Has anyone noticed how some inner city churches have â€˜asylum seekers welcomeâ€™ signs? The irony is there are next to zero asylum seekers in Australia. Australiaâ€™s border control mechanisms and our Indon neighbours have ensured that just about no one is crossing the Timor Gap on leaky boats any more. Our detention centres are mostly occupied by illegal fisherman and over-stayers, in considerably reduced numbers from the people-smuggling boom times.
Ironically, the Coalitionâ€™s policy success in busting the horrific people-smuggling racket meant the sense of urgency about illegal arrivals gradually evaporated and no longer remained an electoral advantage for Howard in 2007. On this – and in many other areas like the economy – Howard was a victim of his own success.
Ideally Australiaâ€™s immigration policy should be bipartisan, welcoming and non-discriminatory. The only truly non-discriminatory anti-immigration policy in Australia used to be the Greens party â€“ zero net growth. Then, in the late nineties the policy evolved towards zero net intake plus illegal arrivals and over-stayers: population control demagoguery with a human face.
From Federation on, whether it was under the White Australia policy or not, Australiaâ€™s immigration policy eschewed low skilled guest workers schemes. This is what makes Laborâ€™s policy to introduce an extensive â€˜pilotâ€™ of 20,000 South Pacific Island guest workers so surprising. Pushed by DFAT and the NFF, the Howard Government flirted with the idea in its last term but believed that WorkChoices plus a low skilled immigration intake would only be more fodder for ACTU.
Could the aggressive lobbying of the former member for Maribyrnong Bob Sercombe be a factor?
A number of Aboriginal leaders have already point out that guest workers will be taking opportunities for Indigenous job seekers. Fair point!
The Federal Government is now weighing up the impact of the economic crisis on the labour market. The Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans, has been at pains to quell any fears about the governmentâ€™s intended increase in the migration numbers and its Pacific Islander guest worker scheme by hinting at cuts of the 457 visa scheme. The Senator has said that the government will rely on economic data to reassess the nationâ€™s migrant intake and may consider calls for a reduction if economic growth slows. The Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has also weighed in to the debate, warning employers that they must â€œfirst check if Australians were available to fill vacant jobsâ€ before applying for 457 skilled visas.
In a pre-emptive move, the Opposition Immigration spokesperson, Sharman Stone, has called for a 20 per cent reduction in immigration in order to help the nation deal with the likely effects of a slowing economy.
Many Australians would consider it entirely reasonable that in a period of increasing unemployment, the job prospects of Australians should be given priority. However, by emphasising that immigration is so exclusively influenced and determined by economic factors, it would appear that the other key issues that influence and shape our immigration policy, namely those that are social and cultural, have at the very least been cast to one side and at worst, are considered redundant.
Arguing the case on social or cultural grounds often involves sticking oneâ€™s neck out and identifying a particular race or cohort of migrant. Or is it a case that media bias? The Labor Government is targeting Pacific Islanders because there is not the kind of plebeian angst towards these workers from these microstates compared with workers from Indonesia and China.
Last year, the Howard Government took steps to reduce the number of African migrants under the humanitarian programme. It unleashed a fit of pique among the handwringers in Australia.
Some background: In response to the Darfur humanitarian crisis, Vanstone persuaded Cabinet to tip the balance of the programme towards Horn of African asylum seekers at a 70 per cent intake. This overwhelmed settlement services and the local families recovering from their own traumas arising from civil war and attempted genocide.
Advice from Immigration officials and a number of ugly incidents in Melbourne heightened grassroots heightened concerns about the pace and effectiveness of resettling such migrants in such numbers. Advice included evidence about the establishment and activities of race based gangs, tensions between African families and community organisations resulting in conflict and assault, and a very real concern among community leaders about the increase in crime among African youth.
To balance it out and to take account of specific community concerns, refugees such as Assyrians from the Middle East caught in the cross-fires of conflicts in which Australia was participating, were favoured and more settlement services to Africans were provided.
The announcement by the then Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews led to a reaction not too dissimilar to the 1980s Blainey/Howard comments about slowing down the Asian intake. It was loud and predictable. Andrews was labelled not only a racist, but a political opportunist, in search of the next â€˜Tampaâ€™ so as to give the then ailing Howard Government a boost for the pending general election. ABC Radioâ€™s John Faine even went as far as lodging a complaint against Andrews with the Human Rights Commission.
In amongst all of this hysteria, the Federal Labor Party was unusually quiet. Its pollster knew Andrews had a point and that it was resonating with the silent majority. Both the Federal Labor MPs for the electorates covering the Dandenong area were conspicuous by their media absence.
(Interestingly the current Minister left the proportion of African refugees the same as Andrewsâ€™ decision â€“ 33 per cent from Asia, Middle East and Africa each plus the remaining 1 per cent to contingencies. Do you think Jon Faine will lodge a complaint against Evans?)
Politicians from both sides should be wary of ignoring the will of Australians when shaping our immigration policy. The Pauline Hanson phenomenon provides a salutary lesson as to the savage reaction that the voters when the key driver to immigration policy was the family reunion intake over skilled workers and businesspeople: it was great for self appointed ethnic leaders and fundraisers but it lost the ALP votes.
The old 1970s view that multiculturalism was about undermining the host culture and was particularly championed by disgraced former MP and former La Trobe Uni academic, Andrew Theophanous. This â€˜hostileâ€™ multiculturalism is still on display by those who oppose a citizenship test. Thankfully this has bipartisan support and it inspires confidence that Laurie Ferguson, who supported the policy of detention, is driving this part of the portfolio.
It is unlikely illegal arrivals will trouble the Rudd Government as Indonesia now polices people smuggling very effectively. The danger for Rudd is if the labour market becomes considerably weaker, some of the social and cultural limitations of the current immigration intake will show up and the guest workers â€˜pilotâ€™ will be taking opportunities from motivated Australians on low income. At that point, Rudd should promote earthy Laurie Ferguson as his Immigration Minister.
If Sharman Stone is looking for a sleeper issue in immigration, she could do no better than proposing the reform of the dysfunctional Adult Migration English Program (AMEP) which allows 5 hours of English lessons per week over 5 years with no requirements to job search for new migrants. How the Howard Government never fixed this rotten program beggars belief!
Immigration policy should not be the sole tool of big business (457 visas), big agriculture (guest workers) or rent-seeking ethnic leaders (increasing family reunions). It belongs to all fair and open minded citizens, who believe that immigration should enhance the existing diversity, not detract from it. Immigration has been most successful when governments have brought the Australian community along with them, rather than getting ahead of what will be reasonably tolerated.
There must be an honest and open debate about the social and cultural impacts of immigration. It is not unreasonable to expect that migrants aspiring to citizenship should demonstrate some capacity to successfully integrate into the Australian way of life. Citizenship has never meant giving up their roots or identity; itâ€™s about a willingness to accept and embrace Australian values and our western democratic traditions and institutions.