Palme McGuinness: Australia not immune to immigration anxiety, but we have no need to worry

Another interesting article from Australia with some similar issues and some similar optimism (although tatters may be too strong a term for Canada but some may not agree). And Canada would benefit from an independent review or commission to review the objectives and their implementation:

Fashion, ideology and political expedience have left Australia’s immigration system in tatters. Now, finally, we have a solid review of the immigration system, embraced by responsible minister Clare O’Neil. There are still details left to be finessed, but implementing the principles of the Martin Parkinson-led review will be the hard reset our visa system needs.

Not before time. Immigration anxiety is escalating around the world as countries struggle to manage the inflows of refugees and economic migrants keen to share the protection and opportunities of liberal democracy. The European Union is bickering over who should take the migrants that keep coming and who should pay. Italy, an immigration inflow frontier, elected a prime minister tasked with firming its borders. Britain brexited the discussion at great cost to its economy. In the US, migrants walking over the border are bussed around to make a political point. Immigration anxiety has moved more elections than climate anxiety.

Australia, protected by its geography, has been spared much of this. But not all. We have many problems of our own making that feed into what the Transatlantic Council on Migration identifies as the key drivers of immigration anxiety.

Our anxiety in this area, the Council finds, is caused by common factors, including some we’re facing in Australia right here, right now.

One of these is a sudden large flow of immigrants – and Australia is expecting at least 650,000 over two years. Another is the perception that new arrivals will compete with the existing population for scarce resources and opportunities – such as housing, medical care, welfare, and jobs. And then there’s the level of trust in the ability of policymakers to control inflows and deliver successful integration policies. Australia has scraped by, though fissures regularly appear on asylum seeker policy and integration. But our infrastructure, housing and services are groaning at a time when immigration is about to spike.

In the circumstances, we needed the Parkinson review a couple of decades ago. But since we have it now, now will have to do.

The review won’t build the new houses, roads or hospitals we already needed yesterday. But it might just be able to help us agree on how we can become a better nation, with the help of the people that business and the care sector need today.

That is perhaps the most important part of this review. It starts out by stating the purpose of our immigration system. Because, as the review panel writes, “clear objectives are part of the story Australians tell about why the country is taking certain action” and “when that story is lost sight of or stops being told, trust and confidence is weakened”.

The purpose laid out in the review might be expressed in modern language, but goes back to the core principles of what makes nations strong and citizens confident of their collective sovereignty.

The first principle is that immigration should build Australia’s prosperity. This should be a no-brainer, but as usual somehow partisan politics from the left and the right got in the way. So let’s say it straight: bringing in clever people adds bodies, yes, but it also raises the national IQ. Smart people generate ideas, create businesses, or win overseas business for Australian companies, which creates more jobs right here onshore. Keeping an eye on national prosperity doesn’t mean forgoing humanitarian intake (sometimes doing the right thing is just the right thing to do), but it means evaluating the overall effect of the combined intake against one very important objective: that we all benefit. This is why recent migrants are sometimes not wild about untargeted new intakes. They want to know that the country they’ve invested themselves in is going to get richer and better.

The next is enabling fair labour markets. This principle has had some less than savoury incarnations, including the White Australia policy, which limited immigration from non-European countries. Along with a large dollop of racism, the purpose of the Restricted Immigration Act of 1901 was to keep out people who would work for lower wages. It is a considerable improvement that we can now say our immigration system is designed to protect people in our society who need lower paid jobs as a step into the labour market and dispense with the racist excuse.

The review also, refreshingly, prioritises “building a community of Australians”. It recognises the importance of giving migrants the ability to set down roots and become Australian. One of the most corrosive ideas in immigration here and abroad has been the notion that a country is acting in its best interests when it treats migrants who want to stay as temporary, or guest workers. If decency doesn’t tell you people who spend their productive years in a country might find that they and their children have built a life there, not just a career, then international experience can.

Guest worker programs, like the Turkish workers Germany brought in after WWII to rebuild bombed out cities, lead to parallel societies. The children of the guest workers still wanted to stay, but spoke poor German and felt no sense of belonging. Guests don’t, to return to the housing shortage, build new accommodation for themselves and their kin. Terms like “assimilation” have gone out of style, but the review emphasises the importance of “democratic resilience and social cohesion” – a nation in which nationality is a bond is stronger and happier.

Finally, and I have to say I like this as much as the other principles which underpin the review, it puts an Orwellian caveat on all the above: break any of these rules rather than be outright barbarous. Some of the migrants we want, want to be temporary. We have to be OK with that too.

A hard reset to principle and purpose is what our immigration system desperately needs. Like all the best policy work, once it’s clearly articulated it seems just to state the bleeding obvious.

Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at strategic communications firm Agenda C. The company was engaged to work for a Liberal Party MP during the federal election. She has also worked for the German Greens.

Source: Australia not immune to immigration anxiety, but we have no need to worry

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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