Immigration – nation building or gate keeping?

The securitisation of migration is slowly eating away at one of progressive Australia’s most cherished accomplishments – a diverse, cohesive society. Henry Sherrell writes


The role of immigration has been central to building modern Australia. Arthur Calwell was certainly a passionate believer in White Australia yet his vision of mass migration in the aftermath of World War Two laid the foundation for a prosperous future. Similarly, while Gough Whitlam’s foray into asylum policy was regrettable ( commentisfree/2015/jun/05/ queue-jumpers-and-boat-people- the-way-we-talk-about- refugees-began-in-1977), his introduction of the Race Discrimination Act and the abolition of White Australia ensured future migrants – regardless of where they are from – are fully welcomed to our society.

Together these policy decisions continue to shape current migration programs. Since the end of the recession in the early 1990s, Australia has run relatively large and open migration programs. We don’t talk about it much as attention is drawn to asylum policy but migrants to Australia are a progressive force.

Wage growth for lower skilled workers is stimulated by skilled migration. Australia accepts skilled migrants at some of the highest rates in the world. These skilled workers are complementary to lower skilled workers, creating economic benefits like a wage increase of 4.5 per cent between 1990 and 2000 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley. com/doi/10.1111/ecoj.12077/ epdf).

Census data for recently arrived permanent migrants show how this occurs. New migrants are over-represented in manager and professional occupations and under-represented as labourers, machinery operators and drivers, and retail and administrative workers. This points to the small but important role migration has to play in tackling inequality within Australia. Those at the bottom are the biggest economic winners from Australia’s skilled migration framework.

Yet Australian policy also addresses between-country inequality, where the bulk of global inequality is generated (Source: pdfs/Rodrik/Presentations/is_ nation_state_enemy_of_global_ equality.pdf). The Center for Global Development ranks Australia 5th at promoting development through migration for a large share of students and migrants from developing countries (Source: initiative/commitment- development-index/index). The Rudd and Gillard governments also piloted and introduced the Seasonal Workers Program, stimulating economic development in the Pacific.

But accepting large numbers of new migrants only works when they are supported. The process of how migrants settle is fundamental to future social cohesion. This includes resources and on the ground support. But perhaps most importantly, political leadership is the vanguard for public sentiment and social cohesion.

And this future, plus our rich history, is being risked in the name of security and border protection. The concept of nation building is receding and being replaced by barriers to fair participation in our society. The language of immigration is changing rapidly.

At the heart of this change in the transformation of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, to include the much heralded Australian Border Force.

Consider the following:

–       From 1 July 2015, immigration officials will be armed. Amongst the first sights a new migrant will witness will be a holstered gun and a set of suspicious eyes.

–       Visa cancellations on ‘character grounds’ have increased 500 per cent in the last 12 months.

–       In the 2015 Budget, an additional $40m was allocated to an ‘anti-people smuggling strategic communications campaign’. This was one of five ‘national security’ expenditure measures in the Budget under the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, totalling $324.9m.

–       At the same time, the government has slashed Australia’s humanitarian program as well as funding for organisations like the International Organisation for Migration who play a critical role in the region helping displaced migrants and asylum seekers.

–       In the 2014 Budget, the government removed the option for new migrants to bring out their parents unless they can stump up over $45,000. This is despite family reunion being a core element of settlement for new communities.

–       A small symbolic shift – email addresses will change from to – will inform everyone who corresponds with immigration officials about the new priorities.

These are just a few of the changes that highlight the priorities of the Abbott government when it comes to immigration policy. The Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection succinctly summed up this new environment in his Australia Day message to staff:

“More than settlement, we should look to become Australia’s gateway to the world, and the world’s gateway to Australia. On occasions, at times of heightened threat such as caused by terrorism or pandemics, we will need to act as the gatekeepers and as necessary man the ramparts and protect our borders.”

But a gatekeeper in a permanent environment of ‘heightened threat’ will never open their door.

There are options for the future. Just as AusAID has been merged into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it will be difficult to unwind what has now occurred.

This means new opportunities are required to further improve immigration policy. English language and employment are the two most obvious starting points. Assistance to new communities to learn English is virtually unchanged since the 1990s. Ensuring the hospital, the courtroom and the classroom are places where new migrants feel comfortable is central to our nation in the 21stcentury.

Social cohesion and multiculturalism did not just magically appear. It took leadership, hard work, time and funding to ensure Australia is the one of the most socially cohesive and diverse societies in the world. Maintaining and building on past success must be a priority for progressive Australia.

About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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