Conservative and particularly pro-Brexit politicians in Britain have been promising an “Australian points-based system” for years, and new Prime Minister Boris Johnson is the latest to take up the theme.
In his first address to the House of Commons in July, Johnson promised a “radical rewriting” of the system, which under his predecessor Theresa May’s had aimed to reduce immigration numbers to the tens of thousands.
The Brexit referendum in 2016 was won on a background of warnings over uncontrolled immigration from Europe.
”No-one believes more strongly than me in the benefits of migration to our country,” Johnson said, though his immediate policy was to ask an independent committee for a review of the Australian system and how it might apply to the UK.
Howard said he also “believed” in immigration, but he said he was not an authority on how well Australia’s system might work in the UK.
And he conceded that Australia’s was not a pure points system – coming to a guaranteed job “obviously gives you a further advantage”, he said. No system operated in a purely mechanical way, and it was the job of government to set immigration criteria.
Those criteria should “obviously” give preference to things such as English language skills, Howard said, “but not absolute preference”.
Howard spoke out in favour of Brexit before the referendum, telling a London newspaper in early 2016 Britain had lost its sovereignty to a “fundamentally flawed” European project, and “Britain can’t control its borders – it is ridiculous to say it can”.
The Brexit referendum in 2016 was won on a background of warnings over uncontrolled immigration from Europe, which was at the time dealing with the consequences of 2015’s sudden wave of migrants fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa.
Few of those migrants got as far as Britain, though a refugee camp in Calais where migrants would regularly try to smuggle themselves to England by hiding in trucks was regularly in the news.
One of the basic tenets of the EU that its citizens have a right to free movement to live and work in any of its nations.
Experts have warned that an Australian points-based system could mean almost anything when applied to the UK.
Points-based systems reward would-be immigrants for attributes such as age, qualifications, skills and experience.
The UK’s current system for non-EU citizens requires sponsorship from an employer in a job that meets criteria including a salary threshold.
It is unclear – and likely not yet decided – whether the UK government plans to ditch the current system altogether, or impose a points system alongside it, or attempt an amalgam that gives points to applicants with an employer sponsor.
“Johnson could take a more cautious and conservative route – opting to stick largely to the current system, perhaps with further restrictions in place – or he could initiate a radical overhaul as part of his plans for a ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit,” Marley Morris from the Institute for Public Policy Research said last month, after Johnson’s announcement.
“We are still in the dark about what this rewriting will mean in practice.”
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age