The Morrison government is ­developing a plan to force ­migrants to settle in regional areas but a similar scheme met a sceptical reception when proposed in the early days of the Howard government in 1996.

Population growth and the level of migration were difficult issues for John Howard in the early years of his government. He believed the inflow of migrants under the former Labor government had been too high, and placed too much emphasis on family reunions and humanitarian flows. Unemployment had not retreated from the 1990-91 recession and still stood at 8.5 per cent.

Newly arrived migrants suffered particularly high unemployment rates, his department commented in a cabinet submission.

However, his immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, argued that an election commitment to maintain the permanent migration program level should be honoured.

Mr Ruddock had undertaken a nationwide consultation, concluding that while environmentalists wanted the intake slashed and business wanted numbers increased, most believed the level set by the previous Labor government was about right.

He did concede there were population pressures in the capital cities. “I am concerned about the extent to which new arrivals settle in Sydney and Melbourne rather than regional Australia and the lesser populated states/territories,” he told cabinet.

He proposed that part of the family reunion intake be reserved for sponsors who lived in regional Australia while a commonwealth and state working party developed a more ambitious plan for using migration as an instrument for long-term regional development.

Ruddock received short shrift, with cabinet telling him to go away and return with a new submission, with lower immigration numbers.

The Prime Minister’s Department also said it was “sceptical of the new regional component” of family reunion migration, while the Finance Department commented that there was no barrier in Australia to migrants or others living where they wished.

“Migrants and others will choose to live where they consider their prospects of successful settlement, including employment, to be most favourable,” it said.

The Industry Department said “attempting to artificially prop up regions that do not have the economic sustainability to support new migrants could not be expected to viably change that situation”, arguing the proposal would destabilise low-growth regions as migrants forced to live there moved away.

Ruddock returned two weeks later presenting cabinet with five options for the intake size. Cabinet chose the lowest that could be achieved without legislation, which was a 14 per cent cut. The humanitarian program was also cut.

As compensation, Ruddock was allowed to maintain a pilot program for regional settlement that had begun under the former Labor government, covering no more than 500 places.

Over the next year, the government gave detailed consideration to the composition of the ­migrant intake.

“The economic benefits will be larger the greater the emphasis on skills and English-language proficiency” a report to cabinet in early 1997 concluded. The way to achieve this would be through ­reducing the family reunion and humanitarian intakes, although the latter would expose Australia to international criticism.

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