Anti-refugee protesters march with posters and Australian flags during pro and anti-refugee rallies in Eltham, Melbourne, Australia on November 5, 2016. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

A government proposal to stop permanent migrants from settling in Australia’s largest urban centers represents the latest salvo in an increasingly politicized debate on immigration and the country’s future as a multicultural melting pot.

Alan Tudge, the federal minister overseeing cities, urban infrastructure and population issues, floated the idea of relocating migrants as a way of easing growth pressures on Sydney, Melbourne and south-eastern Queensland, which attracted almost 90% of new settlers in 2017.

“We are working on measures to have more new arrivals go to the smaller states and regions and require them to be there for at least a few years,” Tudge said, adding that the objective was to “match the skills of new migrants with the skill shortages in rural and regional Australia.”

Tudge suggested that visa conditions could apply for as many as 45% of permanent migrants, equivalent to about 70,000 arrivals on 2017 levels. Demographers, however, have already dismissed the proposal as unworkable and a misguided policy option.

Asians, who accounted for 56% of Australia’s migrant intake in 2016-17, would be among those worst affected by such a policy if implemented. Most tend to live close to family and cultural networks in either Sydney or Melbourne.

Australian Federal Minister Alan Tudge in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

There were 58,232 permanent settlers from southern and central Asia over that period — mostly Indians, Iraqis and Syrians — 37,235 from northeast Asia (mainly from China) and 31,488 Southeast Asians (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Myanmar).

The fact that Tudge unveiled the plan in a speech to members of the ruling Liberal Party at the conservative Menzies Research Center suggests it was more of a political statement than a serious policy shift.

The party’s right wing wants to curb migration and Liberal leaders are trying to mend rifts caused by the August dumping of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.

Other cabinet ministers have not publicly backed the plan, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison was scathing of such relocation strategies when they were suggested by the then-Labor Party government in 2010.

“So to hold out some false hope that this problem’s going to be solved because a population minister is going to fantastically move people around … is I think unfair to the Australian people to suggest that that is a realistic option, certainly in the short or medium term,” he said.

Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

However, Morrison has said that it might be possible to target temporary migrants. The risk is that this could deter foreign students, who are mostly drawn to the bigger cities because of superior learning opportunities.

Greater Sydney’s population of 5.1 million is growing by about 100,000 people each year, and Greater Melbourne (4.8 million) by 125,000. The population of Queensland’s Gold Coast surged by 11.4% to 560,000 in the past five years alone and the Sunshine Coast grew by 12.7% to 350,000.

Yet Greater Adelaide (1.3 million) and Greater Perth (2 million) are growing by only 0.7% and 1% respectively each year, and Greater Hobart (226,000) by 1.1%. Greater Brisbane (2.4 million) is expanding by 2%.

In 2017-17, 77% of population growth occurred in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and their satellite regions — Newcastle, Wollongong and Central Coast (Sydney), Geelong, Melton, Bendigo and Ballarat (Melbourne) and the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Toowoomba (Queensland).

Melbourne and Sydney in particular are battling to meet demand for housing and public services. Sydney will need 725,000 new dwellings by 2036 to match projected population growth, and 200 new schools will be required for major cities in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

A protester from the right-wing Party of Freedom at an anti-China demonstration at the Chinese Consulate in Sydney on May 30, 2015. Photo: Citizenside/Richard Ashen

Demographers say these stresses have been caused by under-funding of infrastructure and housing policies that favor investors rather than new buyers. Any policy that sought to redistribute populations would fail because it ignores the main reason people head to cities: employment.

There is already enormous internal migration driven by job opportunities which causes population fluctuations. Western Australia and Queensland went through an unprecedented surge at the peak of the resources boom six years ago, but had net population losses as global prices fell last year.

Victoria and New South Wales, the sources of much of the mining intake, are again the main growth centers thanks to their stronger economies and bigger job markets; smaller states like South Australia and Tasmania have limited manufacturing bases and always struggle to attract investment.

The smaller regional cities would actually be disadvantaged by any policy that sought to move people out of bigger cities, according to research by demographer Peter McDonald, a professor at the University of Melbourne, as migrants are a valuable source of skills in major urban job markets.

“Ironically, reducing international migration to large cities would make it harder for the regions, including Adelaide and Hobart, to maintain their populations because their young people would be drawn to Sydney and Melbourne, replacing the immigrants. Unless the balance between labor demand and supply changes, Australia should maintain its present policy,” McDonald said.

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