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Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia, 2006/12/14 - Between 1996 and 2005, the percentage of people wanting a reduction in immigration levels fell from more than 60 per cent to less than 40 per cent, according to Dr Katharine Betts, an associate professor of sociology at Swinburne University.
She says a possible reason for this shift in public attitude is people's fear about the ageing population and a belief that higher immigration could provide a remedy.
But Dr Betts, whose report will be published in the People and Place journal this week, says this belief is a myth.
"Researchers ranging from the Productivity Commission to university-based demographers have long established that while immigration can do a great deal to make the population larger, it can do very little to offset demographic ageing," she says.
However, over the past 30 years politicians and opinion makers have spoken increasingly about the negative implications of an ageing population, coupled with claims that importing more people offers a solution.
"New survey data show that they may have had some influence on public attitudes," Dr Betts says in The Ageing of the Population and Attitudes to Immigration.
According to Australian Surveys of Social Attitudes, conducted by the Australian National University, worry about the ageing of the population ranked among the top three concerns of Australian voters in 2005.
"Australian voters are very concerned about the ageing of the population; more than 22 per cent say it is either the first or second most important issue facing Australia," the report says.
Dr Betts says the Australian Surveys of Social Attitudes show anxiety about ageing is associated with significantly stronger support for immigration.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated in 2000 that if 50,000 migrants came to Australia every year, the median age of the population in 2051 would be 47.2 years, compared with 44.6 years if 150,000 migrants arrived each year, a difference of just 2.6 years.
However, Dr Betts said this finding had made little impact on public and political debate.
She said former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett advocated high immigration, often invoking the "spectre of demographic ageing" as a justification.
Steve Bracks has also argued, in the face of evidence to the contrary, Dr Betts says, that the "trend in the rate of migration is steadily down" and that we face "a declining workforce and the health-care demands of an ageing population".
"In the face of public figures asserting that immigration can reverse demographic ageing and implying that the country is in imminent danger of shrinking in size, it would not be surprising if people who believed these myths favoured an increase in immigration," she says.
Other possible reasons for the decline in opposition to immigration included low unemployment, reforms to the permanent migration scheme with an emphasis on skilled migration rather than family reunion, and welfare restrictions on migrants.