Why Australian-style migration wouldn’t work for UK

by Jack Schickler | 01.06.2016

Continuing their impersonation of a government-in-waiting, Vote Leave chiefs today set out their immigration policy. Taking a leaf out of UKIP’s book, they say a post-Brexit UK should model its system on the Australian one, which allocates points based on would-be entrants’ skills, attributes and suitability to work. They say their system would  restore control over immigration and be “fairer, more humane, and better for the economy.”

In fact, the system Down Under wasn’t designed to get migration numbers down, and there is little evidence it would do so in the UK. The model is also poorly suited to our economic needs.

Aussie system designed to raise immigration, not cut it

Surprisingly, given their frequently expressed fears about the impact of migration on public services, Vote Leave does not say whether it wants flows to fall or rise under their policy. However, the Conservative party, of which three of the four signatories to the Vote Leave statement are members, has a target to cut the annual figures to the tens of thousands from their current level of 333,000.

The points-based model advocated by Vote Leave enjoys limited support from migration experts as a means of reducing immigration. Migration Watch, which campaigns against mass immigration, says Australia is a “thoroughly unsuitable” model for the UK. It notes that points-based systems like Australia’s are in general set up “to promote migration, not limit it”. In 2014, net migration to Australia – which has about a third of the UK’s population – was 240,000, or close to three times UK levels, per capita. Political scientist Randall Hansen notes the Canadian points-based system has a similar objective and would also be “wholly inappropriate” for the UK.

There is little evidence that points-based systems can cut migration. Since 2008, the UK has had a points-based system for non-EU migration – but that still stands at 188,000, higher than the equivalent figure for the EU, and on its own breaching the government’s target.

Unsuitable for our labour market needs

The Australian system favours graduates. But the UK economy needs unskilled labour too – for example in sectors like agriculture. The NHS needs doctors – 9% of whom are from other EU countries – but also less skilled staff like carers or cleaners.

Points-based systems can look at high-level indicators, like whether someone has a degree – or they can seek to match skills to vacancies. Vote Leave imply they favour the latter when they say that “to gain the right to work, economic migrants will have to be suitable for the job in question.” But it is unclear why they feel bureaucrats would be better able than employers to decide who has the right skills for a job.

The Australian skilled visa system is also very complex, cumbersome and lengthy – applications take from 3 to 18 months to process. This would not meet the flexible needs of seasonal work, or of companies such as startups, who cite access to a large, flexible labour pool as a major plus of EU membership.


Vote Leave say that “there will be no change for Irish citizens”, who would keep their right to enter, live and work in the UK. But the EU might not allow this type of positive discrimination – places such as the Channel Islands, neither in the EU nor accepting free movement of people, still cannot pick and choose between different EU nationalities. The EU is also threatening retaliation against countries such as Canada and the US who seek to apply different visa rules to different nationalities.

Black market work

Cracking down on legal migration will presumably increase the rate of illegal workers, unlikely to pay taxes and prepared to work for less than the minimum wage. The low-waged in the UK could find themselves facing more competition, not less.

Vote Leave did not respond to our request for comment. 

Edited by Geert Linnebank

6 Responses to “Why Australian-style migration wouldn’t work for UK”

  • Please read and spread comment from the LSE about the post brexit economic model from Minford et al with very accurate dismantling of the position of those economists for brexit. Article titled: “The ‘Britain Alone’ scenario: how Economists for Brexit defy the laws of gravity”. It is really an eye opener on the damage on the economy Uk is going to inflict itself in case of brexit

    • Economists:
      1981 a letter signed by 364 economists warning of the threat of recession – published just as the economy was starting to recover. Such an overwhelming consensus of economists, all wrong.
      1992 – The Treasury, backed up by most of the economic establishment, said that if we left the ERM (forerunner of the Euro), inflation would surge, interest rates would rise, and the economy would be damaged. We were forced out of the system on 16 September 1992, and inflation fell, interest rates were cut and the economy recovered. Such an overwhelming consensus of economists, all wrong.
      2008 – a group of leading economists, including Nick MacPherson, a permanent secretary at Britain’s Treasury, and Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill said “In summary, your majesty, the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole”. Such an overwhelming consensus of economists, all failures.
      2014 – a grovelling apology from IMF head Christine Lagarde (currently waiting to stand trial in France accused of a €400m fraud) for the failure of the IMF to correctly predict the UK economy. Another failure.
      So, completely and consistently wrong for 35 years – why should we think these economists are right this time?

  • “There is little evidence that points-based systems can cut migration”

    And nor have the Outers categorically stated that they aim to cut migration, least of all by setting a target for migration. Their key word, seemingly, was ‘control’.

    Yet, IDS is quoted as saying ” We can create a fairer immigration system that welcomes in the brightest and best whilst ensuring our public services are not put under strain.”

    Is that a false prospectus I wonder? Or have the Tory rebels become converted to the national planning ( that never really worked) of Harold Wilson’s brand of Socialism in the nineteen sixties and seventies?

  • Brexit go on about being able to control immigration if Britain leaves the EU.
    If Britain then wanted a trading deal, to be negotiated, isn’t that likely to mean that we would have to accept free movement of peoples as Switzerland and Norway have?
    Someone please let me know if I’ve got that wrong.
    If I haven’t, why is nobody saying this – at least I haven’t heard it.

  • “applications take from 3 to 18 months to process. This would not meet the flexible needs of seasonal work, or of companies such as startups, who cite access to a large, flexible labour pool as a major plus of EU membership”

    Rubbish ! Australia has holiday visas for backpackers which take a couple of months of be approved. Many immigrants come to pick fruit and work in general unskilled work . After one year they are asked to leave. They are given an extra year if they do 3 months seasonal work in regional locations.

    The U.K. Could easily follow the same example.