24 July 2006

Migrants seen as good for Australia's ageing economy

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Australian's opposition to migration has softened markedly in the Howard years, in part because Australians fear the consequences of an ageing population, a new analysis says in the Sydney Morning Herald says.

Katharine Betts, of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says research shows Australians believe immigration will counter the impact of population ageing, even though its effect is marginal.

"The demographic entrepreneurs who alarm us with stories about the cancer of ageing and who offer us their immigration cure-all may well have made an impression," Associate Professor Betts says in her paper, released today, on the correlation between population ageing and immigration attitudes.

Some of her evidence is taken from the largely unpublished 2005 Australian Surveys of Social Attitudes by scholars associated with the Australian National University.

They found ageing of the population ranked third in a list of 18 "most important issues" facing Australia and that more than 22 per cent rated it their first or second concern, just behind health care and high taxes.

Those people - likely to be older Liberal voters - were much more supportive of immigration. "Anxiety about ageing is indeed associated with significantly stronger support for immigration," Professor Betts said.

Polling since the 1950s shows fluctuations in attitudes towards immigration. The 45 per cent of people in the 1950s who thought too many migrants were being admitted eased to less than half this number in the 1960s.

It rose in the 1970s, and by the late 1980s had reached more than two-thirds. In 1991 a poll found three-quarters of Australians thought migration excessive.

Since 1996, however, the percentage who wanted less immigration fell from more than 60 per cent to less than 40 per cent, while those who wanted more immigration rose from single figures to nearly a quarter.

"It is remarkable that this change should have taken place during a period when the number of immigrants, after an initial lull, increased sharply," wrote Professor Betts, a sociologist.

Annual net overseas immigration since 1997 more than doubled to 148,000.

Factors in changing attitudes, Professor Betts said, included public ignorance about the size of the intake, falling unemployment, reorientation from family reunion to skilled migration, welfare restrictions, toughened border security and government emphasis on national unity over the virtues of multiculturalism.

The survey offered another explanation: anxiety about the ageing of the population combined with the belief that higher immigration was a remedy.

Professor Betts said that "while immigration can do a great deal to make the population larger, it can do very little to offset demographic ageing".

While high fertility and high life expectancy could add 3.4 million to the population by 2051, an annual net immigration of 140,000 could add between 8 million and 13 million.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics predicted that the median age in 2051 would be 47.2 years if annual immigration was 50,000, and 44.6 years if it was 150,000.

"This finding, however, has had only a limited effect on public and political debate," Professor Betts said.

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