Because the number of people with Australian residence rights crept up with little public awareness or debate, our thinking about what this means for them and for the permanent population is not well developed. Some observations:
1. The distinction between temporary and permament residence is important in eligibility for a wide range of welfare rights. It is part of the dispute about whether international students should receive public transport concessions. I have argued in the past that as temporary residents international students should not be entitled to this taxpayer subsidy – that choosing to study here gives them no claim on public funds.
Commenter caf has suggested that the fact that many international students go on to acquire permanent residence rights complicates this argument. Another complicating factor is the claim that given that temporary residents pay taxes, why should they not all also receive government services? While international students aren’t likely to be paying much tax if they are observing the work conditions of their visas, section 457 visa holders will often be paying significant amounts of tax.
2. Does a large population with residential rights but not voting rights have broader political implications? The Indian student protests were I think the first time that non-citizens engaged in large-scale and aggressive political action. The refugees are non-citizens who have been a major political issue, but their Australian lawyers and activists have led campaigns on their behalf.
As I noted in my paper on political expenditure laws, if these laws pass Indian students could commit an offence if they receive money from home to help with their political campaigns in Australia. Is that appropriate given their legitimate interests here?
3. Regardless of local political activity, the Indian student bashings diplomatic disaster highlighted that home countries hold host countries responsible for what happens to their citizens. If similar types of nasty incidents started happening to Chinese students, what would this mean for the important commercial relationship with China?
4. Temporary and permanent migrants are adding to pressure on housing. As Pollytics blog reports, a third of respondents in the latest Essential Research poll thought that overseas buyers were contributing to rising house prices. It was the most important demand factor in the survey.
When my parents sold their house recently, the real estate agent advised on several changes to make it more attractive to Chinese buyers, and indeed the place sold to a Chinese family. Legally, I understand they are permanent residents, but with an arrangement I have heard of before – wife and kids live here, while the husband and father mostly still works in China with visits to Australia, an intermittent rather than temporary or permanent resident. Is this arrangement the mainland version of the 1990s Hong Kong Chinese strategy of hedging their bets by getting legal rights and assets elsewhere? I’d like to know more about this.
5. While there are housing and congestion costs to having many temporary migrants, there are significant benefits as well. They are a balancing item in the workforce, with numbers going up when our labour market needs are high and shrinking when there are fewer job opportunities. Their lack of eligibility for welfare benefits makes them profitable for the federal government in particular, giving it more to spend on citizens and permanent residents.
While the export earnings from international students are exaggerated, they are still significant. Australian university students have particular cause to be grateful for the money international students bring to universities (and I am grateful too, as I would have lost my job in the financial crisis that would have crippled all Australian universities without them). I also like the way international students have contributed to the revitalisation of Melbourne’s CBD.
6. The benefits from temporary migration mean that Australia is vulnerable to large-scale departures. Many firms and even industries rely on temporary migrants as workers or customers. I don’t know the mix of temporaries and permanents, but in Melbourne taxi driving, security and convenience stores seem largely staffed by people of Indian appearance. As well as universities relying on international students, there have been many residential developments aimed at international students. This economic significance perhaps gives them political leverage – they can’t vote, but they have other ways of creating political pressure.