Queensland MP George Christensen, federal member for Dawson, is a moron.In a week when Australians were debating a serious humanitarian question about how many Syrian refugees we ought to re-settle here, Mr Christensen thought it would make great politics to link the issue of asylum seekers to the domestic squabble over the China-Australia free trade agreement.
In a press release, he said:
“Labor opposes the China-Australia free trade agreement on the totally fictional basis that it’s a threat to
Nationals MP George Christensen peddles a fallacy when it comes to refugees. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Australian jobs. But the rules on bringing in foreign workers on that are clear: Aussies must always get first go at filling Aussie jobs and only when there’s no Aussie to do the job can a foreigner be brought in.
“But there’s no rules [sic] regarding the tens of thousands of refugees that Labor wants to bring in. They either take a job an Australian can do or they go on the dole.”
See that last line? That’s an either-or fallacy. It’s designed to prevent you from thinking that future Syrian refugees may be capable of doing anything other than stealing your job or going on welfare.
I can use that fallacy too: Mr Christensen has either used that rhetorical device intentionally to spread ignorance and hatred of refugees or he’s used it unintentionally, in which case he’s shown how he’s really mastered the whole ‘thinking’ thing.
At any rate, migration is more complicated than he seems to want to understand.
When considering migration’s impact on the labour market, Australia’s economic authorities know that the labour market performance of immigrants is different depending on whether they are skilled or unskilled.
But we’ll come to that in a moment.
At its most basic level, every new person that comes to Australia to work will have at least two effects on the economy.
First, they will need to buy food, and they will need somewhere to live so they will either have to rent or buy a house or apartment. Those things will have a demand effect.
Second, each person will bring a unique set of skills and experience to Australia. Those will have a supply effect.
In the 1990s, Dr Lynne Williams of the old Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, showed that some groups of immigrants do very well in the Australian labour market while others struggle.
As a general rule, she found, immigrants who were admitted to Australia for their skills tended to do better more quickly than those who were admitted through humanitarian programs.
Why? Because those in humanitarian programs haven’t come here for their labour-market attributes. They have often experienced hardship overseas so they often need counselling, language classes, help with housing and so on, and so will find it more difficult to find meaningful employment.
Yet despite this, Dr Williams found that most of the evidence up to the mid-1990s seemed to suggest that, on a macro-level, immigration still conferred “either slightly positive or at worst neutral effects on the economy”.
Let’s move forward.
Professors Mark Wooden and Roger Wilkins, of the Melbourne Institute, published an article earlier this year in the Australian Economic Review looking at trends in the labour market from 1993 to 2013.
They found one of the big changes occurring since the mid-90s has to do with the supply of immigrant workers.
They say the majority of immigrants who came to Australia last century came here on permanent visas, but these days most come on temporary visas.
That change has had a big effect on the economy.
Immigration accounts for more than a fifth of the labour force, but the majority of them can’t stay here permanently anymore.
Employers are better able to adjust to changes in demand by employing more skilled migrants from overseas, but when demand tapers off those workers are then able to return home, without adding to the pool of Australia’s unemployed.
But they also take with them their demand for things such as food and shelter.
When it comes to our humanitarian intake of Syrians, one would assume that many would be ‘unskilled’. We know they won’t be classified as ‘skilled’ because they’re not being admitted to Australia for that reason. But we also know that unskilled migrants are typically more willing to do jobs that Australians aren’t. And a large cohort prove to be entrepreneurial.
The Abbott government’s generous decision to accept 12,000 Syrians refugees is expected to cost the Commonwealth $700 million over four years, according to Finance Department estimates.
That cost will comprise spending on cultural orientation, housing, health assistance and other services. It excludes processing costs.
That money is a direct investment in human capital that will pay dividends in the long run.
All of these issues are impossible to think about when locked into Christensen’s nasty either-or fallacy.
Yes, some Syrian refugees may take existing jobs from Australians in the short run. And yes, some may end up on the dole. But others may be entrepreneurs who will eventually start their own businesses and create jobs for other Australians.
And in the long run, the economy won’t be worse off. We may even be the better for it.