Peter Dutton promises to slash permanent migration by 25% in short term in populist budget reply

Peter Dutton has promised to cut permanent migration by one-quarter in the short term in a populist budget reply that was relatively modest compared to the scale of fears he has raised over net arrivals.

On Thursday the opposition leader called for a crackdown on crime including creating new offences for causing an intimate partner or family member to fear for their safety, tracking them, or engaging in coercive behaviours, and posting criminal acts online.

In a speech offering bipartisanship on cost-of-living measures but cuts to the Future Made in Australia plan, Dutton argued that Labor had “made life so much tougher for Australians” and “set our country on a dangerous course”.

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Providing no fresh detail on alternatives on income tax cuts and nuclear power, Dutton instead focused on perceived Coalition strengths of law and order, largely the responsibility of the states, and migration, which has spiked due to borders reopening after Covid.

In the lead-up to the speech, Dutton complained that Labor’s budget showed “1.7 million people are coming into our country” over the next five years, a reference to projections of net migration, which includes temporary entrants on uncapped visa classes who eventually call Australia home.

But in the budget reply Dutton did not commit the opposition to a target on net migration, instead promising to slash the permanent migration program by 25% from 185,000 to 140,000 for the first two years, followed by 150,000 then 160,000.

Dutton argued this was being done in “recognition of the urgency” of the housing “crisis”. The policy would reduce the intake of mostly skilled workers and recipients of family visas by a cumulative total of 150,000 over four years.

“We believe that by rebalancing the migration program and taking decisive action on the housing crisis, the Coalition would free up more than 100,000 additional homes over the next five years,” he said.

Dutton promised to ensure there were “enough skilled and temporary skilled visas” for construction workers and to “return the refugee and humanitarian program planning level to 13,750”, a cut of one-third from the current 20,000.

Dutton said the Coalition would also “implement a two-year ban on foreign investors and temporary residents purchasing existing homes in Australia”.

After Labor committed to a cap on international student numbers, Dutton approved the measure and promised to add “a tiered approach to increasing the student visa application fee” including slugging students who change providers to “enhance the integrity of the student visa program”.

In the wake of the Bondi Junction stabbing and Wakeley church attack, Dutton signalled a push to “limit and restrict the sale and possession of knives to minors and dangerous individuals”.

Dutton also promised to lead a push for states and territories to develop uniform knife laws, giving police the powers to stop and search people using detector wands, known as Jack’s Law in Queensland.

Under the new proposed new offence of posting criminal acts online, people convicted would be banned from using digital platforms and liable for up to two years’ imprisonment.

Dutton noted Labor’s trial of age verification technology for minors accessing pornography but promised to “include social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok in such a trial”.

After the Coalition waved through Labor’s changes to the stage-three tax cuts, Dutton recommitted to “provide lower, simpler and fairer taxes for all” but provided no detail, saying this would come “ahead of the election”.

Similarly for nuclear power, Dutton said Australia should be “following the other top 20 economies in the world which have zero-emission nuclear power in their energy mix, or are taking steps to put it in”, without saying how.

Dutton also committed to “ramping-up domestic gas production for affordable and reliable energy in the more immediate term”, deriding “Labor’s new gas strategy [as] just words on paper”.

The Coalition had already signalled it would support Labor’s cost-of-living measures including the $300 electricity rebate.

In the budget reply, Dutton confirmed it would seek to save $13.7bn over 10 years by rejecting “corporate welfare for green hydrogen and critical minerals” in Labor’s Future Made in Australia plan.

After months of his shadow minister complaining about Centrelink wait times and backlogs, the only other major saving identified by Dutton was to modify Labor’s plan for “an additional 36,000 public servants” costing billions over four years, a recruitment drive that includes $1.8bn for frontline Services Australia staff.

“The Coalition sees areas like defence as much more of a priority than office staff in Canberra given the precarious times in which we live and threats in our region,” he said, promising to “reprioritise Canberra-centric funding and make an additional investment in defence”.

Dutton promised to reverse Labor industrial relations policies, but specified only the definition of casual employees.

Dutton promised to further increase the amount older Australians and veterans can work without reducing pension payments, estimated to affect 150,000 people.

“We will double the existing work bonus from $300 per fortnight to $600,” he said.

Dutton said the Coalition would increase the value of assets eligible for the instant asset write-off to $30,000 and “make this ongoing for small businesses”.

Dutton also promised $400m for junior doctors who train in general practice with incentive payments, assistance with leave entitlements, and support for pre-vocational training.

The education minister, Jason Clare, told reporters in Canberra that Dutton “didn’t have the guts to tell people” where he would put nuclear reactors and how much they would cost.

“The real message out of that speech is: don’t trust Dutton. If he’s the person who broke the migration system, why would you trust him to fix it?”