Luring entrepreneurs Down Under. Australia causes stir in laying out welcome mat for business migrants

If you're a pastry chef, computer programmer, mechanic, or plumber - come on Down Under! For the fourth year running, Australia has boosted its migrant intake. But not without controversy. And a major immigration policy review due out this week is keeping the debate hot.

The FitzGerald report, examining immigration levels into the next century, is expected to call for an even bigger Aussie welcome mat, specifically for those with business and labor skills.

Companies here are clamoring for more trained workers. The growth of some economic sectors - construction, tourism, electronics, health care - is being stunted, business groups say.

The annual immigration intake was raised from 120,000 to 132,000 in April. It may soon rise to 150,000. Of that, about 27 percent are skilled labor migrants. The rest are spread across family-reunion, independent, and refugee categories.

Both Prime Minister Bob Hawke's government and the opposition party, in varying degrees, support greater economic-based migration. But the shift in emphasis and lack of popular support for a wider-door policy make this a delicate political issue.

The ``ethnic lobby'' (primarily Asians, Greeks, Lebanese, Italians) opposes the shift. They argue that the family-reunion program isn't just a humanitarian gesture; it also has a business angle, they say. Family migrants are often skilled. And their resident families cushion adjustment to Australian life and speed entry into the workplace. The lobby objects to the swing towards business-related immigration, lowering the priority on family-reunion immigration.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions opposes large increases in certain categories of labor-related migration. Officials say manufacturers are trying to get cheap labor and avoid domestic training costs.

Many Australians now point with pride to the ethnic diversity (``We have 130 different nationalities here.'') that has been achieved, with remarkably little inharmony, since the post-war era. At that time 90 percent of the population was Australian born, and overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon. But with the demise of the unofficial ``whites only'' policy twenty years ago, the greatest growth has come from Asian immigrants.

Some politicians worry about Australia's ``identity'' being lost by an influx of neighbors from the north. But Immigration Minister Clyde Holding notes that under current immigration rates, citizens of Asian birth would only rise from 5 to 7 percent of the population mix.

Still, throughout Australia's history, the ``old'' arrivals haven't been anxious to see new arrivals. A recent Saulwick Herald Poll showed 68 percent of Australian voters want lower, not higher, immigration levels. And a quarter of those surveyed wanted no immigration at all.

Why buck public opinion? Aside from the near term labor shortages, Australia faces a declining birth rate and ``graying'' population. Young migrants would bolster the work force and tax base.

Moreover, Australia's economic boom times have always corresponded with a large inflow of migrants. ``We've grown most rapidly when we've taken boa constrictor gulps of high immigration and high capital inflow,'' says David Clark, economics professor at the University of New South Wales.

A larger domestic market means manufacturers can produce a wider variety of products for less cost because they achieve economies of scale, says Mr. Clark. In a small country of 16 million, that can be an important plus, he adds.

But David Vincent wonders whether bigger is really better. The chief economist of the Centre for International Economics, a Canberra-based consulting group, says, ``Immigration produces a substantial gain in economic activity. But you've got more people dipping into the pie. Per capita income doesn't go up.'' Mr. Vincent did an immigration study for the Fitzgerald report.

Vincent also argues there may be diseconomies of scale, as Australia's major cities grow. The cost of goods may go up as roads become congested, distribution costs rise, and housing prices climb. Other potential costs include pollution, crime, and generally a less pleasant quality of life.

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