10 April 2023

Australia needs to catch its breath on migration amid housing crisis

| Ian Bushnell
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Singapore apartments: is this Big Australia’s housing future? Photo: David Paterson.

The idea of Big Australia has been a powerful driver in Australia’s development, but just how big can the nation get before it starts to crumble under the pressure?

This week, a report from the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation detailed the brewing of a perfect storm, in part fed by the resumption of migration, for putting a roof over the heads of our growing population.

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The State of the Nation’s Housing report predicts a shortfall in supply of more than 100,000 dwellings to 2027 and nearly 80,000 over the next decade.

It says the rapid return of overseas migration, together with an insufficient supply pipeline due to decade-high construction costs and significant increases in interest rates, is putting enormous pressure on rental markets, particularly in the major cities.

We’re just not building enough homes to keep up with increasing demand.

The Federal Government is reviewing Australia’s migration system, but it has also allowed migration intake to reach the pre-pandemic trend of 235,000 a year.

This year, Australia is estimated to have a net gain of 300,000 due to fewer people leaving the country.

Business continues to lobby the government to raise the target for permanent skilled migration intake to 200,000 places in 2023-24 and 2024-25, saying it will be critical to address the worker shortages that cannot be filled by Australians in the short term.

Just where are all these people going to live?

Don’t bet on the Federal Government’s market-based Housing Accord to do the trick. It’s already been called out as being an inadequate response.

Migration is a great Australian success story and the nation is undoubtedly better off because of it.

But the practical implications of a growing population seem to escape government and business which enjoy the free economic growth benefits without planning for how a dry continent of coast-clinging capitals (except for Canberra) supports this constantly increasing number of people.

It’s as if Australia can just keep stuffing more people into its three mega cities – south-east Queensland, the Sydney basin and greater Melbourne.

The lack of investment in infrastructure, particularly to spread population, and the pressure on natural resources are affecting living standards.

Business has always argued for higher migration targets because it is good for business and provides a steady flow of workers, preferably that it doesn’t have to train.

The skills shortage is mostly a function of business failing to meet its obligations and governments undermining and underfunding training systems due to ill-conceived notions about market-based solutions.

So-called ‘contestability’ has brought the TAFE system to its knees and led to rorts and waste as private operators feast on public subsidies.

The Coalition’s antipathy towards the universities has also eroded the capacity to build the higher-level skills the nation needs.

The country itself was never suited to the Big Australia ideology, which has its roots in colonialism and the frontier mentality, as well as a fear of being isolated in Asia.

Mostly desert, Australia has limited water and arable land, and what forests are left need to be preserved.

The need to house itself has already led to habitat degradation, and the fight to save the koala is probably the greatest symbol of that tension between human needs and the natural world.

So does a resumption of migration at pre-pandemic levels or higher make sense?

Not if the housing crisis is only to be exacerbated.

Not if transport systems are not going to cope.

Not when drought rears its head and runs down water storages.

Not if the goal of business is to suppress wage levels any more than they already are.

Not if the social cohesion that is the hallmark of Australia’s migration story is not to fray.

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At some point, there has to be a discussion about an optimum population for the country and significant investment in the infrastructure needed to support it.

Carrying on as if Australia is the Tardis and that, magically, the market will supply all our needs, is folly.

No one is saying migration won’t continue, but out of the government’s review must come a revision of the number we can cope with and the planning to accommodate the number we accept.

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As Pauline said it best, we’re full!

What rubbish! We have a need for people in many rural and regional areas, especially people with the necessary skills to fill jobs that we’re not filling ourselves. However, first we need the infrastructure to enable sustainable living.

If we had that infrastructure, there might be more Australians moving to the country taking those jobs, assuming they have the skills or the employers are willing to train them. Currently Australians won’t take those jobs, so we bring in migrants who will.

If we build the infrastructure and train our people, we may have less need for migrants, although there’ll always be employers who prefer migrants as they can more easily be exploited because they have fewer options to protect themselves and insist on fair, legal treatment at work.

Psycho, using a “skills shortage” as an excuse for high levels of immigration is a ridiculous way to cover up a failure of the education system for not equipping Australians with said skills.

On your point about locality, it is quite well documented that migrants disproportionately choose to live in capital cities over regional areas. http://www.multiculturalaustralia.edu.au/doc/hugo_1.pdf
They are simply taking the jobs of Australians in the city and forcing citizens out to the rural areas.

I said rubbish to your original comment that ‘we’re full’ as that is patently untrue, which you cannot honestly deny.

Unable to make that point, you decided to argue on other issues, issues that would not be issues if our previous government had trained people and ensured that visas went to people taking jobs in the regions.

Migrants do not take jobs from locals, they’re given them by employers who decide that what migrants offer is more suited to that particular employers’ needs.

By “full” Pauline means that the current infrastructure, healthcare system, housing supply is not able to sustain any additional increase in our population due to migration and by that definition I stand by my original comment.

Regarding the labour market there are both supply and demand forces at play. Yes, the employer creates demand for jobs and will hire the most competent available but my point was in the regions there is lack of supply – migrants do not and will not move there purely out of preference. Hence importing labour will not address the skills shortage in rural areas.

It would be good if they did hire the most competent, but most often they hire the cheapest and most compliant, no matter what their lack of skill, especially in hospitality.

Working visas need to be very specific to the regions and jobs where there is a genuine shortage of workers.

Graham CLEWS7:00 pm 10 Apr 23

Australia needs to do more than catch its breath. It must cease growing its population altogether. The notion that we can and must grow -forever – is ludicrous; yet it is precisely what our politicians and developers expect us to do.

Our immigration-fed economic growth model is environmentally unsustainable – of that there is no doubt.

As for quality of life, it is diifficult, and perhaps impossible, to find evidence this has been improved by the 7 million increase since 2000; it is very easy to find much to the contrary.

We should all be wary of conflating change and growth. But the link between decline & growth is clear.

Another massive scheme(s) like the Snow Hydro 1.0 in various places around Australia. Cut the Greens out and it will maybe see the light of day

Gregg Heldon11:16 am 10 Apr 23

Until we have Australians prepared to do all the service jobs available, we need migration. We have become a nation of employment snobs, unfortunately, with wages and a lifestyle that have enabled that.
But we do not have the infrastructure to support what the Government wants so their wants need to be tempered somewhat.
We do need migration though. But I don’t know what the right number is.

Graham CLEWS7:07 pm 10 Apr 23

The number is whichever number will not contribute to the growth in our total population. That is high enough and, as far as environmental impact is concerned, is probably too high.

Bringing in migrants to do our dirty work for us — and, increasingly, the dirty work of other migrants — is a particularly objectionable reason to grow our population to environmental oblivion.

Pay existing Australians well enough and any job will get done.

Gregg Heldon8:01 am 11 Apr 23

We do pay well enough. But my assertion remains. We have become employment snobs. We are now a nation where we believe some jobs are beneath us. Cleaner. Retail Security, Static Security. Delivery Driver.

Gregg Heldon8:10 am 11 Apr 23

Whether you agree of not, we are employment snob. We are now a nation where we believe some jobs are beneath us. Delivery driver, retail and static security, farm work, cleaning and some retail roles.
No one wants to do them unless the salary is six figures so migrants do them. On the whole, that is fact.
You can bleat about environmental sustainability all you want but unless you can get a 30 year old unemployed Australian to do 40 hours of retail security for $50k, then migration it is.

GrumpyGrandpa6:55 pm 08 Apr 23

Big migration means significant increases in demands for public housing, health, schools etc. Bad news!

Australia has an aging population. Less workers to fund Government expenditure.

Possible Solutions:
1. Cut Government expenditure – unlikely. Albo looks like a big spender.
2. Raise taxes – started to happen – looking likely.
3. Increase immigration – already happening.

Conclusion: migration could solves tradie shortages and reduce our aging population – ie over time it increases our number of taxpayers.
How do we solve the increased demands for housing and health etc? Increase existing taxes and introduce new taxes.

Graham CLEWS7:13 pm 10 Apr 23

Sorry, your comment suggests you do not understand the issues. Just a couple of thoughts.
1. Immigration will NEVER be a solution to an ageing population It merely delays it and the price paid for that delay is never-ending population growth. How would that work.
2. Immigration does not address shortages, it creates them. As the building industry itself noted (belatedly) new tradies need to be housed!

The terrible government idea of a big Australia is ruining the country.
There needs to be a referendum on immigration.
The majority of Australian citizens would undoubtedly say ‘NO’

So what part of the Constitution do you want changed as a result of this referendum?

Yes. I say NO!

HiddenDragon8:10 pm 07 Apr 23

Aside from the serious social and environmental issues neatly summarised in this article (and in somewhat more detail in Stephen Saunders’ explication of Population Porkies) the great problem with the Big Australia population policy is that we haven’t yet worked out how to earn, in a sustainable way, the export income needed to support a rapidly growing population to the standards which most Australians take for granted.

As a nation we are, economically, back where we were in the mid-20th century – the only difference is that instead of “riding on the sheep’s back”, we’re now riding on the miners’ backs – a precarious place to be when some of the major mining exports are heading, sooner or later, in the direction of being “stranded assets” – and with vision of Australia becoming a “renewable energy superpower” looking more like a mirage as larger and more competitive economies steal a march on us in that field.

Rather than being used to build robust exporting industries, the bulk of the high rates of population growth of recent decades has gone into a largely domestically focused services sector, with many jobs which are reliant on unsustainable levels of public and private sector spending and/or vulnerable to replacement by Artificial Intelligence and other forms of high technology.

It is hardly surprising that Australia continues to slide in measures of economic complexity – our ranking has fallen 36 places in the last quarter century on the Harvard ranking – https://atlas.cid.harvard.edu/rankings Coincidence is not causation, as the Big Australia apologists might be quick to point out, but at the very least, it can be said that rapid population growth has not improved our economic competitiveness and sophistication, and without that Big Australia is no more than a Ponzi scheme – and they never end happily.

Big Australia immigration policies were not put to the voters prior to the election and Tapri’s data show that Labor does not have a social licence for them. Governments at all levels have failed to show they can keep up with the required infrastructure to maintain living standards.

devils_advocate9:47 am 07 Apr 23

I mean sure we could stop immigration. Or we could, you know, fix the underlying problems that prevent new supply coming to the market.

Either way.

Stephen Saunders8:09 am 07 Apr 23

Net gain of 300,000? Chalmers already owned up to 350,000 – even that was a lie. Try 400,000, Ian. Easily an all-time high, and just in time for the construction crash.

“Migration Nation” Albanese has embarked on an all-out immigration war against voters. The best hope, is that the Chalmers Budget might cut the target to an, ahem, “low” 250,000. Pre Rudd, Australia never had 200,000.

Gear up for another decade of stagnant wages, rising house prices, rental squeeze, chronic urban congestion, and environmental decline. Donors 3, Voters 0.

It amazes me that the Greens seem to be so in support of high migration. Surely it is easier to limit the environmental damage to the land if we don’t keep increasing the population! If anything it would seem to make environmental sense to lower the population.

I know the arguments for needing more people because of our aging population, and to drive economic growth etc, but what happens in 40 years time when all those people get old. The current policy by all significant sides of politics seems to lead to a future of never ending population growth.

So I ask the Greens and their supporters. How many people can this continent support? 50 million, 100, 200, a billion?

I decided to actually have a look at the Greens policy on Immigration and Refugees (https://greens.org.au/policies/immigration-and-refugees) to test your claim – “… the Greens seem to be so in support of high migration.”
While I can see the Greens place a lot of emphasis on treatment of refugees and asylum seekers (no suprises there), I can only see that their general philosophy on immigration is that “Australian society benefits from immigration.”
I don’t see any call for ‘high migration’ or any indication that they are looking to push for unsustainable population levels.
This (https://www.afr.com/policy/economy/australia-s-population-to-hit-30m-two-years-later-than-expected-20230103-p5ca5e) AFR article reports that Australia’s population growth rate is actually diminishing – both in birth and immigration rates. It further reports “Net overseas migration – the difference between people arriving and leaving Australia – will remain steady at about 235,000 a year from 2023-24.” It hasn’t reported any hue and cry from the Greens on this.


The Greens apparently support sustainable population and growth in line with ecological, not economic factors.

Yet you can’t deny that we are currently in the midst of a massive migration boom, yet not much opposition being outlined by any of our political parties, including the Greens.


I was commenting on Spiral’s claim that “… the Greens seem to be so in support of high migration.”
Even you stated “The Greens apparently support sustainable population …”
So what is your point?

I said they “apparently” support a sustainable population.

But their actions clearly tell a different story in that they are at least complicit if not fully supportive of the current massively high levels of population growth which was Spirals original point.

They aren’t following their own policy.

Nice evasion of the point there!

The huge boost to immigration that is being pushed by our current government and the opposition isn’t aimed at refugees.

It aimed at getting people here to fill jobs and grow the economy.

The concept of increasing the population to grow the economy is stupidly flawed. It is an obvious quick way to try and alleviate the symptoms but makes the underlying problem worse.

What happens when that bigger population gets old and when the infrastructure built to support them also ages?

Apparently the solution would be to yet again increase the population!

Where does it end. The “green” in “Greens” originally referred to the environment.

So I ask again. Where does it end. How many millions can this land support?

Surely the Greens have looked into this numerous times and have a strong opinion on it!

You use words like “apparently” and “complicit” which are subjective and therefore based on opinion.
Then you make the statement “They aren’t following their own policy” as if it’s a fact, when you simply agree with Spiral’s opinion. I don’t.

If you don’t agree, perhaps you can provide some evidence showing the Greens opposition to the extremely high migration intake that has been going on for years then. Some evidence that they have opposed any of the moves in the immigration space in line with their stated policies.

If you can, happy to change my opinion.

And you’ll also note that my comment above says there hasn’t been much opposition to this from any of our political parties, so it isn’t just an issue for the Greens.

It’s not opinion that Australia has used immigration over the last few decades as a lever to continue economic growth in the face of low productivity growth, it’s a fact. Any review of the data, can show this and the Greens own policy states it as true. Recent changes post covid are now supercharging that immigration growth whilst key infrastructure and housing provision is falling well behind the demand.


Wow … lots of speculation and innuendo but absolutely no evidence to support it. And you suggest I’m evading the point.

“The concept of increasing the population to grow the economy is stupidly flawed.” From what I read in their policy you agree with them, i.e. “Population policy should not be primarily driven by economic goals or to counter the effects of an ageing population.”

“Surely the Greens have looked into this numerous times and have a strong opinion on it!” I don’t know. You seem to be the expert on what the Greens support. So, I’ll ask you – do they have a stong opinion the subject. If so, can you point us to where it is stated?

The Greens want no borders, high immigration, big government, high taxes, and a big Australia. They are not ‘green’ at all but communist in their views (with their highly paid dictators at the top controlling everyone else). Bandt (their leader) used to be a member of the Communist party. Go research him. True environmentalists do not support this party.

JustSaying, only two people agree with your opinion – you and the fella looking back at you in the mirror

If you don’t agree with my opinion then feel free to answer my questions, either with official answers from the Greens or with your own answers.

How many people can Australia support? At what point do we say the country is full?

Do we have enough water, food production land, mining land, timber for construction land etc to support 50 million, 100 million etc?

Because if we keep using population increase to drive our economy, isn’t that an issue we will have to face?

As one of the highest per capita producers of green house gasses, shouldn’t we be encouraging people to move away from Australia? Wouldn’t that be good for the world’s environment?

Or should we just ignore these issues until the problem is so huge that we have no choice but to address it?

What I don’t agree with is your original assertion “that the Greens seem to be so in support of high migration”. That was the point of my original post.
Oh and for the record I’m not a member of the Greens. I just don’t think they can be blamed in this case. It’s a failing of the major parties which you admitted but then went back to blaming the Greens.

Read the article and then explain to me why the Greens even come into the discussion! Oh and the fact that the likes of you don’t agree with me cuts me deeply.

“there hasn’t been much opposition to this from any of our political parties, so it isn’t just an issue for the Greens.”
That’s exactly the point I was making to Spiral. I would go further to say that it’s not an issue for the Greens to tackle – but the major parties. The Greens can influence presented legislation, but when the major parties work together – they (the Greens) are irrelevant.
The issues both you and Spiral raise are beyond ideology.

Water means new dams – no say the Greens. More construction and clearing land – no say the Greens. More cars on the road, more EVs (yes say the Greens to EVs) – but no to clearing the land for powering up the nation other than windfarms and solar (as long as it is not near Bob Brown, or indigenous land – Greta will be upset). So no nuclear. Plenty of 15 storey slums in the cities – approved by the Greens, as long as it doesn’t block their view and mean waiting in line for a latte for longer than 5 minutes

Perhaps it is just a mainstream media conspiracy and they are not publishing the outcry from the Greens over immigration plans of Labor and the Liberals.

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