:35 am

    That’s probably too long for a comment Peter. Best to write it up separately, and provide a link.

    But just quickly, the reason we have water rationing is that water is run by the government and they have introduced a price ceiling. It is economics 101 that if you introduce a price ceiling to get rationing.

    If you think the world is going to run out of resources, then that is a different problem, and it can’t be solved by immigration policy. If you think the resources in Australia matter, you’re wrong. Please don’t make me type “Singapore” & “Dubai” repeatedly. The so-called environmental problems are all easily solvable by technology and trade… just as the dramatic “sky-is-falling” problems of the 19th century and 20th century were fixed. The dooms-merchants have been preaching fear for centuries, and they have never been right.

    The social problems are more difficult to assess. You seem particularly worried about Muslims, but it’s a similar fear that has always existed about the mixing of different “peoples”. You mention that Muslims may want to impose their views… but you seem to have forgotten the original point of my article: to make it easier to live in Australia, but harder to become a citizen. Under the status quo it is relatively easier to become a citizen and then vote to impose your social views, get welfare, and never fear being kicked out. Which system is better?

    I’m sure you can cite lots of examples of problematic immigrant groups. But as I said, they are nearly all associated with welfare problems. Do you think this is an amazing coincidence? The Muslim residents of Hong Kong are relatively harmless, as are the resident non-citizen populations throughout most of Asia. They work hard & stay out of trouble.

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