Illustration for FTWeekend comment - issue dated 04.06.16
© Jonathan McHugh

What would you call an immigration system that permits one international migrant to enter a country every three minutes? Lax? Permissive? Open?

This is what happens in Australia. But it is far from what the Leave camp implies when promising that, after an Out vote in June’s EU referendum, the UK could introduce an “Australian-style points-based immigration system ”.

To most British ears, the mention of Australia has long promised a tough but fair approach. The idea of adapting Canberra’s points system came to prominence in the 2005 British general election when Michael Howard’s losing Conservative campaign put the focus firmly on the issue of immigration, including “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?” billboards.

Tony Blair, then fighting for his third term as Labour prime minister, responded: “I also understand concern over immigration controls. We will put in place strict controls that work. They will be part of our first legislative programme if we are re-elected on May 5. These controls will include the type of points system used in Australia, for example, to help ensure our economy gets the skills we need.”

With the inclusion of the word “Australia”, the policy proved highly popular with focus groups. Why? Mainly because we have a distorted view of how that country manages its migration — and that comes from the confusion about the distinction between refugees and migrants that bedevils the debate.

Australia is thought to be tough on immigration. To an extent, it is. But it is only really tough on illegal immigration by those who pay people smugglers. On this the Australian public has been unequivocal, its views well expressed in 2001 by John Howard, then prime minister: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” This, too, was the power behind Tony Abbott’s election-winning 2013 slogan: “Stop the boats”, which aided his election victory. His Labor predecessors had been seen as too weak on the issue and the debate became febrile. Even I, unusually for a staffer, was attacked on the floor of parliament by the liberal opposition “outraged” that I was a skilled worker on a visa.

But all the time the nation’s other main immigration policies were strikingly liberal and bipartisan. Both Liberal and Labor parties support the existing policy of 20,000 refugees being resettled in the country each year. David Cameron, UK prime minister, has offered to take the same number of Syrian refugees over four years. The Australian figure is more striking when you consider that the proportionate figure would be 50,000 a year in the UK. A target is set annually for points-based immigration. It is at present about 200,000 — the equivalent of 500,000 in Britain. Unlike the UK, there are additional visas for students — more than 300,000, as of last year, with the right to part-time work.

Why is a country with a reputation for being tough on immigration actually so liberal? In terms of students, in particular, it’s the economy. Higher education is, for most Australian states, their fourth-biggest export. It is also a crucial form of soft diplomacy. With the growing economies of India and China in the same region, it makes sense to offer a safe place providing high quality higher education. Good experiences and great memories of student life are a sound foundation for future relationships. A similar case made by Britain’s universities falls on deaf ears.

The economic case is what drives the points-based system, too. Australia has had over 24 years of consistent growth. That has brought both jobs and labour shortages — the result of a relatively rigid labour market, skills shortages and an unwillingness of Australians to do particular jobs. To fill these shortages, Australia awards points for age, recognised educational and professional qualifications and English skills. But crucially it does not require an applicant to have a job. The top five countries of origin for permanent migrants to Australia were India, China, the UK, the Philippines and Pakistan.

All in all, then, the points-based system is not quite the total control of immigration sold by the Brexit camp. Of course, outside the EU Britain could set the numbers it wanted each year. But, actually, it is the economy that does that. Leave or Remain, lettuce needs picking and potatoes need harvesting. Eastern European workers do not do that work merely because they can; they do it because UK workers will not. Cut the numbers of migrants and you will cut employment in some sectors. Crops rotting in fields would be a highly visible sign of that. The hospitality trade relies on foreign workers, large numbers of them EU citizens. If Britons want hotels for weekend breaks, town-centre pubs and restaurants, they will need staff.

Outside the EU, demand for labour may dip as the economy takes a knock but it will still be strong. Workers from a wider range of countries will be able to come to the UK, and the country will probably see migration from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan becoming dominant again, as it was before Britain joined the Common Market. Again, not quite what the UK Independence party-voting Eurosceptics have in mind when they plan to vote Leave for that Australian-style points-based system.

This is the true heart of the EU debate: the relationship between a strong economy and high migration. The former requires the latter. There are not enough people to do the jobs that are needed and to produce growth and wealth. That is why, through different routes, the UK and Australia have so many migrants. It is a sign of economic success.

The writer is a political strategist and former director of communication to Australian prime minister Julia Gillard

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