The answers are to be found in a directions paper put out by the party in April ("Towards a Productive and Sustainable Population Growth Path for Australia"). The policy is a long way from being traditionalist, but I thought there were some real positives in it as well. It may even make the Liberal Party worth voting for this election.
Same old, same old
I'll start with the negatives, so I can finish on a more cheerful note. The Liberal Party continues to believe (along with the right-liberal journalists at The Australian newspaper) that the purpose of immigration is to serve the economy:
The Coalition believes that addressing the skills needs of businesses to sustainably grow our economy is the primary reason for a migration programme. Consequently, economic considerations must be paramount in how our programme is framed and composed. (p.4)
The primary purpose of a nation’s migration programme is economic, namely to supplement natural increase to create critical market mass in the domestic economy and service the skills needs of a growing economy. (p.8)
So preserving distinct national traditions counts for nothing, it's all about the economy. This demonstrates just how far distant the Liberal Party is from being anything like a traditionalist party.
Furthermore, once you accept the premise that the aim of a migration programme is "to create critical mass in the domestic economy" then you are likely to remain committed to ongoing population growth via migration.
And the belief that a primary aim of immigration is to "service the skills needs of a growing economy" means that the Liberals are also committed to making it easier for businesses to bring in overseas workers via the 457 visa system:
liberalisation of arrangements for temporary business visas (457s) subject to clear standards, to make them more accessible to business, especially small businesses, and business in regional areas, with proven skills shortage needs (p.8)
It's worth noting too that it was the Liberal Party under John Howard which began the massive rise in immigration which Kevin Rudd then further accelerated (see figure 3 on page 4: Howard governed from 1996 to 2007. He held immigration steady until 2000 but then increased it every year till his defeat.)
So what are the more promising parts of the Liberal policy? Part of it is that the Liberals are now taking seriously the idea that there are some legitimate restraints on immigration numbers, such as the need to provide adequate infrastructure and to maintain environmental sustainability.
There is even a very clear statement in the policy paper that until infrastructure and sustainability can be factored into an immigration policy, that numbers should be kept below 180,000 per annum:
Until such time as a growth band can be established for future population growth that takes into account future infrastructure, services and environmental demands, the Coalition does not endorse the growth path projected in the third intergenerational report for a population of 36 million by 2050 that requires an average rate of net overseas migration of 180,000 per annum. (p.7)
180,000 is still an historically high level, but it's a lot lower than the current 300,000 average and at least it's a firmer commitment than anything made by the Labor Party.
And there's something else to be welcomed in the Liberal Party policy paper. The paper acknowledges that immigration does not necessarily raise real GDP per capita. This is a significant admission given that the Liberals place so much emphasis on the economic basis for migration.
The following quote is arguably the most important in the whole paper:
The economic focus of the Coalition’s approach to population policy is on productivity. In pursuing a commitment to improving productivity, we cannot allow population growth to become a surrogate.
The intergenerational reports conducted by Treasury have consistently highlighted the 3Ps when it comes to economic growth, namely productivity, participation and population.
In their most recent IGR, Treasury concluded that growth in productivity is the primary determinant of growth in real GDP per person ...
Our wealth as a nation is far more complex than simply taking more people in. It is possible to grow our economy without rates of population growth that diminish liveability and sustainability. (p.4, my emphasis)
And some important data is provided to back up this point. There is an attachment (A, p.9) which lists the productivity growth and population growth of the OECD countries. It is clear from this attachment that you can have productivity growth without major population growth.
Australia has one of the highest rates of population growth of the countries listed (15%) but one of the lowest rates of productivity growth per labour unit (1.1%). Compare this to the Slovak Republic which had a population growth of only 0.3% but a productivity growth of 5.0%.
So immigration cannot be the primary focus of economic development. Perhaps it is recognising this that allows the writers of the policy paper to make the following criticisms of recent immigration trends:
Australians are already feeling growing pains from current population pressures. Congestion in our cities, limitations on our energy supply, threats to food security, erosion of service standards in our hospitals and marginalisation of water resources are all evidence of the challenges created by population growth.
In October last year the Prime Minister dismissed these challenges and recklessly committed Australia to his idea of a Big Australia and later endorsed the 36 million population projections contained in the third intergenerational report.
The majority of Australians are uncomfortable with Kevin Rudd’s notion of a Big Australia of 36 million people as evidenced by recent surveys conducted by the Lowy Institute (69% opposed), Morgan poll (90% opposed), Ninemsn poll (82% opposed) and ANU (69% opposed).
As proposed in this policy directions statement, the Coalition does not endorse Kevin Rudd’s vision for a Big Australia of 36 million people by 2050. (p.1)
Is it enough?
So it's a mixed report. The Libs are blind to the need to maintain their own distinct national tradition. What matters for them is the economy. But they have recognised that there's more to economic development than immigration and that immigration numbers need to be linked to infrastructure and sustainability. They have committed themselves to numbers of fewer than 180,000 per annum and a population level of less than 36,000,000 by 2050.
These are still very high figures. However, it's better than any commitments made by Labor and could therefore be a positive reason for giving preferences to the Liberals at the election.