7.2Ecologically sustainable development and Migration

In an ideal world there is an optimum population for every country. A great deal of effort has been spent in defining the ideal demographic characteristics of an optimum population. These include: a low mortality rate, a stable age and sex distribution and a zero growth rate.. Some of these 'ideals' have been reached in number of western societies.

Australia is a massive continent with a population of 18 million people which is increasing at the rate of around 250,000 per year, or about 1.45 per cent per annum. About half of this increase (109,000 in 1990/91) was made up of migrants from overseas. Currently, just over 23% of persons in Australia are overseas born, of whom 14% are of European extraction and 6% are of S.E.Asian origin. These data do not include children of those born overseas.

As of 1996, the number of Maltese-born resident in Australia was around 51,000, while the overall number of persons of Maltese extraction, while very difficult to estimate accurately, is believed to be in the region of 120,000 (see Appendix). This means that around 1 percent of the total Australian population of Maltese extraction.

Superficially, these data make Australia look like one of the least densely populated place in the world. Most of the population is to be found in a narrow band along the East Coast and concentrating predominantly around the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Rural Australia is very thinly populated indeed.

The question has always been foremost in the minds of many Australians whether special efforts should be made to repopulate Australia, or whether any growth at all is detrimental to the nation as a whole. Adherents to the zero growth lobbies point out that Australia's soil is relatively infertile and that water is scarce. They claim that the cities are overcrowded and over-extended and, particularly in the case of Sydney, not in a position to grow any larger. On the other hand their opponents point out that Australia has an obligation to itself as well as to the outside world to maintain immigration at a relatively high level if it is continue to grow as a nation.

A recent concept is that relating to 'ecologically sustainable development' (ESD) emphasised at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janiero (1994). This concept emphasises the fact that economic development has to be balanced by the negative results which invariably accompany such development and threaten the very existence of life on this planet as we know it.

What is ESD?

Ecologically sustainable development (ESD) refers to responsible growth and advancement without posing too much of a threat to the environment. The relevant criteria have been defined in a report on this topic by a working group in Canberra (AGPS, 1991). They include:

  • Advancement of material and non-material well- being, which includes concern for non-economic yardsticks relating to health, education, social well-being, cultural values and concern for the environment.
  • Inter-generational equity, meaning that we should leave to our children a world which is at least as rich as the one we have inherited from our fathers.
  • Intra-generational equity, or ensuring that the 'have-nots' are provided for in an equitable fashion.
  • Protection of bio-diversity and the maintenance of ecological processes and systems.
  • Dealing cautiously with risk and uncertainty.
  • Recognition of global dimensions, i.e. the realisation that actions in a particular country are likely to affect its neighbours and eventually the whole world.

Views vary enormously in relation to whether immigration is of benefit to a host country or whether the reverse is true. One's point of view depends less on the objective facts, and more on background and professional interests: economists and business people are more likely to conclude that growth is good for its own sake, whereas biologists and demographers will contend that the environment cannot accept any further growth and particularly not exponential growth.

The Population Report

In 1990, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Bob Hawke set up the National Population Council to " assess the implications for public policy of various scenarios of population growth through to the year 2000". This report, published in February 1992, emphasised the importance of long-term considerations, in order to provide a framework for growth for the future. The Committee concluded that the basis for population change should be based on an immigration policy, which should take into account international population movements and be concerned with the composition and not merely the number of immigrants. It also emphasised the need to appreciate the migrant contribution to defined national goals, which include economic progress, ecological integrity, social justice and responsible international involvement.

The Report found that immigration "increases the overall scale of economic activity" but had only a marginal effect on average material prosperity. It also concluded that immigration is likely to have "some adverse impact".

Migration and ESD

At all times, but particularly during a major recession, the concept of immigration comes under severe criticism and has to be defended. It has always been accepted that, refugees apart, the main aim of immigration is to help the host country achieve an economic development not otherwise possible. No nation invites migrants merely as a gesture to the parent country or to suit the individual migrants themselves. As Mark O'Connor remarks, "Only four countries out of 200 are seriously in the business of accepting immigrants, and one of them, Israel, takes in only those it regards as already its own."

The critics of migration refer to a whole list of dark scenarios that would result given a certain level of migration. These include (O'Connor 1992):

  • The perceived inverse correlation between population growth and economic growth in the Western world.
  • the adverse impact on the environment and ESD
  • The cost of immigration in terms of settlement, education, health, social services etc.
  • the cost of multiculturalism, estimated by Stephen Rimmer at over $100,000,000
  • The excessive strains on urban development and infrastructure - most migrants settle in and around the major metropolis.
  • The persistent fear that the migrant worker will undercut the standard wages and the standard of living.
  • The increased levels of pollution and dangerous wastes.

Immigrants and the Labour Market

A number of studies, (e.g. that by Dr Lynne S Williams,) have confirmed that "the migration rate, either in the immediate past or currently, has no effect on the current aggregate unemployment rate.... No causal relationship appears to exist between immigration and unemployment, even in recessionary times." The reverse is more likely to be true, namely that a high unemployment rate in a country tends to deter migrants and lead to a fall in the immigration rate.

It is likewise true that migrants are likely to suffer first, and suffer most, during a recession with a high unemployment rate. They are likely to be concentrated in manufacturing and construction industries, which tend to do worst in a recession.

Dr Williams concludes that "immigrants create at least as many jobs as they take, and that it is the Australian-born who benefit more from the jobs that are created". While this is likely to be the case in the long term, it is very difficult to convince the thousands of workers on the dole that the next plane-load of migrants will increase their chances of finding a job! It is obvious that in the short term, most migrants will be adding inordinately to the unemployment ranks, and that only in the long term will the rosier picture begin to emerge.

The Cost of Immigration

It is difficult to apportion the net cost of immigration, which results from expenditure less income derived from the migrant workforce. David Vincent, chief economist for the Centre for International Economics in Canberra concludes that for a net intake of around 120,000 migrants (the 1990/91 intake) the expenses incurred over the first twelve months were as follows:

Settlement services

English Teaching programs


Unemployment benefits


Health and Social Security benefits


In addition, costs associated with the Department of Immigration (DILGEA) reached $687m in 1989-90.

Against this one must tot up the revenue to the government, which is estimated as $2600 per migrant over the long term. Mr Vincent concludes that: "At the moment there are sufficient immigrants of longer-term residency in Australia contributing positively to the Commonwealth budget to more than offset the negative effects of the more recent arrivals, even given the current recession". Moreover, one must bear in mind that "the cost to the Commonwealth budget of an Australian-born unit of human capital is far greater than the cost to the budget of importing an equivalent unit of human capital through the immigration program." In effect, im-migration is a cheap way of accumulating human capital.

These considerations hold also at State level. Professor Russel Mathews (Australian National University) concludes that " in the long term, most immigrants are not imposing an undue financial burden on the States at existing levels of service'. In particular:

  • Overseas born population groups incurred much lower expenditure in education per capita than the Australian born population.
  • Crime-related expenditure relating to law, order and public safety was much lower for overseas-born than for Australian-born.
  • There were only minor differences in the per capita expenditure on welfare services.
  • There was a much lower expenditure on child welfare expenditures for overseas-born, largely because of a much smaller proportion of children to the total population.

Finally at a Local Government Level it has been stated (Lois Cutts) that the budget outlays estimate was $1.3 billion. This represents about 22% of the total Local Government Budget, which is also the proportion of overseas-born residents to the total population - i.e. there was not a disproportionate amount of spending on migrants.

Emigration from Australia

Migration represents a considerable drain of resources to the parent country, but it is curious how little interest is expressed in obtaining clear data relating to this aspect, apart from vague references to the 'brain drain'. When one looks at the large numbers of qualified persons immigrating to Australia, one cannot but reflect that this must constitute a very serious loss to the parent country. Hundreds of engineers, computer specialists, medical and other professionals apply to emigrate in numbers, which would be equivalent to those produced annually by half a dozen universities. This is only a fraction of the cost to the parent country.

Emigration from Australia represents a considerable population, economic and social loss. It reaches dimensions that cannot be ignored, particularly during times of recession. Since the Second World War, the number of migrants who left Australia numbered 1.5 million, or 28% of the total settler immigration.

Why do migrants leave?

The reasons are multiple. There are those who find it very difficult to settle and leave early, within a year or so of arrival. Then there are those who return home soon after retirement - many overseas-born settlers dream of such an eventuality, but are bound by family ties which they are not prepared to sever. There are also a number of Australian-born who are attracted by the lure of distant lands where they may be find better employment opportunities. About 7000 - 9500 a year fall within this category. It is worth noting of course that children born in Australia of migrant parents who accompany their parents overseas are considered to be Australians and are also included in this category for statistical purposes.

The number of Maltese migrants leaving Australia has fluctuated over the years, and has depended at least as much on the local changes in Malta as on the economic conditions in Australia. High numbers of returnees usually alternate with high migration rates with a time lapse of about 2 years. Poor economic conditions in Malta tend to push the number of migrants up, and vice versa, as these conditions improve, there is a pull of migrants back to Malta. More recently, (in the mid 1980s) political instability rather than economic conditions in Malta was the main reason for Maltese leaving these Islands. Currently the number of migrants leaving Malta is around 100 per year (102 for 1990-91). The number coming back from Australia over the past five years was about 2000, or about 400 per year on average.(See also Chapter 1.)

How permanent are these visitors? In relation to this question, a study carried out by Constance Lever-Tracy in the village of Qala in the 1980s is particularly interesting and emphasises the fact that the phenomenon is not a new one, but that migrants have always flowed to and fro between the two countries. She claims that between 10,000 and 14,000 had, over the years been to and come back from Australia. Moreover, " in the 1980s, between a quarter and a third of all applications in Malta for migrant visas to Australia came from people who had already resided [in Australia] once, and whose resident visa had lapsed (sometimes ten or fifteen years earlier)". She said that between 1959 and 1986 some 8000 resident's re-entered Australia after spending between one and three years in Malta. In the 1980s, some 6000 persons a year re-entered after visits to Malta of less than twelve months. These data emphasise the fact that migrants will always be prepared to experiment with the conditions of a new country and are ready to go back if and when conditions are suitable. The possession of dual citizenship makes this process of transfer of residence from one country to another that much simpler.

Citizenship Issues

The question of citizenship strikes at the very heart of nationhood. Defining the criteria for citizenship are therefore bound to illicit heated discussion in any gathering.

Dr John Hewson MP (1992: Scond National Immigration Outlook Conference), expressed the views of the parliamentary Opposition party, when he emphasised the new priority they wished to give to the relevance and significance of Australian citizenship. To qualify for citizenship he suggests that:

  • Residency requirement should be extended from two to four years.
  • Basic competence in English should be a requirement for all grants of citizenship except for those aged 60 and over.
  • Only those with Australian citizenship would be allowed to sponsor new immigrants.
  • There should be an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia.

It is significant that the Opposition believes that the scope for dual citizenship should be extended. Dr Hewson also referred to the Opposition's commitment to a multicultural Australia. "Within the context of an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, the coalition Parties are also committed to programs that will strengthen a multicultural society."

Citizenship rates have been particularly low for English-speaking migrants from UK, New Zealand and also from Malta.

[It is curious how many of these concept have been re-echoed in the manifesto of the new One Nation Party, 1998! See Chap 4.2]

The Malta Experience

The 1986 census showed that less than half of the 56,000 persons born in Malta and residing in Australia, had taken Australian citizenship. At that time Malta did not recognise dual citizenship. In July 1989 Malta acknowledged the right of Maltese-born to have Maltese citizenship and Section 27 (3) of the Malta Constitution was amended to enable Maltese migrants to hold dual citizenship. This has helped considerably in increasing the number of applications for Australian citizenship by residents in Australia. The number of Maltese granted Australian citizenship for the three years from 1987/88 to 1989/90 was 908, 1054 and 2067 respectively. In spite of this encouraging trend, there are still thousands of Maltese in Australia who have not seen it worth their while to apply for Australian citizenship. This is likely to be the philosophy guiding the older members of the community who see no worth while objective to be achieved by having Australian citizenship, seeing that they have always enjoyed the rights and facilities available to Australian citizens, including the right to vote. This could change of course if punitive measures mooted in some corners were to materialise. The Fitzgerald Report on immigration, for example, had recommended that welfare payments could be withheld from those who failed to apply for citizenship. This line is unlikely to be popular with either the current government or with the Opposition, but could very well be re-introduced by the more-right wing elements now jostling for control of parliament.

Those that return to Malta

In the study mentioned above, Ms Lever-Tracy interviewed 143 men and women who had returned from Australia. The majority had returned not because they had given up on Australia, but rather because, even after 15 years or more, the attraction of Malta proved too much - a conglomeration of factors including "missing parents and relatives, the country and the way of life". The majority had spent more than 5 years in Australia, which excludes those who for some reason found it difficult to settle during the initial trying period.

Did they regret coming back to Malta? Only about 15 per cent of those interviewed regretted coming to Malta. The vast majority still held fond memories of their stay in Australia, proffering statements like: "We thank God we went To Australia when we were young", or "We love Australia as much as Malta", and, perhaps most emphatic of all " Our heart belongs to both countries ...We love Australia as much as Malta".

[From: Il-Maltija, January, 1994]

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

top-of-pageprevioustopic-indexnext Email-A-Page



We need your support to continue working on this site. Help us.
Text and pictures (c) 2001-2017 Malta Emigration Museum and/or its contributors.

Consultancy, hosting, programming and technical assistance provided by A6iT.