One of the paradoxes of the Howard government was that while it was sometimes portrayed as anti-migrant, in reality it ended up with the most laissez-faire approach to migration since federation. Though the permanent migration program more than doubled in size between Howard’s first and last year, its highest level in 2007 wasn’t quite as big as it had been in Hawke’s peak migration year (1988), or for that matter in Rudd’s first year.
Rather, the most interesting thing about Howard’s policy was expanding migration via rule- rather than quota-based rights to long-term but temporary residence in Australia. Under a rule-based system, if you meet its criteria you can come to Australia, with no restrictions on total numbers. The quota system has criteria for admission, but once the target number of migrants is reached applicants are queued, even if they meet the criteria.
They were added to another more long-standing group of people with residence rights in Australia, New Zealanders. New Zealand is also a ‘back door’ route to permanent entry to Australia, with about 30% of the ‘New Zealanders’ taking up residence in Australia being born somewhere else.
Put all these rights-based migrants together, and there were about 1.2 million of them in mid-2009. Apart from the unions complaining about section 457 visa holders (or at least their employers), temporary migration has been below the political radar. But clearly a population this size has the potential to raise many issues.