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© iStock / Getty Images PlusCanada and Australia have relied on large numbers of immigrants as well as foreign students and workers on visas to expand their economies, educational systems and housing markets.
I expect I’m not alone in attending social events in this country where the conversation turns much more easily to American politics than Canadian.
Donald Trump. Nancy Pelosi. Mike Pompeo. Joe Biden. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Anne Coulter. Bernie Sanders. The list of strong personalities goes on. It’s not surprising subdued Canadians become fixated on the take-no-prisoners politics of the U.S.
But it could be more relevant for Canadians to compare and contrast how leaders are responding to COVID-19 and its implications in a more similar English-language country, despite it being geographically farther away than the world’s largest economic power.
Like Canada, Australia is a middle power with a reasonably healthy parliamentary democracy, as well as shared British roots (French in Canada as well) and a significant Indigenous presence. Multiculturalism flourishes in both countries, where more than one in five residents are foreign-born. We have similar populations: Australia contains 25 million people, Canada 35 million.
Canada and Australia — more than the U.S., which takes in one-third the number of immigrants per capita — have relied on large numbers of immigrants as well as foreign students and workers on visas to expand their economies, educational systems and housing markets.
Like Canada, however, Australia’s economy has been severely battered by the lockdown .
Australia lost 594,300 jobs in April, its largest fall on record, and now has an unemployment rate of seven per cent. Canada lost almost two million jobs and has seen unemployment balloon to 13 per cent. The economies and housing markets of both countries are shaking.
Yet Australia’s elected leaders are sharply diverging from those in Canada in how they’re responding to the pandemic at a policy level, especially regarding migration.
With a degree of frankness rarely heard from Ottawa, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he expects immigration to fall by 30 per cent by the end of the summer.
The Australian PM went on to forecast immigration levels would plunge by a breath-taking 85 per cent in the fiscal year ending in the summer of 2021.
© Rohan ThomsonAustralian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a news conference in the capital of Canberra on Jan. 6, 2020.
Morrison acknowledged the decline will be a shock to his traditionally immigration-friendly country. But he suggested Australians ought to get used to lower levels.
In the last two years Australia accepted 470,000 new immigrants, while Canada welcomed 616,000. The two countries’ multi-ethnic populations have in the past roughly agreed on immigration policy.
A YouGov poll found Canadians and Australians have been more open to high in-migration rates than citizens of most nations. Even though 38 per cent of Canadians and 46 per cent of Australians said last year they want to reduce the number of incoming migrants, roughly a quarter wanted the rate to stay the same and another quarter hoped levels would be hiked.
Yet the two countries are now talking and acting much differently in regards to the future of migration. Unlike Australia’s prime minister, Canada’s Justin Trudeau has not speculated about possible intake levels. His immigration minister, Marco Mendicino, simply said this month that robust in-migration must continue in the aftermath of COVID-19 travel bans.
But questions are arising about whether the higher immigration targets the Liberals released in early March — of 341,000 new permanent residents in 2020, 351,000 in 2021 and 361,000 in 2022 — are sustainable, taking into account sweeping unemployment.
“Given that the economic crisis will linger long after the health crisis has passed, can Canada accommodate an additional one per cent of immigrants and refugees added to our population in the foreseeable future,” asked Conservative immigration critic Peter Kent. Mendicino promised only that he would provide an update on migration targets in the fall.
© Blair GableNew Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino (right) with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being sworn in at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 20, 2019.
The two countries are also diverging on non-permanent residents. Australia’s acting immigration minister said 300,000 people on study visas and work visas have already departed the country and another one-quarter are expected to go. They are leaving in part because Morrison, who leads the centre-right Liberal-National Coalition government, told non-Australians, including a record 720,000 international students, to return to their home countries if they could not financially support themselves during the coronavirus crisis.
Across party lines Australian politicians are expressing worries about how future immigrants, foreign students and guest workers will compete for jobs with the upwards of a million Australians who have been frozen out of work, at least temporarily, due to COVID-19.
Senator Kristina Keneally, a spokeswoman for the opposition Labor party, recently called for a reduction in migrant numbers after the pandemic, saying the country’s historic reliance on immigration to boost growth has hurt some workers and inflated housing prices.
“When we restart our migration program, do we want migrants to return to Australia in the same numbers and in the same composition as before the crisis? Our answer should be no,” Keneally wrote in a much-discussed May 3 opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald .
“Our economic recovery must help all Australians get back on their feet, and to do that we need a migration program that puts Australian workers first,” said Keneally, adding that Morrison’s government had “cynically” created one of the largest migrant labour forces in the world, of 2.1 million temporary workers.
© Tracey Nearmy‘When we restart our migration program, do we want migrants to return to Australia in the same numbers and in the same composition as before the crisis? Our answer should be no,’ Labor Party Senator Kristina Keneally, pictured in Australia’s Parliament House last year, says in a published opinion piece.
In contrast to Australia’s politicians, Ottawa is hoping to keep immigration levels high and retain as many international students and guest workers as possible.
To convince tens of thousands of temporary foreign workers to continue assisting Canadian farms and long-term care facilities, the Liberal government recently began making it easier for them to get permanent resident status.
Worried about a drastic drop in the country’s record 645,000 fee-paying international students, Ottawa removed the cap on how many hours most can work each month. It also made it possible for foreign students to keep their study visas even if they are not in the country.
Last week, in addition, the Liberals changed policy so that up to a million foreign students, refugees and guest workers could apply for the government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) of $2,000 a month without providing proof of a work permit .
Despite so many longstanding similarities between the two countries in regards to the complexities of migration policy, the leaders of Australia and Canada are now taking opposite approaches in the devastating wake of COVID-19.
In effect, Canada and Australia have turned themselves into living laboratories, engaging in different social experiments. We will be better able to evaluate their theories once the test results come in.