Australia has been a nation of immigrants since 1788. It has always sought additions to its population to increase its prosperity and economic strength.
But two recent controversies have distracted us from our origins: Kevin Rudd’s statement that he favoured a “big Australia”, and the continuing and increasingly pathetic attempts to subvert our legal obligations under the United Nations Convention and Protocol on Refugees and Asylum seekers.
These issues have become further confused by concern about the transport problems of Sydney and the political backlash against refugees and Muslims, which is strongest in western Sydney.
They have been exacerbated by continuing propaganda from the talk-back radio DJs and (to be fair) counter propaganda from the Murdoch Press in favour of higher immigration.
How many people does Australia need?
Recent immigration figures have reached a record high, increased by greater numbers of temporary migrants, the largest number of whom are overseas students.
An official report in May only confused the issue, as had a previous inquiry chaired by Barry Jones in 1994. Professional demographers pointed out that population would grow to 35 million by 2050 regardless of levels of immigration, except for the highly unlikely abolition of immigration altogether.
No official enquiry has been prepared to set a target population. Professional advice is that this cannot be done effectively, as there are too many imponderables.
Australia (with Mongolia) is the least densely populated country in the world, with an area the size of the continental United States (population 305 million) and a population the size of Sri Lanka (population 21 million in an island the size of Tasmania).
Other comparable populations around us include Malaysia, North Korea and Taiwan.
Australia, then, is a small country in terms of population, although a significant country in terms of mineral wealth, standards of living and productivity.
There’s a reason for all this immigration
Since 1947 we have pursued a planned immigration programme designed originally to provide resources for defence, but more recently (and sensibly) to sustain and increase our living standards and wealth.
The gross intake per annum has lain between 70,000 and 180,000, depending on economic conditions and labour demand. During that time it has shifted from Europe to Asia and from manual labour to skills.
Since the last years of the Howard government, temporary immigration has increased rapidly in response to demands from employers. Labor has continued this.
Humanitarian intake has been stabilised at less than 10% of the total since the end of the Vietnam war. It has not increased in response to wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka, although it was raised in response to the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Clearly governments and business favour a controlled level of immigration which responds to economic needs. However this is not the only reason for sustaining high levels and tight controls.
The experience of several other countries, especially in Europe and Britain, is that uncontrolled immigration can lead to serious social problems, including unemployment, racial strife and social disadvantage.
While unskilled and refugee intakes have had some experience of these problems, generally millions have been settled in Australia with only a mild impact on social cohesion.
Multicultural programmes have been designed both to ameliorate these problems and to integrate new arrivals. Citizenship is granted to much higher numbers than in most other developed countries.
A competitive Australia means a country of migrants
The economic benefits of immigration include sustaining a young, skilled and productive workforce.
Several major countries are now faced with declining populations and ageing, especially Japan, Russia and Italy. This means that more resources are devoted to the medical needs of the elderly and less productive benefits are created by the workforce.
Australian migrants are no longer manual labourers from rural backgrounds, unable to speak English. Even refugees are much better educated than in the past and many are very enterprising.
Students, paying higher fees than Australians, support many of the newer and smaller universities and technical colleges.
Small businesses have a high proportion of owners from migrant communities. Some of these have become major employers and personally wealthy.
Of course, rapid population growth cannot be sustained without any problems at all. But immigration can be both the problem and the solution.
Houses must be built (which also boosts the economy) and transport to them provided. This has been a problem in Sydney and Melbourne, although less acute elsewhere.
Schools have to be built to provide education to the children of young migrants. But schools and houses are also built by migrants who make up a significant part of the construction industry.
Migrants do not necessarily go where the demand is highest, for example in the mineral mines of Western Australia. But Western Australia is crying out for more labour, while South Australia has special concessions to prevent its population declining
It is true that most of Australia is dry and only capable of settlement at expense. This has historically been provided by mining (which attracts migrants) and pastoral work (where the labour force had consistently declined).
The arguments for a controlled and planned immigrant intake are strong, provided care is taken.
The arguments for a viable refugee intake are also strong for different reasons.
But in a competitive world Australia cannot turn its back on the millions of educated, skilled and cosmopolitan workers who are seeking to better their conditions everywhere.