AUSTRALIA, largely a nation of immigrants, is assessing how many new faces it can afford to let in when the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent.
The immigration debate heats up on Feb. 5 when Immigration Minister Gerald Hand begins a two-month consulting process with more than 300 groups around Australia before new migrant levels are announced in May.
Even before Mr. Hand starts his consultations, emotions are running high. The opposition Liberal Party says immigration should be "reduced significantly and substantially." Two weeks ago, new Prime Minister Paul Keating implied the opposition was racist in asking for severe cutbacks since a significant amount of the cuts would affect Asians, who now make up a large proportion of new migrants.
Australia has always been relatively open to immigrants and has one of the world's highest influxes of newcomers on a per capita basis. This fiscal year, ending June 30, 111,000 new migrants are expected, a 19 percent decline from 1988-89. And about 36,000 people are expected to leave Australia, resulting in a net influx of only 75,000 immigrants.
One of the catalysts for the debate in Australia is an incident in early January when 56 mainland Chinese boat people washed up among the remote mangroves of northwest Australia. For 16 days the Chinese stumbled around in the desert before finding help. They are now locked up in an immigration facility while officials determine their status.
The main argument against admitting new immigrants is economic. "We don't cure a recession by a reduction in immigration, but in the worst recession in 20 years you cannot sustain the program at record levels," says Philip Ruddock, the opposition spokesman on immigration.
The Liberals are especially unhappy over the number of immigrants allowed in under the "concessional family" category. This includes nondependent children, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. Last year there were 22,500, down from a high of 38,900 in 1987-88.
"You have a situation where large numbers of people can have access with no prospect of employment and are eligible for benefits," Mr. Ruddock says.
But immigration officials point out that people admitted in this category must pass a "points test," which includes language ability and employability. According to the Department of Immigration, the largest group of people (47 percent) admitted in this category are from Asia.
Researchers at the Bureau of Immigration Research in Melbourne say that manipulating immigration numbers is unlikely to affect employment.
"Immigration has a neutral to benign effect," says bureau director John Nieuwenhuysen.
New migrants, for example, need housing. Most of the basic components of housing, such as bricks, cement, and timber, are made in Australia.
"So while they are adding to the additional supply of labor they are also adding to demand," Dr. Nieuwenhuysen says.
The trade unions also want to see immigration cut, especially people entering the country on temporary visas. The unions believe some companies are using such workers as global "temps." But the actual number of workers admitted under this program is down 1 percent in 1990-91 compared to 1989-90.
"We believe this is only a temporary decrease in numbers," says Al Matheson of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in Melbourne.
Among the complaints of the ACTU is the increase in the number of sports visas issued. American basketball players for example, such as Ricky Grace, a former University of Oklahoma star, now dominate the Australian professional basketball league. "We're concerned we're not over-dependent on American skills and expertise," says Mr. Matheson.
In his consultations, Hand will also meet with environmental groups who do not believe the Australian environment can sustain a larger population.
In a recent press release, the Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population said a toxic blue-green algae infestation in the Darling River was a warning that population limits had been reached.
"The overall consideration must be the biophysical limits of this country to sustain a given population," says group spokesman Chris Watson. The group would like to see net immigration drop to 50,000.