Australia still suffering critical skilled worker shortages despite decades of mass immigration

Of interest. Some similar policy fallacies such as favouring GDP growth over per capita GDP growth as in Canada:

Nades and Priya Murugappan made a fundamental mistake when they separately fled to Australia from Sri Lanka almost a decade ago.

The pair, who met at the meatworks in Biloela on Queensland’s Capricorn Coast and now have two children, lived in the town for four years.

They were on temporary protection visas before they were detained and sent to Christmas Island awaiting deportation.

Since 2019, they’ve existed in a guarded compound under 24-hour surveillance with daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa in an operation that has cost taxpayers more than $6 million.

Rather than flee their home country by boat, they instead should have applied for a skilled worker or student visa. It’s a pretty certain bet they would have received one.

A quick flick through the Skilled Occupation List for workers from abroad shows everything from carpenters to chief executives, chefs and composers, clothing trade workers. And that’s just the Cs.

The list seems to go on forever.

And even if your chosen occupation is removed, never fear.

“Pending nomination and/or visa applications will not be adversely impacted by the subsequent removal of any occupation from the skilled occupation list,” the Home Affairs department website says.

For decades, our politicians have batted up their tough border control credentials with threats to turn back boats and a promise of imprisonment.

In reality, the tough measures have been meted out to those with the least ability to defend themselves: a handful of the poorest and weakest, who now have become pawns in a macabre game of political brinkmanship.

At the same time as we’ve been tough on refugees, Australia has thrown open the doors, with one of the largest per capita immigration programs in the developed world.

It has enticed around 4,000 new arrivals a week, mostly into the two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

But even now, after decades of mass immigration, it appears we still are suffering critical “skills shortages”.

Fruit pickers, waiters and baristas are in short supply. Almost daily, there are calls to throw caution to the wind when it comes to COVID-19 and start importing workers again.

Low wages growth is hurting our economy

It has taken quite a while. But Reserve Bank governor Phil Lowe set himself on a collision course last week with big business and sections of the federal government by stating the bleeding obvious.

And that is, Australia has used immigration as a means for keeping the cost of labour subdued. Not that Dr Lowe put it so bluntly. But he made the point repeatedly that adding to the supply of workers keeps wages low.

It’s pretty basic economics, really.

For years now, one of the key factors undermining our economic performance has been low wages growth.

Economists love to call it anything but what it is. They’ll talk about underutilisation or excess capacity. But the graph below says it all.

A graph showing Australia's wage price index growth between 2001 and 2021.

In the past 12 months, there’s been almost universal agreement that stagnating wages pose one of the greatest dangers to derailing our recovery, particularly given our eye-watering levels of household debt.

But whenever wages start to rise, the calls to bring in more workers start immediately.

Interestingly, those making the most noise now are the ones who have benefitted the most from a constant influx of tourists, students and temporary workers.

The flood of overseas workers, particularly in hospitality, has left many with barely enough work upon which to survive. And it has opened the door to exploitation and wages theft on a grand scale.

Here is another graph, presented by Dr Lowe last week, showing data from the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Underemployment by industry graph

GDP growth doesn’t mean our lives are better

Australia has prospered greatly from immigration, particularly in the post-war period. It has enriched the nation in ways far more than can be measured by money.

Somewhere along the way, however, canny politicians figured out the great immigration con job: that by adding ever greater numbers of people, you automatically get GDP growth.

That’s because GDP is a crude yardstick. It simply measures the amount of stuff you produce. The more people you’ve got, the more you consume, and the more you produce.

Big business loves it too.

Not only does the influx of workers keep wages low, but all those extra people also end up consumers of your products. You sell more, your profits rise and so do your bonuses.

What GDP doesn’t measure is whether or not we all are better off as individuals.

As it turns out, we haven’t performed anywhere near as well as we’ve been told. Once you divide GDP by the number of people — to get a like for like comparison — the picture looks very different.

Remember how we were the “miracle economy” with 30 years or so without a recession?

The green bars below point out at least three recessions and quite a number of near misses.

Australia's quarterly GDP per capita growth

You’ve no doubt heard the grand visions: “This government will create a million new jobs over the next five years.”

And, bingo, just like that, it happens.

The thing is, when you are adding a million people over five years, you need to have a million extra jobs just to keep your head above water.

And the problem is that many of the new arrivals end up working part-time, in lower-paid jobs and in occupations that require far fewer skills than they possess. Doctors and engineers end up as Uber drivers.

Foreign workers are greatest victims of wage theft

The list is too long to compile. For years, revelations of wage theft within major Australian corporations became a blight on the nation.

But big, public organisations that are open to scrutiny are only a small part of the problem.

With such a huge influx, foreign workers, many of them desperate for employment and unaware of their rights, have been routinely exploited.

Students and temporary visa holders are the most vulnerable. But permanent arrivals share similar experiences.

Story after story of exploitation and sexual assault have littered newspapers, websites and current affairs programs.

Five years ago, a Senate inquiry released a report entitled: A National Disgrace. The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders.

Among other things, it concluded that temporary visa holders comprised around 10 per cent of the workforce and that the 457 visa program was impacting university graduates and depressing wages.  But it was the title that said it all.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has conducted raids, issued fines and published reports on deliberate underpayment and exploitation, particularly within the hospitality industry.

But for months now, almost every day brings forth a new claim of “skills shortages” and the need to start importing workers because firms have to pay more.

Source: Australia still suffering critical skilled worker shortages despite decades of mass immigration

In Indigenous Knowledge, Innovative Solutions

Some interesting examples:

Nearly two decades ago, when the New Zealand highway authority was planning the Waikato Expressway, people from the Māori tribe Ngāti Naho objected. The highway would encroach on an area that, in Māori tradition, was governed by a water-dwelling creature, a taniwha.

The authorities took those concerns into account and rerouted the road to circumvent the area in question. As a result, a year later, when the area was hit by a major flood, the road was unharmed.

“I’m still waiting for the headline, ‘Mythical Creature Saves the Taxpayer Millions,’” said Dan Hikuroa, a senior lecturer in Māori studies at the University of Auckland and member of the Ngāti Maniapoto tribe. He has often wondered if, once the flood hit, the technical team later said, “Why didn’t you just say it’s a flood risk area?”

Like many Indigenous peoples around the world, the Māori have developed their understanding of their environment through close observation of the landscape and its behaviors over the course of many generations. Now the New Zealand Environmental Protection Agency regularly looks for ways to integrate traditional Māori knowledge, or mātauranga, into its decision-making. Mr. Hikuroa has been appointed the culture commissioner for UNESCO New Zealand, a role he said is centered on integrating Māori knowledge into UNESCO’s work.

Western-trained researchers and governments are increasingly recognizing the wealth of knowledge that Indigenous communities have amassed to coexist with and protect their environments over hundreds or even thousands of years. Peer-reviewed scientific journals have published studies demonstrating that around the world, Indigenous-managed lands have far more biodiversity intact than other lands, even those set aside for conservation.

Embracing Indigenous knowledge, as New Zealand is trying to do, can improve how federal governments manage ecosystems and natural resources. It can also deepen Western scientists’ understanding of their own research, potentially, by providing alternative perspectives and approaches to understanding their field of work. This is ever more urgent, particularly as the climate crisis unfolds. “It is Indigenous resilience and worldview that every government, country and community can learn from, so that we manage our lands, waters and resources not just across budget years, but across generations,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and America’s first Native American cabinet secretary, said in remarks to the United Nations.

Indigenous scholars warn, though, that while traditional knowledge can be used to benefit the world, it can also be mishandled or exploited. Dominique David Chavez, a descendant of the Arawak Taíno in the Caribbean, and a research fellow at the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona and the National Science Foundation, says that, as Western scientists, “we are trained to go into communities, get that knowledge and go back to our institutions and disseminate it in academic journals.” That can be disruptive to traditional knowledge sharing, from one generation to another, she says, which should be the priority — ensuring that Indigenous knowledge systems are preserved in and supportive of the communities that developed them. In Puerto Rico, known by its Indigenous people as Borikén, Ms. Chavez is studying ways to restore the connections and traditional knowledge transmission patterns between elders and youth.

Bridging Indigenous and Western science also means respecting the ecosystem of values in which the knowledge systems are embedded. For instance, the practice of planting a diversity of crops and building healthy soil for water retention — today known as “regenerative agriculture” — has existed in Indigenous communities around the world throughout history. Yet the growing push to adopt regenerative agriculture practices elsewhere is often selective, using industrial pesticides, for example, or leaving out the well-being of people who farm the land.

“In Indigenous sciences, it’s not possible to separate the knowledge from the ethics of the responsibility for that knowledge — whereas in Western science, we do that all the time,” said Robin Wall Kimmerer, the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York in Syracuse and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The scientific method is designed to be indifferent to morals or values, she adds. “Indigenous knowledge puts them back in.”

Ideally, the shared use of Indigenous knowledge can help mend broken relationships between Indigenous and Western communities.

In upstate New York, Ms. Kimmerer points to sweetgrass, a native plant used for traditional basketry. She was approached by a tribe concerned about the decline of the plant and looking for a solution.

Government regulations had already restricted its harvest. “One thing people often think about is, is it being overharvested?” Ms. Kimmerer said. She helped to conduct studies that ultimately showed that harvesting sweetgrass, following Indigenous protocols, is the very thing that will help it to thrive. “If you just leave it alone, it starts to decline.”

For her, that speaks to a core flaw in Western approaches to land management: the belief that human interaction is necessarily harmful to ecosystems. “That’s one of the reasons Native people were systematically removed from what are today’s national parks, because of this idea that people and nature can’t coexist in a good way.” But Indigenous knowledge, Ms. Kimmerer said, is really all about, ‘Oh yes we can, and we cultivate practices for how that is possible,’” she said.

While combating wildfires last year, Australian authorities turned to Aboriginal practices. While researchers have connected the severity of the fires to climate change, Ms. Kimmerer added that how Australia’s land has been managed in the modern era may have also played a role. Aboriginal people had “been managing that land in a fire landscape for millenniums, ” she said. “The fact that Indigenous science has been ignored is a contributing factor to the fires there.”

As the world increasingly recognizes the accomplishments of many Indigenous communities that successfully coexist with ecosystems, there is much for Western society to learn.

“We have this notion that Western science is the pathway to truth. We don’t really even entertain the possibility that it could come from somewhere else,” said Ms. Kimmerer. “Resource managers, land managers need to understand that there are multiple ways of knowing.”


Australia: Citizenship application costs set to soar

High Canadian fees being used (along with UK and USA) to help justify increase:

Australian citizenship application fees are being jacked up to recoup more of the processing costs.

The standard fee for Australian citizenship by conferral will soar from $285 to $490, an increase of 72 per cent.

People applying for citizenship by descent or under other situations will also pay significantly more.

So will those seeking to renounce, resume or apply for evidence of Australian citizenship.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke insists the July 1 price hike will better reflect the cost of handling increasingly complex applications, which take longer to process.

Mr Hawke said it was the first change to citizenship application fees since 2016.

“Based on existing fees, the government is only recovering approximately 50 per cent of the costs of processing citizenship applications,” he said on Thursday.

“The cost of citizenship applications remains comparable with other countries.”

Mr Hawke said the cost of citizenship would still be lower than the UK, Canada and US.

The decision is guaranteed to raise eyebrows given the impact of coronavirus border closures, which have driven a wrecking ball through migration into Australia.

Source: Citizenship application costs set to soar

In Australia, a New Look at Immigration: ‘It’s About Our Friends’

Another example of how the personal trumps the official narratives by highlighting inhumanity (as was the case with Alan Kurdi or the Kamloops residential school deaths):

The 3-year-old girl was born in Australia, in a tiny town called Biloela, far from the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. But her parents were asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and living in a country that heavily discourages illegal migration, so the government sent them to a faraway island while deciding their fate.

This week the girl, Tharnicaa Murugappan, returned to mainland Australia, but not for the reason her family had hoped — she was medically evacuated to Perth, where she is now battling a blood infection in a hospital after a lengthy illness. Supporters of the family say she was given only painkillers for nearly two weeks at the remote government detention facility while her fever rose, and she now suffers from pneumonia, which led to her blood infection.

Tharnicaa and her family, often called the “Biloela family” among Australians, are the most high-profile asylum seekers in Australia. In a country that is inured to criticism from international human rights organizations over its “draconian” immigration policy, the detentions of Tharnicaa and her older sister have drawn outrage.

Tharnicaa’s illness has renewed calls for the family to be released from detention and prompted candlelight vigils and protests across Australia. Over half a million people have signed a petition demanding the family be returned to Biloela, a town of about 5,800 that is 260 miles northwest of Brisbane. Politicians from both sides have called for the family to be released from detention while maintaining support for the hard-line immigration policies that put them there. Karen Andrews, the home affairs minister, has been so inundated with calls about the case that her voicemail specifies that anyone wanting to speak to her about it should do so in writing.

The Murugappan family — mother Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam, father Nadesalingam Murugappan, Tharnicaa and her 6-year-old sister, Kopika — are the only people held in the Christmas Island detention center, which is 1,000 miles north of the Australian mainland. The two sisters, who both were born in Australia, are the only two children currently being held in immigration detention in Australia. Unlike the United States, Australia does not automatically grant citizenship to children born in the country, and the two girls are ineligible as the children of “unlawful maritime arrivals.”

The case is unusual in that the small rural town of Biloela, which has been leading the fight to get the family back, is a politically conservative place. But when the family was whisked away by immigration officials in 2018 after their claims for asylum were rejected and their temporary visas expired, locals weren’t thinking about politics. This case “wasn’t about politics or asylum seekers, it was about our friends,” said Simone Cameron, a Biloela local and friend of the family.

The family has been held on Christmas Island since 2019, as they fight government efforts to deport them to Sri Lanka.

Late last month, supporters of the family said, Ms. Nadesalingam and Mr. Murugappan started raising concerns with International Health and Medical Services, the private company that provides health care for the Christmas Island detention center, after Tharnicaa developed a fever on May 24. Requests for antibiotics were ignored, and the family was only given over-the-counter painkillers and a fact sheet about common flu symptoms, even as her fever increased and she started vomiting.

Tharnicaa was hospitalized on Christmas Island on June 6, according to the supporters. The next day, she was evacuated, along with her mother, to a hospital in the mainland city of Perth. She is recovering, but doctors are still trying to find the cause of the infection.

“It was the pure negligence of them not actually giving Tharnicaa antibiotics that led to her developing pneumonia,” a family friend, Angela Fredericks, said in a phone interview on Thursday. She added that the family had to “beg and fight” for Tharnicaa to be evacuated to the mainland.

In previous statements, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has defended Tharnicaa’s treatment, saying she was evacuated to Perth as soon as it was recommended. International Health and Medical Services did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Fortress Australia’: Why calls to open up borders are meeting resistance

Of note and the challenge of reopening:

Australia has been one of the world’s Covid success stories, where infection rates are near zero and life mostly goes on as normal.

That’s in large part thanks to the early move to shut its borders – a policy that has consistently been supported by the public.

But after a year in the cocoon, there is growing unease in the country over the so-called “Fortress Australia” policy.

Recent announcements declaring that Australia won’t open up until mid-2022 – meaning a two year-plus isolation – have amplified concerns.

Critics argue the extension of closed borders will cause long-lasting damage to the economy, young people and separated families. It also tarnishes Australia’s character as open and free, they say.

Calls for a clear plan to pull Australia back into the world are growing, as the country wrestles with an uncomfortable tension – balancing the safety of closed borders against what is lost by living in isolation.

“A Fortress Australia with the drawbridge pulled up indefinitely is not where we want to be,” says former Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

“Australia is at its best when it’s open and confident – not fearful and insular.”

Locking the gate

In March 2020, the government closed the borders. It barred most foreigners from entering the country and put caps on total arrivals to combat Covid. Mandatory 14-day quarantine and snap lockdowns have also been used to control the virus spread.

The measures are extreme, and among the strictest in the world.

But they’ve worked. Australia regularly sees months without a single case in the community, and it has recorded fewer than 1,000 deaths in the pandemic.

Given that, the strict border controls have proven tremendously popular. Public polls regularly report 75-80% approval ratings for keeping the door shut.

Even higher numbers – around 90% – approve overall of the government’s pandemic handling, and trust in government has increased in contrast to views of voters in some Covid-ravaged nations.

Languishing behind

But the government now also faces mounting pressure over how it plans to handle the next phase of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison – who faces an election next year – has announced Australia won’t re-open borders until mid-2022. The exact timing and just how that will happen are unclear.

But the budget announcement was a shock extension to previous forecasts of an opening-up to occur slowly at the end of this year.

The main reason for the delay is vaccination.

Australia’s immunisation programme has been beset with delays, and lags well behind other developed nations such as the UK and US.

Critics say complacency over the low virus circulation delayed its kick-off. And now rising hesitancy – fuelled at least in part by Australia’s isolation – has also slowed the vaccine rollout.

Facing those failures, the government fell back on the border ban as a resort, critics say.

That’s dealing a heavy blow to sectors like tourism and higher education. Australia’s strong migration programme – relied on to address skills shortages and population growth – has also been cut almost completely.

Ernst and Young, an accounting firm, estimates that Australia’s economy is losing A$7.6bn (£4.18; $5.9bn) a month from the closed borders.

So a group of experts from the University of Sydney have called for an exit plan to be put in place. People need to know their options and prepare for the future, they say.

Their “roadmap to re-opening” focuses on prioritising vaccination, expanding quarantine and starting trials to bring in people for affected industries.

They point to successful examples like the New Zealand travel bubble, and the Australian Open tennis tournament.

“This is the case when measured in hard dollar terms, but also when measured against less tangible factors such as fuelling a negative and inwards-focused national psyche that threatens our global standing, as well as national unity and cohesion.”

‘Us and them’ mentality

Others have also voiced their concerns over how an extended retreat from the world could damage Australia’s character.

When Australia was parochial it had a White Australia policy (1900s-1970s), which restricted immigration from non-European nations. Multiculturalism has replaced that policy in recent decades, but the ideal is still fragile, experts warn.

Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University, contends that Covid has already made the nation more “protectionist and insular”.

Government policies have created an “us and them” division, she argues.

The hostile treatment of migrants is a clear example, she says. Australia’s conservative government of eight years has never advocated for immigration – the coalition won the 2019 election pledging to “slash” the migrant intake.

At the start of the pandemic, Mr Morrison told the nation’s two million migrants on temporary visas to “go home”.

Those visa holders – often doing the low-paid, essential jobs of cleaning and food delivery – were also ineligible for the government’s pandemic welfare support, leaving many facing destitution.

The border ban has also sown community division, seen in its most extreme form last month when Australia took the world-first step of threatening jail for citizens who returned home from Covid-ravaged India. The Indian-Australian community expressed outrage they were being treated like second-class citizens.

Multicultural roots

The issue of stranded Australians reflects Australia’s character as an intensely multicultural nation.

Nearly 30% of the population were born overseas, and another quarter have a parent who was. As a nation of migrants, so many Australians have deep personal ties to other parts of the world.

Prior to Covid, about one million Australians were estimated to be living and working overseas. A section of the population – often highly educated and skilled – was also very mobile.

But the closed-border policy doesn’t appear to recognise these global connections or the disproportionate impact on first and second-generation Australians, critics say.

In addition, the borders created a narrative where blame for a virus outbreak was often laid at the feet of returning individuals.

“We turned on ourselves, on our own people,” says Dr Allen.

Political leaders described the virus as “imported” by returning travellers, rather than escaping through failures in the hotel quarantine system. Such rhetoric egged on social media commentary blaming incoming Australians.

Just happy to be safe

But while there’s division aimed at Australians outside the country, within the borders people feel comfortable with their lot.

First and foremost, people say they feel relieved and grateful to be shielded from the virus.

“There’s a lot of sympathy and real feeling for people caught up outside, and for the people who can’t go to weddings and funerals overseas,” says Melissa Monteiro, head of a migrant resource community centre in western Sydney.

“But you know, everyone ends with ‘that’s just how it is’. People are firstly, just grateful to be in this country and to be safe.”

Race relations researcher Andrew Markus, an emeritus professor at the University of Monash, says most Australians also don’t view the closed borders as a cultural isolation, or a “shutting yourself off from the world”.

Instead it’s just seen as a necessary short-term health measure – an attitude adopted across the political and cultural spectrum, he says.

He notes too that polling throughout the pandemic showed Australians’ support for multiculturalism and globalisation remained strong – about 80% approval – despite concerns about social cohesion and a rise in hate crimes against Asian-Australians.

Dr Allen says that the strong support for the government’s Covid fight is understandable – particularly when it has worked.

But she also says that the Australian public has been presented with no other options. The prolonged border closure and city lockdowns on single infections have all been largely uncontested policies.

She says it’s time now for Australia to move past such policies which she feels are rooted in fear. The country continues to face calls to bring back its own citizens.

“I don’t think it’s bad that people are afraid of Covid – we should be afraid. But we require leadership going forwards that doesn’t leave people behind.”

Source: ‘Fortress Australia’: Why calls to open up borders are meeting resistance

A religious symbol, not a knife: at the heart of the NSW kirpan ban is a battle to define secularism

Australia bit behind Canada in this respect (apart, arguably, from Quebec):

The New South Wales government has put a temporary ban on Sikh students carrying a kirpan in public schools. The kirpan is a ceremonial dagger baptised Sikhs carry to symbolise their duty to stand up against injustice.

The ban was put in place after a 14-year-old boy used a kirpan to stab a 16-year-old at a high school in Sydney.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said “students shouldn’t be allowed to take knives to school under any circumstances”.

But framing the controversy as whether or not students should be allowed to take knives to school oversimplifies a complex issue.

This issue is not just about knives in schools. It is also about what it means to be a secular school in a multicultural and multi-faith Australia.

Denied the ability to practise their faith

There is a long history of controversy over wearing religious symbols in Australian schools, both religious and secular.

In 2017 the family of a Sikh boy launched legal action against his school after the Christian college banned the boy from wearing a patka (a turban worn by children). The Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal later ruled the school breached the Equal Opportunity Act.

In 2018 the Secular Party of Australia brought a case against the Victorian education department alleging the department had discriminated against a child by permitting her to wear “religious style clothing that covered her body, leaving only her face and hands exposed”. The case failed.

And in 2019 a Western Australian Catholic high school banned a Hindu girl from attending class after she had her nose pierced for cultural and religious reasons. After six weeks and many meetings, the school appeared to back down and allow the student back to class.

While some of these cases occurred in private and specifically religious schools, they all raise the same issue — to what extent do we accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of minority groups in our community?

In NSW, section 11C of the Summary Offences Act 1988 makes it an offence to carry a knife in a public place or school. The act provides a number of exceptions such as for the preparation of food, or for recreation or sport. Carrying a knife for “genuine religious purposes” is also an exception.

This exception is currently under review by the NSW government. In the meantime, a temporary ban has been put in place. As a result Sikh school children are being denied the ability to fully practise their faith.

What is a secular country?

Controversies like the kirpan ban often occur due to a fundamental disagreement about what a secular education looks like. Western secular democracies have taken two different approaches.

Australia’s government school system is secular. This does not mean it is, nor should be, religion free. Instead Australian secular education means a space where religion is one of many options. Countries that conform to this version of secularism are religiously plural.

In France, secular education means it is religion free. Since 2004 all religious symbols have been banned from state schools. The aim is to create a religiously neutral environment that supports state secularism.

Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom have adopted a similar approach as Australia. In these countries, secularism means to permit, or even encourage, the expression of multiple faiths in schools to various degrees. The aim is to create a multicultural environment.

The kirpan is fundamentally a religious symbol. It is one of five markers of faith worn by baptised Sikhs, including kesh (unshorn hair symbolising respect for God’s will). Wearing the kirpan is not optional for baptised Sikhs.

The kirpan is similar to the hijab worn by some Muslim women, the kippah worn by Jewish men or the cross or crucifix worn by some Christians.

As the Supreme Court of Canada put it, describing the kirpan as a knife is “indicative of a simplistic view of freedom of religion”.

Banning the kirpan because it resembles a knife heads Australia down a path of religion-free schools. This would be inconsistent with Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism.

There are other options besides a ban

Instead of an outright ban, the NSW government and Australian schools more generally need to find ways to safely accommodate this important religious symbol. This does not mean there should be no restrictions.

In 2006 the Supreme Court of Canada found that a school had discriminated against a Sikh boy when it banned him from wearing his kirpan. A fundamental part of the court’s decision was there were alternatives available to the school.

The student was prepared to accept restrictions on how he wore his kirpan to ensure it could not be used as a weapon. The restrictions included wearing it enclosed in a wooden sheath sewn inside a cloth envelope, which must itself be attached to a shoulder strap worn under the student’s clothing.

Similar restrictions could be implemented in Australia.

The current debate about the kirpan in schools is an opportunity to educate both school children and the wider public about Australia’s secular multicultural society. As the Constitutional Court of South Africa noted in a case about wearing nose studs for religious and cultural reasons:

Granting exemptions will also have the added benefit of inducting the learners into a multi-cultural South Africa where vastly different cultures exist side-by-side.

Allowing kirpans, and other symbols of faith, to be worn in Australian schools is an important part of a multicultural secular education.

Source: A religious symbol, not a knife: at the heart of the NSW kirpan ban is a battle to define secularism

After Australia Banned Its Citizens in India From Coming Home, Many Ask: Who Is Really Australian?

Valid questioning:

When Ara Sharma Marar’s father had a stroke in India in early April, she got on the first flight she could from her home in Melbourne, Australia to New Delhi.

She had planned to return to Australia, where she works in risk management at a bank, on May 14. But then her government banned her from coming home. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on April 27 that travelers from India—including citizens—were barred from the country. The government emphasized that anyone who tried to come home would face up to five years in jail and a $50,000 fine.

“It’s immoral, unjustifiable and completely un-Australian because, you know, Australia prides itself saying that we are multicultural, we embrace all cultures, we welcome everyone,” she says.

Morrison faced a furious backlash from many corners from the country—especially from Australians of South Asian ethnicity, many of whom said the ban was racist—and quickly backed down. On May 15 the first repatriation flight from India landed in Darwin. But around 9,000 Australians remain stranded in India and the saga has revived the debate about what it means to be Australian—a longstanding, at times acrimonious, national conversation driven by the country’s ever-changing demographics.

Today, there are more foreign-born Australians than at any time since 1893, when Australia was still a British colony. Migrants make up 30% of all Australians, and Indian-born Australians are the second-largest group. (British immigrants remain the largest foreign-born population, with people from China in third place). Immigration is now the main driver of population growth in several states and migrants are a significant driver of economic growth. But some immigrants say they aren’t always accepted in a country that once closed its doors to non-Europeans.

“Many Anglo-Celtic Australians still believe that we are but guests in this country and that to acknowledge us as equals they will somehow lose their Australianism,” says Molina Asthana, co-founder of advocacy group Asian Australian Alliance. “Does being Australian mean you have to be light skinned, blond, love your barbies, brekkies and beers?” she asks.

‘Fortress Australia’ strands citizens overseas

Several countries, including the U.S., restricted flights from India or tightened quarantine rules on travelers coming from the country as a devastating second wave hit it. But Australia’s total ban on arrivals from India follows a pandemic policy of imposing of some of the strictest COVID-19 border controls in the world.

Australia bans nearly all non-residents from traveling to the country, and those who are able to enter must quarantine for 14 days in a hotel. Caps on international arrivals have prevented tens of thousands of Australians from returning from overseas during the pandemic. The hashtag #strandedaussies has been used hundreds of times on social media, and some have started referring to the country as “Fortress Australia.” One group of Australians is taking a complaint against the Australian government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee for not allowing its citizens to return home.

Nevertheless, the controls are very popular. A poll in conservative newspaper The Australian found that 73% of voters supported international borders remaining closed until at least mid-2022. That’s likely because the policies—along with swift, strict lockdowns when cases pop up—mean that the country has had remarkable success against COVID-19. With a population of 26 million, it has recorded fewer than than 30,000 coronavirus cases and just 910 deaths. Life appears normal. Employees have returned to their offices. Thousands of mostly maskless fans packed into a Melbourne stadium to watch the Australian Open in February and the following month saw tens of thousands of not-so-socially-distanced revelers attend the LGBT+ celebration Sydney Mardi Gras.

Authorities justified the blanket ban on arrivals from India as necessary to protect public health; India is facing a devastating second wave of COVID-19 and a variant first identified there—which scientists say is likely more infectious and better at evading human immune systems—is being detected across the Asia-Pacific. Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said on May 7 that the ban was explicitly linked to Australia’s limited quarantine capacity.

But many Australians of Indian descent feel singled out because the Australian government has not barred citizens returning home from other countries with large outbreaks. “Why weren’t these steps taken when it was America or U.K.?” asks Sharma Marar, who believes that the government has failed all of its nationals stuck overseas. She says that she is suffering from panic attacks and having trouble sleeping as the result of the stress of not being able to return home.

Kim Soans-Sharma, who remains stuck in Mumbai, India after she traveled there in January following her father’s death, says the ban has made her feel “unwanted.” That’s something she has never felt in Perth, Australia, which she’s called home since 2013. She adds that vitriolic comments from some Australians on social media showing no sympathy for other citizens like her stuck in India have been hard to bear.

“At this stage, I’m not proud to call myself an Australian,” she says.

How Australia became an ‘immigration nation’

Australia’s rising diversity in recent decades follows the expressly racist White Australia Policy that prevented migration by non-Europeans for much of the 20th century. When it became clear that immigration from Britain couldn’t provide the necessary population growth, more migrants from continental Europe were allowed, and the policy was slowly eased after World War II. The first step towards dismantling it was made in 1966, when the government allowed migration based on what skills people could offer Australia, instead of race or nationality. The White Australia Policy was then formally renounced in the early 1970s, and the government officially embraced multiculturalism.

However, the topic of immigration has been used as a political football for decades, with some successive governments unsupportive of migration. Many who arrive in Australia are skilled migrants, and some economists say that the country’s 27-year recession-free streak would not have been possible without immigration. A report by the research institute the McKell Institute calls the country “the world’s most successful” multicultural society. “Australia has truly embraced multiculturalism following an approach of integration between the different ethnicities and cultural groups where the dominant and minority groups are expected to respect each other’s cultures,” it says.

There are some tensions, however. Concerns over immigration have sparked a nativist movement, including a right-wing populist political party with an anti-immigration platform that has had minor success at the polls. A 2020 report on social cohesion released by the Scanlon Foundation, a foundation focused on fostering social cohesion in Australia, found that a large majority of Australians think that having a multicultural society makes Australia better, but 60% of people agreed with the statement that “too many immigrants are not adopting Australian values.” The report also noted substantial negative sentiment towards immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In one 2019 survey, more than two-thirds said that Australia did not need more people. The same year, Morrison announced a cap on permanent migration at 160,000, a cut of 30,000 a year, to address crowding in cities that has increased real estate prices and caused congestion. “This plan is about protecting the quality of life of Australians right across our country,” he said.

Like in many places in the world, immigrants in Australia have faced racism as the result of the pandemic. The Asian Australian Alliance has received 530 reports of COVID-19-related racism since April 2020. When a COVID-19 surge hit Melbourne in mid-2020, representatives from a Muslim migrant community spoke out about being unfairly blamed. In March, Australia’s race discrimination commissioner Chin Tan called for a new national anti-racism framework to address prejudice against Asian-Australians related to the coronavirus pandemic and the legacy of “hatred” towards Muslims.

Asthana, of the Asian Australian Alliance, says the India travel ban is emblematic of the racism that migrants can face in Australia. “Whether it is overt racism or unconscious bias, most migrants have been at the receiving end of discriminatory treatment,” she says. “Only the communities change over time, from Greek and Italian to Chinese, then the Vietnamese, Indian and African and now back to the wider Asian Community during COVID.”

Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner, says that Australia’s multicultural diversity is not represented yet in its major institutions. “It’s not yet there among our leaders of politics, government, and business. Nor is it there among the faces you see in the national media,” he says. “So that can feed into a sense within our elite political, business and media circles that being Australian is still essentially being Anglo-Celtic or European.”

Other experts say that what it means to be Australian is shifting along with its demographics. “Australia is a settler country,” says Catherine Gomes, an ethnographer at RMIT University in Australia, with a “social and cultural identity, that keeps on changing. Those identities start to adapt, according to how demographics are also changing.”

But for some Australians, those changes aren’t coming quickly enough. Despite the lifting of the ban, Sharma Marar says she won’t forget being barred from coming home.

“I think the scars of these policies and what has been done in last few weeks,” she says, “will live with us forever.”

Source: After Australia Banned Its Citizens in India From Coming Home, Many Ask: Who Is Really Australian?

How Australia can benefit from low or no immigration

A critical look, one that the Australian government appears to have largely adopted, but not going so far as “no immigration”:

For years there has been an often heated debate about the impact of high immigration on the Australian economy.

It is clear that population growth driven by some of the highest immigration levels in the world have supported bottom line GDP growth – the new Australians work, eat, live and spend.

High immigration has also fuelled strong demand for housing and was, at least in part, one of the divers of the unrelenting rise in house prices for many decades.

At the same time, population growth outpaced infrastructure capacity, most notably the transport networks in the big cities where most immigrants settled. Congestion was also seen in productivity destroying traffic chaos, overcrowded schools, hospitals and other government services.

Immigration was also a source of labour for many businesses, which has seen the government slash trade training funding, made university costs oppressive and generally undermined the skills set of many Australians.

If workers were needed to pick fruit, work as highly skilled engineers in the mines or IT gurus for businesses, the government simply granted work visas and the problem was solved.

Resources to train and upskill the 2 million Australians unemployed and underemployed – many of who do not have the skills needed in today’s economy – were hopelessly inadequate which is why, with the borders closed, there is a widespread skills shortage.

The benefits of high immigration were being offset or at least diluted by the costs.

COVID-19 and the border closures

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government effectively closed the international borders to immigrants.

Indeed, the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that more people are leaving Australia permanently than are arriving. This is the first time this has happened in 100 years.

A year after net immigration turned negative, there are some economic trends emerging that might give a few insights into the sort of immigration policy that is best for Australians after the COVID-19 pandemic is over or at least when we learn to live with the virus in an orderly way.

Perhaps the most obvious issue is a skills shortages among the current workforce which is sparking up opportunities for a long overdue acceleration in wages growth. Business are reporting it difficult to find suitable workers and for obvious reasons, this cannot be fixed by working visas and immigration.

A recent RBA survey of business shows expectations for wages growth is at its highest level in over a decade. Weak wages growth, for so long a problem for the Australian economy, is poised to turn with a substantial pick up in private sector wages unfolding.

It is well understood that rising wages growth will fuel household incomes and with that, consumer spending.

And the key thing about this wages growth is that firms are able to meet this higher wages bill given there has been solid growth in bottom line profits and margins as the economy expands.

Border closures are now linked to higher wages.

With the working from home phenomenon that has been experienced due to the COVID-19 restrictions, congestion in most CDBs and on public transport is less common. Again this is good news and if sustained, will ease the pressure on State budgets for future infrastructure spending. Fewer people are using existing public transport and roads.

While it is yet to be fully tested, there is tentative evidence that low immigration has reduced demand for residential property.

The mini-boom in house prices evident over the last 8 or 9 months has been driven by favourable affordability with first home buyers using stunningly low interest rates and a raft of financial incentives to get into the market and pay-up for their home.

New immigrants have, obviously, been absent from auctions of the queues for rental properties.

Immigration an election issue?

The next Federal election is less than a year away. It could even be in October as Prime Minister Morrison works to take advantage of the favourable economic news and as some of the measures in the budget start to impact on voters.

It is possible that immigration will be an election issue particularly if one side, or other, uses the good news from low immigration as part of a platform to improve the well being of Australians with strong per capita growth.

Of course, Australia needs to maintain its humanitarian immigration program, and when health conditions permit, this should resume.

But the bigger picture immigration program, which saw 1 million people arrive in the three years prior to COVID-19, needs to be scaled back even when the borders reopen.

If we go back to huge population growth in the years ahead, get set for weaker wages, further house price gains, pressure on infrastructure and higher unemployment.

Source: How Australia can benefit from low or no immigration

Australia Budget 2021-22: Update on immigration program, skilled migrants and international students

Sharp contrast with Canada’s budget and immigration plan:

Taking a cautious approach amidst COVID-induced restrictions, the Morrison government announced it will maintain its planned ceiling for the 2021-22 Migration Program at 160,000 places.

“Australia’s effective management of COVID makes us an even more attractive place for the best and brightest from around the world,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in Parliament while delivering this year’s Budget.

“To take advantage of this, we are streamlining visas to target highly-skilled individuals when circumstances allow.”

‘A ceiling, not a target’

These planning levels include 79,600 skill and 77,300 family stream places, a measure that the government says, is “appropriate” for the current health and economic circumstances.

“Family and Skilled stream places will be maintained at their 2020-21 planning levels, with a continued focus on onshore visa applicants, including reducing the onshore Partner visa pipeline,” the Budget document states.

The government has also decided to maintain the Humanitarian Program at 13,750 places.

“The Humanitarian Program will be maintained at 13,750 places in 2021-22 and over the forward estimates, and the size of the program will remain as a ceiling rather than a target,” the Budget document reveals.

Melbourne-based migration agent Navjot Kailay says that tonight’s announcements indicate that the government’s plans for migration in the next year are largely based on “heroic assumptions”.

“There are so many factors and parameters that need to be met, including the vaccine rollout and crucial decisions like reopening Australia’s international borders to skilled migrants,” he told SBS Punjabi.

“Everything in the next program year for migration would depend upon the success of the COVID-19 vaccination strategy, the number of new COVID cases and a safe quarantine program — one that can accommodate more returning international arrivals, including skilled migrants and international students,” Mr Kailay added.

Impact on Skilled Migration

In context of visas, the Budget document states that the government will continue to prioritise Employer-Sponsored, Global Talent, Business Innovation and Investment Program visas within the Skilled Stream.

“The priority remains the same as last year when the government had tripled the allocation of the Global Talent Independent (GTI) Program to 15,000 places, which was a massive increase from the previous program year’s planning levels, as part of which, only 5,000 places had been granted. So, overall there will be no major change in the Skilled Stream,” explained Mr Kailay.

Phased return of international students

According to Budget Paper No 1, a key assumption in its economic forecast is that international students will only be able to return to the country as part of “small phased programs” later this year and student numbers will only “gradually increase” from 2022.

Flexibility for student visa holders

In yet another important announcement impacting foreign students, the government has provided flexibility to student visa holders in the hospitality and tourism sectors to work beyond the current 40 hours-per-fortnight limit, as they have been severely impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

This measure builds on previous changes in response to COVID-19, which allowed international students working in critical sectors, such as agriculture, health and aged care, to work more than 40 hours per fortnight.

The Budget also includes an additional $53.6 million lifeline for international education providers that have suffered monumental economic losses owing to Australia’s border closures. These measures are targeted at independent English language and non-university higher education providers.

Temporary visa holders

The federal government has removed the requirement for applicants for the Subclass 408 Temporary Activity visa to demonstrate their attempts to leave the country in order to undertake agricultural work.

The period in which a temporary visa holder can apply for the Temporary Activity visa has also been extended from 28 days prior to visa expiry to 90 days prior to visa expiry.

Parent visa validity

In a new provision, the government will extend the validity period for Sponsored Parent (Temporary) visas by 18 months for individuals who are unable to use their visas due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The government has allocated $0.1 million to back this announcement.

Adult Migrant English Program

The government will introduce a new delivery model for the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) from 1 July 2023 to improve English language, employment and social cohesion outcomes for migrants by linking provider payments to student outcomes.

The cap of 510 hours will be removed and migrants will be able to study until they have reached the level of ‘vocational’ English.

Government’s net migration plans

In a major blow to Australia’s economy that is heavily reliant on immigration, the 2021-2022 Budget estimates reveal that the country will suffer yet another year of negative net overseas migration since the Second World War.

As previously noted, the Net Overseas Migration (NOM) is expected to fall from around 154,000 persons in 2019-20 to around -72,000 persons by the end of 2020-21.

Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University told SBS Punjabi that this could have far-reaching consequences for the nation’s future.

“Australian governments since World War II have relied on immigration to help build, and more recently, to maintain the economy. Despite what the current government has done in reducing the permanent overseas migration ceiling, behind the scenes, the Morrison government has indicated their reliance on migrants contributing to the nation.

“Much of the post-pandemic recovery is dependent on having the necessary workforce and migrants are vital to the nation’s success, over the next 20 years especially,” Dr Allen explained.

She added that without migrants, Australia’s COVID recovery is going to be a “painfully long process”.

“Net overseas migration will take around one to two years to return to pre-pandemic numbers, once borders are properly opened. This means Australia’s recovery will be a much longer process than countries like Canada or the US.

“I fear housing affordability is going to get much worse over the next few years because the nation doesn’t have the necessary workforce to build essential infrastructure,” she added.

Dr Harminder Singh, Associate Professor of Finance at Melbourne’s Deakin University, also suggests that Australia’s road to economic recovery is heavily reliant on its migration program.

“There are many industries that are suffering from labour shortages that could only be fulfilled by skilled migrants and international students. The government understands this but would need to wait and watch how the pandemic unfolds in the rest of the world, especially in countries like India and China which are the two top sources of skilled migrants and international students,” Mr Singh says.

“At this stage, the government is in no position to commit to opening international borders – a measure which has so far protected Australia,” he adds.

Source: Budget 2021-22: Update on Australia’s immigration program, skilled migrants and international students

Is Australia’s India travel ban legal? A citizenship law expert explains and a critique of the ban

The lack of a charter with mobility rights compared to Canada:

There is a growing public and political outcry over the federal government’s sudden decision to ban Australians from coming home from India.

But as everyone from Indian community leaders to human rights leaders, famous cricketers and Coalition MPs calls on the government to rethink the policy, is it legal? Is a High Court challenge an option?

What is citizenship?

In terms of common law, citizenship is a relationship between an individual and their nation, where each owes fundamental obligations to the other. In broad terms, the citizen’s job is to be loyal to the nation. The nation’s job is to protect its citizens.

Last year, a record number of people pledged allegiance to Australia and became citizens. The largest group of new citizens were Indian migrants, with over 38,000 becoming Australians in 2019-20.

Now, under the Australian government’s tough new travel ban, 9,000 Australians remain stranded in India, which is currently battling a deadly COVID-19 second wave and oxygen and vaccine shortages.

Some were granted permission to travel to India to see dying relatives or attend funerals. Others travelled there pre-pandemicand have since been unable to return to Australia.

Despite having done nothing wrong, these Australians have been left unprotected by a government that has failed to hold up its end of the citizenship bargain.

How does the travel ban work?

The ban makes it unlawful for anyone, including Australian citizens, to enter Australia if they have been in India in the past 14 days. It was made under sweeping powers conferred on federal Health Minister Greg Hunt by the 2015 Biosecurity Act.

Section 477 of the act allows Hunt to issue “determinations” imposing any “requirement” that he deems necessary to control the entry or spread of COVID-19. These determinations cannot be disallowed by parliament. Thanks to a provision aptly known as a “Henry VIII clause”, they also override any other federal, state or territory law.

If a person breaches the travel ban, for instance by transiting through a third country, the Biosecurity Act states they may face criminal penalties of five years imprisonment, a $66,000 fine, or both (even if Prime Minister Scott Morrison says jail time is unlikely).

Hunt says the ban is a “temporary pause”. It will lapse on May 15. However, if he deems it necessary, he could use his broad powers to reintroduce it, or impose similar restrictions.

As political pressure builds to remove the ban early, the government says it is “constantly” reviewing it.

Is the ban legal?

Another basic principle of citizenship is citizens may freely return to their countries. Under common law, this stems from the Magna Carta. It is also an important principle of international law, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In March, two Australians stranded in the United States took their case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. They argued government policies blocking their return contravene international law.

The committee has not reached a decision, but in April it asked Australia to ensure their prompt return, noting they faced “irreparable harm”.

What about our domestic law?

Whether the ban is legal under Australian domestic law is a different question. Although the Department of Home Affairs says Australian citizens can “apply for an Australian passport and re-enter Australia freely”, there is no codified right of return under Australian law. This sets us apart from many countries that have a bill of rights, and include this right.

A High Court challenge is an option, but there is no clear path to success.

The High Court has said little on the subject. A 1908 case suggests citizens may have a common law right to return to Australia, provided this has not been taken away by parliamentary law. The Biosecurity Act of course thoroughly displaces any such right.

Due to the deep links between citizenship and the right of return, it has been suggested citizens may have an implied constitutional right to enter Australia. There is no case law on this yet — just a single, vaguely worded sentence in a 1988 High Court case — and there are good reasons why it might be a difficult case to argue in Australia.

Implied rights must be derived from the text and structure of Australia’s Constitution, which says nothing about Australian citizenship, and little about the relationship between the government and the people, besides providing for democratic elections.

Does it breach the Biosecurity Act?

Another argument might be the travel ban is unlawful on the grounds Hunt failed to comply with the conditions for making a determination under section 477 of the Biosecurity Act.

These conditions require him to be satisfied, before imposing the ban, that it was “likely to be effective” in stopping the spread of COVID-19, “appropriate and adapted” to this purpose, and “no more restrictive or intrusive” than the circumstances required.

Importantly, it is Hunt personally who must be satisfied of these conditions. This means if he reached that conclusion on reasonable grounds, he has not broken the law, even if a different approach might have been available.

Yesterday, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly’s advice to Hunt in advance of the travel ban was released. Kelly’s advice emphasises the significant risk quarantine leakage poses to the Australian community and says a travel ban on arrivals from India until 15 May would be effective, proportionate and limited to what is necessary.

In light of this, it seems likely that a court would see the determination as a reasonable exercise of Hunt’s power.

Beyond the law, what about moral arguments?

But, legality aside, let’s return to the idea that Australia has a fundamental responsibility to protect its citizens. In February 2020, Hunt acknowledged this, pointing to two related national priorities: to contain the virus and protect citizens at home, and protect and support Australians abroad.

There may be circumstances in which these priorities conflict with each other. But it is hard to see the conflict in this situation. Quarantine and effective contact tracing have seen those within Australia substantially protected against COVID-19. We have not needed blanket bans on returns from the US, the United Kingdom or other countries that have experienced virus surges.

Kelly’s advice points to potential strain on quarantine, and Morrison has said the ban ensures that “our quarantine system can remain strong”. But the federal government could protect more people in Australia and abroad (not to mention ease pressure on countries experiencing COVID-19 strain), if it worked to bring citizens home while devoting more resources towards strengthening the quarantine system.

Yet the government has resisted this, despite a clear constitutional power over quarantine, the recommendations of public health experts and a national review.

Meanwhile, 9,000 Australians in India are anxiously waiting for a change to the law, which would at least legally permit them to try and return home.

Source: Is Australia’s India travel ban legal? A citizenship law expert explains

Strong commentary by Tim Soutphommasane, former Australian race discrimination commissioner, arguing against the ban:

It has come to this: a government pulling up the drawbridge on its own citizens trying to make it home. Last week’s announcement of a ban on return flights from India marks a drastic escalation of “fortress Australia”.

Yes, it isn’t the first time during the pandemic that Australia’s borders have been closed to people arriving from certain countries deemed high risk. This happened, for example, with China in February 2020.

But this new measure goes beyond a temporary closure of borders. It also involves harsh criminal penalties imposed on people seeking to return from India, including fines and even imprisonment.

There’s something seriously wrong about this. Citizenship is meant to guarantee its bearers certain rights and liberties. The right to vote. The right to expression. The right to live without interference. The right to enter one’s country.

Clearly, we can’t take our basic rights and liberties for granted. It’s no exaggeration to say that this policy undermines the very status of citizenship. The principles of democratic liberalism are under assault.

After all, citizenship means little if you can’t exercise your right to return to Australia in a time of need. Liberal democracy is diminished when your government doesn’t protect you when you’re in present or impending danger.

On every Australian passport, there is a page that bears a request of other governments and people that they “allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need”. Those words now ring hollow. How can we expect people abroad to do that, if our own government won’t do the same to its citizens?

Equal citizenship

Closer to home, this move inserts some doubts as to whether all citizens can presume they enjoy equal citizenship.

It hasn’t escaped many of us that there have been different standards of treatment given to citizens and residents returning to Australia during this pandemic. Last year, when Covid was rampaging through the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, the government took no step to close our borders to those places, let alone impose criminal penalties on those arriving from there.

The government says it has introduced this policy based on medical advice. Yet, according to the commonwealth chief medical health officer, Paul Kelly, “no advice was given” in relation to the imposition of fines or jail terms for those seeking to circumvent the India travel ban. Moreover, numerous leading public health experts have questioned why a ban has been introduced.

It wouldn’t be the first time an Australian government has engaged in cynical racial dog whistling. As the Australian Human Rights Commission has stated, the government “must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health”. Because right now they do look discriminatory. And they are far from the only way to deal with any public health threat.

Here’s how we should be dealing with things. There remain about 35,000 Australians stranded overseas, including about9,000in India. We – and by we I mean the government that acts in our name – must act urgently to bring these Australians home, wherever they are. The way to do that is obvious: charter flights to bring them back, and create dedicated quarantine facilities across the country to make sure it happens safely.

How breathtaking it is that this hasn’t yet happened. We are more than one year into the pandemic. There has been plenty of time to think this through, make plans and deliver.

A choice between two Australias

Then again, you can understand why government hasn’t done this. This pandemic has confronted us with a choice between two Australias: between being an open, confident, internationalist country and being a closed, fearful, parochial nation. Increasingly, it seems as though people are choosing the latter.

There has been a strange acceptance of, maybe even enthusiasm for, a retreat into a hermit nation. Our politicians know all too well that closing borders and imposing lockdowns seem to bring some solid electoral payoffs: just ask Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan.

For too many people, including those who may like to consider themselves progressive, border closures have become a fetish. It was weird enough that the pandemic was generating a competition among some premiers to close borders to other states. Now we’ve got to the point where we’re happy to have our national borders closed off to our own people and fellow citizens. At least some of them, anyway.

Covid has confirmed some timeless political truths. Amid threat, fear is a formidable beast to counter. And in tough times, minorities very rarely fare well. Covid has generated a significant rise in anti-Asian racism. Consider too, the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on migrants and international students.

But now the government is taking things into dangerous territory. Citizenship has been the bedrock of Australia’s multiculturalism: whatever background you’re from, you can be assured formal membership of the community. This latest move signals that, in the eyes of government, some of us are more Australian than others.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and professor at the University of Sydney. He was Australia’s race discrimination commissioner from 2013 to 2018

Source: Criminalising citizens returning from India signals some are more Australian than others