We’re all just like Pavlov’s dogs. Last week, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave the Pacific Solution a quick polish, rebranded it the Indonesian Solution, and immediately everybody started yelling at Philip Ruddock.
Yep, if it wasn’t clear by now, ideological and partisan divisions over asylum seekers and boat people are deeply entrenched. But here’s the problem. Even from a liberal, libertarian or even conservative perspective, the case for being tough on border control just isn’t that strong.
Immigration is a good thing, for migrants and for the places migrants go. Aren’t people who are willing to risk their lives on boats propelled by motorbike engines to get to a society with social and economic freedom exactly the sort of people we want in Australia? (I can think of a lot of Australians I’d rather kick out.)
The sanest case for strict borders is a paternalistic argument that refugees need to be deterred from making the dangerous journey by boat to Australia. But it’s not convincing. Isn’t the danger of the journey a pretty significant deterrent itself? Refugees risk their lives and permanent separation from their families – a decision normally made under pain of imminent death.
So exactly what are we trying to deter? Refugees aren’t just going to quit being refugees.
It’s not clear whether deterrence even works. Australian refugee volumes correspond to global and regional refugee trends. That this recent surge of refugees is mostly Sri Lankan is because of the war there, not because of the Migration Amendment Bill 2009 (which hasn’t even been passed in Parliament).
But most damningly, deterrence leads to some atrociously illiberal, inhumane policies. Taking deterrence to its absurdly logical conclusion, in 1992 the federal Labor government decided to bill refugees the cost of their detention. Nobody in a liberal democracy should be locked up and charged for the privilege. To its enduring credit, the Rudd Government eliminated this punitive measure in September.
Still, Rudd seems eager to depict his Government as tough on refugees. The idea that we should punish those who do make it to Australia alive, to dissuade others from trying, quickly descends into outright cruelty.
There’s a deeper issue at stake about asylum seekers than just migration levels. Boat people force us to confront the classic opposition between the nation state and the universal rights of the individual.
John Howard’s line – that his government would choose who came to the country and the circumstances in which they came – has become the ultimate expression of state sovereignty and the supremacy of executive government. His doctrine has been implicitly shared by Australian governments for a century.
Governments have treated immigration as a kind of fruit and veg shop, where they can rifle through the available human produce to pick only the ”best” foreign stock. Fifty years ago, it was white migrants. Now it’s skilled migrants – the unskilled are left for other countries.
Obviously we’re a long way from the liberal ideal of global free movement of people to complement global free trade.
Paul Kelly’s book, The March of Patriots, quotes a Howard government official, reflecting on the navy’s policy of taking stranded people to the nearest port, saying ”the maritime industry in Australia [has] essentially a Left attitude” – as if the moral mandate to protect lives above all else was just some silly leftie thing, like peace studies.
But individual liberty stands implacably opposed to the sort of nationalistic state sovereignty which has been the foundation of our immigration and refugee policies. Those who place liberty at the front of their politics should be against harsh border measures, not for them.
According to some, there are 10,000 refugees massing on foreign shores, just waiting for the right moment to sneak across the ocean. Putting aside the dubious evidence for that figure, yes: 10,000 people would be a lot to squeeze into a living room. But the Australian continent is quite large. The settler arrival figures increased by nearly that amount just this year – from 149,000 in 2007-08 to 158,000 in 2008-09 – and we hardly heard a peep from anybody.
So if 10,000 refugees is the worst-case scenario, it’s not that worst a case. With 15.2 million refugees worldwide, the few thousand who make it to Australia are pretty insignificant. No one has a moral obligation to remain in the country of their birth. And no country has a moral right to deny anyone the chance to improve their living standards, or save their own lives.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, was right when he noted last week that the first people to cop the blame for an economic downturn are foreigners. In the UK, the “British jobs for British workers” movement is getting more popular and more shrill.
So, until recently, it was good to see that Kevin Rudd’s Government was intent on maintaining – and even increasing – the high migration intake it had inherited.
But Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced on Monday that the Government was planning to reduce the number of skilled workers it lets into the country every year.
ACTU boss Sharan Burrow pretty much gave the game away when she claimed in response that migration had to be restricted to “protect jobs” because of the financial crisis. The union movement has never met an immigration cut it didn’t like.
The idea that one more immigrant equals one fewer job for Australians sounds vaguely plausible. But modern labour markets are far more complicated than that. A national economy isn’t just a fixed number of jobs waiting to be divvied up between all the available workers – it is a constantly changing mixture of opportunities to work, produce and profit.
Let’s be honest: if there were a real risk that immigrants were going to rip potential employment away from red-blooded Australians looking for work, those Australians would be doing those jobs already.
Critics of immigration conveniently forget that immigrants do more than just work – they buy houses and consume products too. Hell, they even pay taxes. Adding more people into the economic mix is a recipe for long-term growth – this is as true when the economy is slowing down as it is when the economy is booming.
After all, there are a lot of things to do in an economy, even during a recession. The whole country doesn’t immediately seize up because a department store reports that their mid-January sales figures are down 17 per cent on last year’s.
So if we respond to the economic crisis by dramatically shrinking our migration intake, we could easily end up in the bizarre situation of having both widespread unemployment and widespread job vacancies. Sound unlikely? Perhaps, but we haven’t seen those laid-off Macquarie Bank alumni hopping on V/Line to pick pistachios in Swan Hill yet.
Sure, there are now a lot of people actively seeking work since the global financial crisis really hit six months ago. But there have been unemployed people since before then, and those jobs in the fruit-picking industry have long been unfilled.
Only when the finance industry’s brightest sparks begin seeking agricultural employment should we start denying farmers the labour force they need – and denying eager migrant workers the opportunity to earn.
Ever since the First Fleet landed, Australia’s most pressing economic problem has been our population size. Our labour force has always been small, our consumer base small, and the size of our national market small. Compounding this has been the fear of an inexorably ageing workforce. But the credit crunch has presented long-term opponents of immigration with an opportunity to flog their favourite dead horse.
Even more erroneous is the belief held by many opponents of immigration that we should limit the entry into Australia of certain non-Western religions because our cultures are incompatible.
The history of migration has surely taught us that individual liberty and equality are quite appealing when seen up close – every migrant group has integrated into Australian society within a generation or two.
What we ask from immigrants to Australia is that they obey the nation’s laws, just like those whose families came over two centuries ago. And we have a shiny, expensive police force to make sure we all do.
Anyway, we have a moral necessity to maintain a high immigration intake.
Much more than foreign aid, charity, Live Aid wristbands, and even the bulk-purchase of fair trade coffee, the most effective way we can help somebody living in the third world to crawl out of poverty is allowing them to move to the first world.
On the one hand, the ACTU’s Union Aid Abroad claims solidarity with overseas workers, but on the other hand the union insists that poor workers in other countries be restrained from doing the one thing that could most comprehensively help them – moving here.
Certainly, the economic crisis is hard.
But blaming foreigners and cutting immigration isn’t going to get us out of it any quicker.