Tides To Turn For Shorten On Debt, Boats And Tax

Bill Shorten is romping ahead in the polls right now, but being in opposition is a long-term goal and the tables will turn on three big policy areas before the next election, writes Chris Berg.

Bill Shorten has one of the worst jobs in Australian politics – first opposition leader after a loss of government.

Just ask Brendan Nelson, Kim Beazley, Andrew Peacock, and Billy Snedden.

Yet, thanks to the Government’s disastrously bad selling of the budget, Shorten has an impressively winning poll position. If the election were held tomorrow, Labor would romp it back in.

Unfortunately for Shorten there are no federal elections scheduled for tomorrow.

Opposition is a long-term game – almost certain to be longer term for Shorten than most, as Labor’s new party rules make it virtually impossible to spill him before the next election.

In the Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday Mark Latham claimed the “right-wing hunting pack” is targeting Shorten because he is too successful. (This is the sort of canny judgment that made Latham such a success himself.)

But polls go up, polls go down. If we look out two years from now to the next election, Labor’s political profile is very different. Where Shorten looks strong now, he is vulnerable in 2016. Where he looks vulnerable, he is actually quite strong.

Let’s take the big issues of last year’s election: debt, boats, and the carbon tax.

The debt is Shorten’s biggest weakness.

This seems paradoxical, perhaps, because the Coalition’s budget – that is, its solution to the debt problem – is deeply unpopular. According to an Essential Poll earlier this month, just 23 per cent of voters think that Labor should support university deregulation. Just 27 per cent think Labor should support the pension changes. Just 32 per cent think Labor should back the Medicare co-payment.

These are gimmes for Shorten. Yet opposing the specific proposals will do little to rebuild Labor’s economic reputation.

Wayne Swan destroyed Labor’s standing on the economy when he was unable to wrestle the budget back into the black. Year after year Swan claimed that the budget was returning to surplus. Year after year we got deficits.

It’s easy to free ride on public dissatisfaction with government policy. Voters might be hostile to the Coalition’s individual budget measures but voters are not stupid. Shorten has to suggest – perhaps just hint, allude, imply, give us a knowing wink – that there could be a better way to fix the deficit.

That’s the difference between being a time-serving opposition leader and a viable potential prime minister.

If Shorten is strangely weak on the budget, he is strangely strong on boats.

Labor has careened from one side to another on the asylum seeker issue. Last week a few in caucus tried to engineer a shift back to the left again. Quite apart from the morality and practicality of the policy, Labor looks hopelessly divided and confused.

But will it in two years?

Right now, Labor will be secretly crossing its thumbs that the boats have, in fact, stopped, and stay stopped. It is in Labor’s interest to get boats off the front page; to remove asylum seekers from the centre of Australian politics. A weakness isn’t a weakness if nobody is talking about it.

For Labor, the carbon tax is neither vulnerability nor strength.

This is strange, perhaps, because the carbon tax has been one of the defining policies of the last decade. Elections have been won and lost on it. Prime ministers and opposition leaders have fallen at its altar.

Yet much of the heat dissipated from the carbon tax debate after it was introduced. Kevin Rudd smothered what remained when he announced he would transition from the tax to an emissions scheme. This is a rare example of trying to confuse voters as a deliberate political strategy. (I outlined the farcical nature of this announcement on The Drum when it was made last July.)

Climate activists have tried to respark climate change as a political issue – every once in a while the Climate Institute puts out a poll to try to get momentum going again, as they did yesterday – but realistically the issue is on hiatus. All sides have dug in. It isn’t a positive. It isn’t a negative. It just is.

It is often said that the Coalition didn’t win the 2013 election, Labor lost it.

In other words, it was the Rudd and Gillard government’s faults that were highest on the minds of voters as they faced the September ballot, rather than Tony Abbott’s virtues.

This is true as far as it goes, but those faults were made powerful because of the Coalition’s dogged prosecution of them.

Abbott made the carbon tax into a political liability. It wasn’t before. Same with the boats. And Abbott and his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull made Labor wear its deficit spending.

By contrast, Shorten is just along for the ride. He’s been gifted the budget backlash. He’ll likely be spared the need to take a stand on asylum seekers. And he’s been excused from boldness on the carbon tax debate.

Shorten might be polling well now, but if he wants to be competitive in 2016 he’ll have to be more proactive than that.

True Economic Liberty Means More Open Borders

There are two versions of David Brat, the upstart who defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia Republican primary last week.

The first is a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia – a principled libertarian, dedicated to the cause of economic freedom.

Brat describes himself “a free-market guy”, who believes the economy has been badly distorted by regulation. He runs something called the BB&T Program on Capitalism, Markets and Morality. He’s passionately opposed to the mass surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden. His academic research focuses on the intersection between Christian theology and the market economy.

That’s the first version of Brat.

The second version is different – an anti-immigration warrior for the conservative right. He ran hard against Cantor on the latter’s support for amnesty for the children of illegal migrants.

In this campaign, Brat argued immigration “lowers wages, adds to unemployment, and the taxpayer pays the tab for any benefits to folks coming in.” (Just as the asylum seeker debate is in Australia, the question of amnesty for illegals is a proxy for the broader question about how open the United States should be to migration.)

For these sentiments he received endorsements from conservative firebrands like Ann Coulter – Brat was a candidate “true patriots should support with everything they have” – and Laura Ingraham.

It’s not easy to bridge the divide between the two Brats. There’s nothing “libertarian” or “free market” about an immigration crackdown. Quite the opposite.

The great free market victories over the last few decades have meant goods and capital can move around the world freely. This has raised living standards for everyone, rich and poor.

The last remaining barrier to economic liberty is the free movement of people.

It’s as much a barrier of political philosophy as it is a barrier of legislation. As Brat demonstrates, even some of the most hardcore free market advocates have a blind spot when it comes to immigration.

Yet what could be more respectful of the tenets of individual liberty than allowing individuals and families to travel across national borders to make a better life for themselves?

And what could be more inconsistent than claiming to believe in the morality of liberty but then placing the strictest of possible limits on that liberty?

On The Drum in 2011 I argued that to prevent migration is to prevent the most powerful way to lift people out of poverty. Migration is a big deal economically too. Opening the world’s borders could double the size of the world’s economy, according to one famous estimate.

Yet one of the doyens of free market thought, the Nobel-winning economist James Buchanan, said the hardest essay he ever had to write was on whether governments could justifiably restrict immigration.

There are two objections to larger scale immigration that you commonly hear from the intellectual right. Neither are strong.

The first is that increased immigration is incompatible with the welfare state. In this view, allowing large scale migration is great in theory, but we have generous welfare programs. There’s a risk some immigrants might migrate with the goal of hopping on social security. This argument was made by no less an authority than Milton Friedman.

But it’s almost comically easy to resolve the apparent incompatibility: cordon off welfare programs to new migrants for a certain amount of time. In fact, that’s exactly what we do in Australia (with the exception of refugees, who constitute a small fraction of the total migration intake).

The second objection is migrants may not assimilate to the national culture. This is not helped by the fact that many of the loudest pro-immigration voices are on the left and espouse a woolly sort of multicultural utopianism. But the point of a liberal framework of laws is that people of different values, preferences and beliefs can go about their business while everybody’s rights are equally protected.

And let’s not overestimate the cultural consensus among those born in the developed world. In Australia the Lowy Institute poll has been recording remarkably low support for basic things like democracy for many years.

Yet somehow the Commonwealth endures. As it would with a larger – even vastly larger – immigration intake.

(If your concern is that immigrants might vote for illiberal policies – that is, undermine the liberal legal framework – note that immigration and citizenship are different things.)

Let’s be clear – Brat is more philosophically coherent than 99 per cent of the politicians out there. Any defeat of an established Washington politician is a win. In response to Brat’s attack on immigration, Cantor surged hard to the right on amnesty. Self-interest beats principle.

And even taking Brat’s views on amnesty into account, American politics will be better off with him in Congress rather than a beltway native like Cantor.

Brat ought to be praised for his scholarship on the connection between morality and free markets.

But it’s also time for politicians who proclaim the virtues of liberty to discover its connection with the free movement of people.

Beware The Border Force Fetish

The Abbott Government’s proposed Australian Border Force is an incredible and serious militarisation of our borders.

On Friday Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced the Government would create this new top-level super agency to combine all the enforcement functions of Immigration and Customs.

The Australian Border Force will sit beside the Australian Defence Force, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police as a core national security agency.

The result will be something like America’s Department of Homeland Security.

Morrison’s speech from Friday is worth a look. It is the embodiment of the bizarre border fetishism that has been building over the last decade.

Back when the Coalition unveiled Operation Sovereign Borders, the name seemed like a bizarre non sequitur – how could a border be sovereign?

Turns out there was no such non sequitur. The Coalition is trying to give the border a sort of independent moral value. Morrison wants to elevate the notion of the “border” to the centre of liberal political philosophy:

“Like national defence, protecting Australia’s borders is core business for any national government.”

“Our border is a national asset … Our border creates the space for us to be who we are and to become everything we can be as a nation.”

This is stirring rhetoric but very strange.

A nation’s borders are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. They are only useful insofar as they facilitate more central roles for government: that is, national and personal security, the maintenance of a legal order, and the furtherance of social goals.

There is no reason to suggest their function – that is, creating a space for us to be who we are – is under any threat. Certainly no threat that would justify building a grand bureaucratic empire.

For instance, regardless of where you stand on the asylum seeker issue, large scale boat arrivals are only a threat to the orderly management of our refugee quotas, not our borders.

The “securing our borders” stuff is a catchphrase, not a policy. Our borders are among the most secure in the world. Honestly – when asylum seekers arrive in Australian waters, they phone the authorities.

The Australian Border Force is formally part of the 2014-15 Budget. It is supposed to save taxpayer money. We’ll see. Administrative savings have a habit of disappearing.

But Morrison told the Lowy Institute the Australian Border Force is not a mere efficiency measure. It is structural reform. The idea is not just government restructure but to recast immigration control as a pillar of national security. This is a big shift.

Until now, the Immigration Department has had a pretty simple role: to stamp the visas of foreigners. It is a glorified customer service agency.

Accordingly, the department’s role in national security is extremely limited. It administers the Movement Alert List: a database of identities of concern that is triggered when those identities want to have their visa stamped. But Immigration doesn’t create this list. Most of the identities are identified by intelligence agencies.

It’s the same with the famous refugee security assessments. The Immigration Department just administers the assessments made of asylum seekers by ASIO.

Still, while Immigration Department practice may have little to do with national security, the politics of immigration is drenched in it. The Coalition has often tried to tie refugees to national security. And this confected relationship provided the obvious spark for the development of the Australian Border Force.

Immigration is not a national security agency and never should be. Yet as disturbing as that change is, Morrison’s vision appears to be even grander. Customs is receiving a big promotion too.

Until the 2013 election, Customs was part of the Attorney-General’s portfolio. This makes sense. Customs traverses a wide range of ministerial areas. It enforces things like tariffs, import and export controls, as well as prohibitions on importing illegal goods like drugs and firearms.

Where Customs sits in the administrative hierarchy is significant. Before Customs was with the Attorney-General, it was variously ensconced with the Department of Industry, Trade, and Business, reflecting its role enforcing protectionism.

When the Coalition won in September, Customs became the responsibility of the Minister for Immigration.

Recall the big song and dance Morrison made about guns imported to Australia: “If you cannot trust Labor to stop the boats, then it is no surprise that we cannot trust them to stop the guns either.”

Now that it is being integrated into the Australian Border Force, Customs too will be ranked alongside the Australian Federal Police, ASIO and the Defence Force.

Smuggling drugs and firearms are serious crimes, but not quite on the level of terrorism and warfare.

So here’s an easy prediction. Bumping Immigration and Customs up the bureaucratic hierarchy will give those two organisations new influence, ambition, and ultimately power.

And by recasting them as part of our national security infrastructure, those agencies will orientate their core business towards that new, sexier, and more threatening security role.

Why easy to predict? Because that’s exactly what happened when the United States created the Department of Homeland Security. That monstrosity is expensive, expanding, and working to gain new powers. Until recently, its Immigration and Customs Enforcement division was lobbying forthe power to track citizens’ movements through licence plate scanning.

The last thing Australia needs is yet another grand and ambitious security bureaucracy pushing for powers that reduce our civil liberties.

The Australian Border Force may turn out to be one of the most significant, and dangerous, decisions of the 2014-15 Budget.

On The Positive Side, Thousands More May Find Refuge

It’s been four days since Kevin Rudd announced that every single asylum seeker arriving by boat would be sent to Papua New Guinea and either resettled there or returned home.

The political class is still shocked. They shouldn’t be.

It has become an item of faith that Australian politicians are personally responsible for the choices made freely by asylum seekers, and are to blame for the risks they choose to take.

So this was inevitably how the whole thing would end – completely and formally closing down any chance to seek asylum by boat in Australia. For as long as this policy lasts, no boat person will be settled in Australia again.

Our refugee politics are very cynical. And sometimes they are xenophobic. But not always. The defining moment was the December 2010 Christmas Island boat disaster, when 48 people died as their boat was smashed against the rocks.

The anguish that tragedy caused among policymakers and the public was real.

From then on, both sides of the debate became single-mindedly focused on how to stop boat drownings. This became the sine qua non of refugee policy. Even many refugee activists began framing their arguments on this ground.

On the conservative side, many of the Howard-era arguments about national sovereignty were quietly put to bed.

The PNG plan is unlike every other plan and policy adopted until now. It is not a deterrence scheme. To describe it as deterrence is a category error. It does not make it hard or uncomfortable to enter Australia by boat. It makes it impossible.

It’s the difference between a policy of deterrence on the one hand, and a policy of exclusion.

That difference is the key to understanding why John Howard’s Pacific Solution stopped the boats – for a time.

As Tim Hatton points out, the Howard policy didn’t just reduce the number of asylum claims from those arriving on boats. It reduced the number of asylum claims from everywhere. The Pacific Solution created a perception that Australia was completely closed to refugees. The policy’s success rested on this perception.

Yet the perception couldn’t last. When it became clear the vast majority of those detained on Nauru were eventually resettled in either Australia or New Zealand, the bluff was over. Potential refugees understood a stint in detention was the price of asylum. Boat arrivals started picking up from 2006 onwards, as this parliamentary document demonstrates.

With every iteration of asylum policy over the last few decades it has been a reasonable bet that if you hop on a boat you could end up – eventually, and not without taking some risk and suffering some hardship – receiving refugee status in Australia.

Kevin Rudd’s PNG plan puts an end to that. It replaces the asylum gamble with the certainty of a trip to Papua New Guinea.

Is the PNG plan cruel? Absolutely. But let’s not be revisionist. The status quo is extremely cruel as well. It is designed to be cruel.

The “no advantage” policy, introduced by Julia Gillard in 2012, has left thousands of people in limbo. This policy was never fully fleshed out. That was the point. Boat people were to be left in the Australian community for an unknown period. They weren’t allowed to work. Their miserable uncertainty was supposed to discourage others from coming. It didn’t.

No advantage was going to get worse. The Coalition immigration spokesperson floated sending no advantage asylum seekers to work camps. The Labor immigration minister thought that was a very interesting idea.

For nearly a decade Australia has had the worst policy combination possible: our border controls are both punitive and ineffectual.

For all the political anguish about drownings off the Australian coast, the PNG scheme does nothing to make global refugee trails any safer.

Asylum seeker deaths are heartbreakingly common. One estimate has 17,306 people dying trying to enter Europe between 1993 and 2012. Border patrol statistics record around 400 deaths on the US-Mexico border every year.

These figures are understated. In their book Globalization and Borders, the Australian criminologists Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering point out that for every body that washes ashore in a first world country, two bodies are never recovered.

Unauthorised migrants drown while swimming rivers. They suffocate in cramped spaces. They dehydrate while crossing deserts. They are killed in vehicle accidents. Such tragedies can occur long before the migrants arrive at a first world border to be counted.

Kevin Rudd will not reduce the number of people willing to risk their lives for a better life. They will just risk their lives elsewhere, safely away from our guilt-ridden politicians.

That’s not important if you consider stopping the boats to be the sole fundamental goal of Australia’s asylum policy.

But there are alternative goals: finding a safe haven for people in need, increasing the migration intake, or lowering barriers to the free movement of people.

If those goals appeal then the most important thing about the PNG plan was contained in a virtual footnote to Kevin Rudd’s press conference last Friday. The government is looking at increasing the total refugee intake from 20,000 a year to 27,000 a year.

The intake was just 13,000 a few years ago.

For all that has been said about the PNG deal, that increase would be a very good thing. Seven thousand more people safe and free in a rich developed country.

At Risk Of An Asylum Seeker Underclass

A reductio ad absurdum is an argumentative ploy to show a proposition is wrong by taking it to its most absurd extreme.

Australia’s asylum seeker debate is one great big reductio ad absurdum.

Take, for instance, the fact that Australia has excised itself from its own migration zone. Or that Australia now has a policy of indefinite imprisonment solely because legislators can’t close a bureaucratic loophole.

Here’s the latest madness.

The Government has released 16,000 asylum seekers into the community as they wait for their refugee claims to be processed. The asylum seekers receive around $220 a week from Centrelink. Most of this goes towards rent. But they’re on bridging visas which stipulate that they’re not allowed to get jobs.

And nearly half of those asylum seekers are subject to the Gillard Government’s “no advantage” rule, which means they could be in limbo like this for a very long time. They will have to wait as long as they would have if they’d remained in a refugee camp. That could be many years.

It’s all a bit of a problem.

On Sunday Opposition spokesman for immigration Scott Morrison suggested on Channel Seven that, since these asylum seekers are hanging around not doing much, why not have them work for the dole?

Under his plan, if asylum seekers in the community want food and accommodation, they’ll have to work on “community projects”. And they’ll be paid in vouchers, not cash.

Morrison’s proposal cobbles together two existing programs with vastly different purposes.

The vouchers part of the policy superficially resembles the income management program imposed on some welfare recipients, most famously as part of the Northern Territory intervention.

But income management is for people who – the Government believes – are unable to manage their finances. Its purpose is to “encourage participation and to increase … financial literacy”.

Income management is infantilising. This proposal is worse. If asylum seekers on bridging visas are capable of working, it ought to be assumed they’re capable of household budgeting too.
Similarly, work for the dole is supposed to encourage welfare recipients to join the workforce.

Yet they want to enter the workforce. It’s just their visa conditions make work illegal.

Without the traditional justifications for income management and work for the dole, all that is left is a proposal to force a class of foreigners to clean gutters and tidy parks for food.
Would this be like prison work? Or is more like indentured servitude? Forced labour? The Channel Seven report speculates they might live in “group accommodation, possibly work camps”.

Just as damning was the quick approval of the proposal by the Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor: “I’d like to see [asylum seekers] participate and contribute and I think it’s therefore worth considering”.

Recall that Brendan O’Connor has spent the last few months declaring how concerned he is about hypothetical cases of people who hold 457 visas being exploited. Apparently O’Connor thinks it’s ok if the Government exploits people who are holding bridging visas.

Anyway, enough about political hypocrisy.

A few years ago I argued in the Drum that most of Australia’s asylum seeker problems are the fault of the United Nations 1951 refugee convention.

The convention divides migrant populations into two groups. There are those who are moving across borders for economic reasons. Then there are those who are moving across borders because they have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted” – and are therefore eligible for refugee status if they seek asylum in a signatory country.

The former group is assumed to be independent and responsible for their own upkeep. They are supposed to get jobs to get by. For this group, migration is seen as the result of individual choice.

The latter group is assumed to need protection. They become wards of the state, given accommodation, welfare, and social services. Here, migration as sort of global safety net.

But the division is false and misleading. If you browse the Refugee Review Tribunal decisions you’ll see how it collapses when it meets real life.

The problems with the division are magnified when countries deal with those who are seeking asylum – in other words, those who have not been yet granted official refugee status.

The convention gives refugees the same “right to engage in wage-earning employment” as any other citizen.

But we haven’t granted asylum seekers their refugee status yet. And – because they say they came to our shores for protection, not jobs – the Government has decided they should be prohibited from working while they wait.

Add to all that the punishing indeterminacy of “no advantage”, and this is Catch 22 stuff.

The Coalition’s proposal would make the asylum seekers’ legal limbo even worse.

Freezing foreign migrants out of the normal workforce creates exactly the sort of resentful underclass that conservative sceptics of immigration worry about. Immigration policy design can have severe social consequences down the track. Just ask Germany.

We’re living through a great age of migration. We’re going to have to start thinking seriously about what that means.

Immigration Election: We’ve Been Here Before

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will “put Aussie workers first”. Opposition spokesman for immigration Scott Morrison has called for “behaviour protocols” for asylum seekers in the community.

The 2013 election doesn’t just resemble the election of 2010. No, it looks like it will be an exact replica.

Both major parties made immigration central to their campaigns in 2010. Julia Gillard explicitly told the electorate that she did not believe in a “big Australia”. The Coalition went further.

The “stop the boats” chant has always been in part a proxy for more general concerns about population and infrastructure. The Opposition proposed to rename the Productivity Commission to the Productivity and Sustainability Commission, with a specific brief “to address population sustainability issues”.

(It’s hard to say what has become of this ludicrous proposal. The renaming appears in the Coalition policy notes leaked to Crikey mid last year, but not in the official, less detailed policy document in January this year. Perhaps we can expect it to be relaunched.)

So here we are back in Western Sydney talking about immigration. It’s as if no time has lapsed between the last election and today. We’re watching another game of rhetorical one-upmanship about foreigners.

Labor’s target is the 457 visa scheme. This class of visa allows businesses to bring in skilled workers temporarily where no local workers can be found. Launching her Rooty Hill week on Sunday night, the Prime Minister said she would stop “foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.

What nonsense. The Treasurer – who appeared with Gillard at Rooty Hill – is fond of reminding us that Australia is at nearly full employment.

Anyway, the idea that it is easier for a company to import workers on a 457 visa than hire readily available local ones is absurd. The 457 program is a complex regulatory process.

You can only hire a 457 worker for certain occupations. You have to satisfy the Immigration Department that you have spent a certain percentage of your payroll on approved training programs for Australian citizens. You have to demonstrate a strong commitment to hiring locals.

And, most importantly, if you hire someone on a 457 visa you have to offer them “no less than favourable” wages and conditions of employment as an Australian could expect. The program is specifically designed to stop businesses undercutting local wages with migrants.

With such complexity, 457 visas tend to be used only for higher-end jobs. Sixty-five per cent of all people who received a 457 visa in the last six months are either managers or professionals -the data is available here.

Their average 457 salary is $90,000 a year. In Western Australia, the 457 average is $104,000. (The average salary in Australia is around $72,000.)

On New Matilda yesterday, CFMEU boss Dave Noonan said his union is worried about workers being exploited on 457 visas. Employers sometimes try to skirt their legal obligations. This is a fair concern. Laws should be obeyed. Contracts should be honoured.

But that’s not the message Gillard was selling in Western Sydney. No, she was trying to stoke resentment. How else to describe a claim that foreigners have it better – are given better places in the queue – than locals?

The Coalition’s target is asylum seekers. They’re selling pretty much the same message. Scott Morrison’s claim that asylum seekers need “behaviour protocols… with clear negative sanctions for breaches” in light of an alleged sexual assault by a Sri Lankan asylum seeker. This is low and opportunistic.

Obviously, the only behaviour protocol in a liberal democracy is the law. Sexual assault is against the law. The clear negative sanction for breaching Australian laws against sexual assault is prosecution.

For the Coalition, Morrison’s comments are counterproductive in two ways. First, they undermine the argument that stopping the boats is solely about protecting the lives of refugees. Those who legitimately hold that view should be very annoyed by the Morrison proposals.

Second, they illustrate the Opposition doesn’t understand why it is in a winning lead. Julia Gillard’s Government is not terminal because it is too nice to asylum seekers. It’s terminal because of the fallout from the leadership spill, and the confusion and compromise which have crippled both policy and message. Gillard has a crisis of legitimacy she can’t shake. If a new Coalition government confuses what they campaigned on with why they won, Tony Abbott won’t last long in the Lodge.

On the Drum in February I argued the Government’s protectionist manufacturing policy isalmost entirely symbolic. The 2010 election was fought on these sorts of symbolic grounds. Julia Gillard may have declared her antipathy to big Australia but did nothing about it. Hers was a message for punters. It wasn’t instructions for legislators.

Both Gillard and Morrison’s comments are symbolic too. The only policy foundation behind Gillard’s claim that she plans to push Aussie workers to the front of the queue is a few tepid compliance adjustments to the 457 visa program. The Immigration Department thinks the scheme is working pretty well. The Rudd and Gillard governments have broken immigration records.

And the asylum seeker debate has been so fudged that it isn’t clear how much harder a Coalition could crack down on refugees. It certainly isn’t clear what policy goal that crackdown would achieve. What would be the purpose of imposing behaviour protocols, except as a political marketing tool?

You can almost forgive the 2010 election for its eccentricities – a new prime minister went to a quick election and everyone had to improvise. But the parties have had nearly three years to offer something more substantial than anti-immigration resentment.

Liberals’ Legacy Of Mass Migration Is At Stake

If Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister next year, he is going to have to make a decision: what to do about immigration?

Not asylum seekers: immigration.

After all, the size and composition of the total immigration intake is certain to shape our nation much more than the few thousand people who arrive by boat.

While the parties shout themselves hoarse over refugees, we’re at a unique juncture in immigration politics.

For the past 70 years, the party that has most embraced permanent migration in government has been the Liberal Party, not Labor.

Permanent and long-term arrival numbers vary every year; and not all of those variations are driven by Commonwealth government policy. But most are.

(For those interested in playing along, the Immigration Department offers a spreadsheet of historical migration numbers since 1945 here.)

The largest declines in our migration intake have occurred under Labor governments.

When Gough Whitlam, that darling of the progressive movement, came into power, immigration plummeted. In 1970, the Liberal government of John Gorton had admitted 185,000 migrants. The Whitlam government shrunk that to just over 50,000.

This was a deliberate policy decision. Whitlam even shut down the Department of Immigration, placing migration under the Department of Labour and Immigration.

That might seem a minor institutional change but it wasn’t: when merged with labour, immigration policy came under the influence of a traditionally pro-union bureaucracy. And unions don’t like it when the government imports foreign workers.

There’s long been a debate about whether it was Whitlam who ended the White Australia Policy or Harold Holt. Both did their part. But even though Whitlam proclaimed the end to the infamous policy, the sharp decline of total immigration on his watch meant that few non-European migrants could come to Australia regardless.

In March 1974 The Age pondered whether Gough Whitlam was doing as every government had done: “preaching tolerance while still practicing discrimination”.

Bob Hawke described himself as a “high immigration man”. But when he took government in 1983, the immigration intake dropped by more than a third. To Hawke’s credit, migration crept up over the next decade. But when Paul Keating took over, it plummeted again.

The Liberals have a much more impressive record.

Post-war immigration was at its peak under John Gorton. And Malcolm Fraser reversed the Whitlam backslide.

Under John Howard – that bête noire of pro-migration progressives – immigration jumped up well above the Gorton heights. In 2007, the number of permanent migrants arriving on our shores hit 191,000 – the largest cohort since the Second World War.

As George Megalogenis wrote in The Howard Factor, the real story was how “the former Hansonite belt … think Howard is keeping out all the foreigners, when he is bringing them here at a rate Paul Keating never contemplated”.

Yet Howard’s record-breaking immigration intake is apparently an awkward truth. In the standard text on this subject, From White Australia to Woomera: the Story of Australian Immigration, the academic James Jupp briefly acknowledges the Howard record – in one sentence. But the real issue for Jupp is that Howard was considering a temporary guest worker scheme, and such a scheme would hurt unions already battered by WorkChoices.

But then came the Rudd government, and the partisan pattern broke. Rather than immediately shrinking the intake, Rudd continued the trend upwards – hugely. More than 224,000 migrants entered Australia in 2010. And that terrifying guest worker scheme? A pilot program was eventually introduced not by the union-hating Liberal Party, but by the ALP.

Even Julia Gillard’s government – she of small Australia fame – has not appreciably reduced the number of migrants we take.

Given the showy anti-population rhetoric of the 2010 election, it is remarkable that we’re taking nearly twice as many foreigners than we did under the government of Bob “high immigration” Hawke.

There’s one obvious lesson here. Don’t trust what politicians say about immigration.

But when Rudd broke the pattern, he also broke the Liberal Party’s cover. After Labor prime ministers had lowered the intake, Liberal prime ministers were free to raise it; they gained no political benefit from doing otherwise. The Coalition could bang on about multiculturalism and refugees, but it would still bring in many more people than Labor.

Thanks to Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott faces different incentives to his predecessors. And the 2010 election demonstrated the Coalition’s willingness to play the anti-population card.

So there is perhaps an added significance to the Abbott’s announcement last week that he would reduce the Gillard government’s refugee intake by 6,000 places.

It’s one thing to call for temporary protection visas and off-shore processing. It’s another thing to actually reduce the refugee intake. His announcement was reported through the standard stop-the-boats prism but it hints at something deeper: the Coalition may sense an opportunity to rehash the 2010 themes in 2013.

Abbott has previously said that he would like to make skilled migration – that is, 457 working visas – the mainstay of a Coalition’s immigration program. But he has framed it in a peculiar way. Businesses should be able to bring in workers, “provided there aren’t Australians who could readily fill particular jobs”.

This sees immigration as a mechanism to solve problems, not way of building Australian economic strength in and of itself. And remember, 457 visas are temporary visas – not permanent ones.
Admittedly, this is like reading tea leaves. History cautions us to not take anything politicians say too seriously. The real story of immigration is only ever found in statistical appendices.
But should Abbott win government next year, immigration will be a major question for his new government.

Does he want to continue the Liberal legacy – a legacy of mass migration and population growth? Or, as he has at times unfortunately suggested, does he want to repudiate it?

Why Cling On To An Outdated Refugee Convention?

The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is not fit for purpose.

The 60-year-old convention was designed for an era we no longer live in; an era where the causes and trajectories of global migration were quite different to today.

Yet the convention still dominates our understanding of migration, with its archaic and artificial distinction between legitimate and illegitimate irregular migrants.

The problems go deeper than historical quirks of drafting. The convention deeply distorts our understanding of 21st-century immigration. It makes humanitarian approaches to refugees harder, not easier. Australia should withdraw from it.

The refugee convention was developed in response to the World War II refugee crisis. Between 20 to 30 million people were displaced in Europe alone – “one of the greatest population movements of history” as one US State Department report described it at the end of the war.

But that was in 1945. Six years later, the idea of coordinated global action on those refugees was already anachronistic. Half a billion (mostly American) dollars had been spent resettling the majority of those who had been displaced, save a problematic ‘hard core’ of 400,000. The United States did not want sole responsibility for all refugees in the future, so the convention placed the burden on countries which the refugees themselves approached.

And by this time, refugee questions had already been subsumed into Cold War politics. The new wave of European migrants was mostly comprised of those fleeing communism. The Soviet Bloc did not help draft the refugee convention. It did not want to help “traitors who are refusing to return home to serve their country”.

As a consequence, the convention defined a “refugee” as someone who had a “well-founded fear of being persecuted”. This is the formula our Immigration Department and Refugee Review Tribunal apply to contemporary asylum cases in 2011. But it’s clearly a formula specifically designed for the Cold War. Communist states actively persecuted returning citizens. The consequences of sending such refugees back across the Iron Curtain was unambiguous.

While convention was designed to handle those who could not return home for political reasons, our contemporary requirements are vastly different. The bulk of today’s refugees are displaced not because of politics, but because of economic hardship or conflict. They do not flee totalitarianism but poverty and insecurity.

By any layperson’s definition, virtually all those who reside in 21st-century refugee camps would be considered “refugees” but it has been estimated the bulk would not fit the convention’s “well-founded fear of being persecuted” standard.

The decisions of Australia’s Refugee Review Tribunal record the often farcical attempts by migration lawyers and judges to shoehorn the complex reasons someone may migrate into this frame.

The convention did not even work as intended during the Cold War. Gil Loescher’s The UNHCR And World Politics documents how the USA sidelined the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and built a parallel system to attract refugees from the Soviet bloc.

Of the 233,436 refugees admitted into the United States between 1956 and 1968, only 925 were from non-communist countries. They were accepted into the West not because of the dictates of international law but as part of the great geopolitical game. Contrast America’s embrace of Cuban refugees with its relatively cold shoulder to those from Haiti.

The end of the Cold War undermined the political foundations of the refugee framework. We have now almost no genuinely totalitarian dictatorships persecuting their citizens, but we also have more refugees than at any time in the last half century. The distinction the Refugee Convention makes between political refugees and the rest no longer makes any sense.

In fact, it’s worse than that. Today even people fleeing totalitarianism typically believe they are doing so for economic reasons, not political ones.

North Korea is the most politically repressive state in the modern world. Yet according to a survey of refugees in the recent book Witness To Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea, fully 95 per cent of North Koreans said they left the Hermit Kingdom because of poverty. Only 2 per cent cited political persecution. Absolutely, if a Korean refugee turned up in Australia, they’d change their views after five minutes with a refugee lawyer. But their initial beliefs are indicative.

The convention’s archaic distinction badly distorts the popular understanding of refugee issues.

The denigration of “economic refugees” – so widespread in the Australian press – is particularly absurd. Few realise the concept of legitimate refugee they rely on was formulated primarily to embarrass Joseph Stalin.

Our views on what is a moral approach to refugees also diverge sharply from those implied by the convention.

As Michael Pearce pointed out in The Age in September, Australians feel obligation to those in the far away refugee camp “queue” more than those who arrive in our country. The Malaysia Solution pivoted on this feeling. But that is an almost exact reversal of the convention’s approach, which is silent on the queue, and concerns only those who land on our doorstep.

One argument for the convention is that it acts to restrain the political response to asylum seekers – keeping things at least reasonably humane. Yet it’s not clear it does. Other signatory countries are no more rigorous than Australia at complying with the convention. Non-signatory countries host the majority of refugees. Here, as around the world, domestic policy is set by domestic politics, not international law.

Yet the biggest problem is not merely how it defines “refugee”, but how the refugee convention distorts our understanding of the entire immigration issue.

Rather than viewing refugees as a subset of general global migration, the convention requires us to see them as a separate thing entirely.

It’s a false dichotomy. Migration is not either forced or unforced. There are many degrees of voluntariness in modern migration. But it’s a dichotomy on which our political parties rely. The Greens support asylum seekers but wish to limit skilled migrants. The Coalition and now Labor want to stop the boats yet invite more foreign workers.

Immigration is shaping up to be the big issue of the 21st-century, in the way that trade was the big issue of the 20th. There’s nothing wrong with trying to migrate to find work and a better life. We should, indeed, encourage that. However, we will not be able to come to terms with the age of migration if our policymakers cling to the obsolete refugee convention.

A Crackdown On Illegal Immigrants. Interested? Anyone?

Last week Immigration Minister Chris Bowen introduced a bill into parliament. Had we been any other country on the planet this would have been extremely controversial.

Columns would have been published. Talkback callers would have been enraged. Television panels would have pontificated.

But our immigration debate is peculiar. The Migration Amendment (Reform of Employer Sanctions) Bill 2012 will in all likelihood be ignored.

It shouldn’t be. This legislation significantly increases the penalties for employers who hire “illegal workers” and gives a whole range of new inspection and police powers to the Immigration Department to enforce them.

The bill erodes the right to silence, for one, and establishes powerful search warrants with which immigration officers can enter premises to hunt down evidence of illegal workers.

More broadly, the bill puts meat on a new and punitive immigration regime: it is now the legal responsibility of employers to find out whether the people they hire are entitled to work in Australia.

So yes: a crackdown on illegal immigrants! The stuff tabloid dreams are made of.

Or not. In the Australian consciousness, immigration politics is purely about asylum seekers.

By definition, asylum seekers want authorities to find them. Illegal workers do not. They are people who are working in breach of their visa conditions. They may have overstayed their temporary visas, they may be here on tourist visas, or they might be working more hours than their student visas permit.

It’s hard to measure, but we know there are at least 50,000 illegal workers in Australia. A Government report (PDF) in 2010 suggested it could be as many as 100,000.

That figure is a lot more than the few thousand who have sought asylum in Australia by boat.

Why the disconnect?

Immigration politics is not about quantity but visibility. And our borders are uniquely secure. The twentieth century fantasy of full state control over who enters and exits a country has only come close to realisation in Australia.

Those dinky boats may seem like a threat to our “sovereignty”, but they are actually a demonstration of it. Our high-tech Navy picks them up, and our bureaucrats ploddingly process each one in turn. Every migrant interacts with the system at some point. There are no exceptions.

In almost every other country, borders are far too porous to imagine a government could be this diligent.

So in the United States, the United Kingdom and the richest nations in Europe, it is illegal workers who bear the brunt of the political and public attention. We obsess about the people who want to come here. The rest of the world obsesses about those who already are there.

This focus on asylum seekers means we ignore the great issue of our time: the clash between national borders and an increasingly global employment market.

The Government’s new illegal worker bill is evidence that we are not as isolated as we think. One hundred thousand people is not trivial.

But the Immigration Department’s arguments for why we need to crackdown on illegal workers are unfortunate.

First: if we allow illegal workers to work, our immigration controls will be weakened. In other words, immigration restrictions are needed to maintain immigration restrictions. It gets even more circular from there. Illegal workers are a problem because of “costs associated with locating and removing illegal workers”. Read that one again.

Second: illegal workers “deny Australian citizens and permanent residents the opportunity to obtain a job”. It would be nice if the Immigration Department didn’t endorse the claim that foreigners crowd residents out of the employment market, but, well, there you go. Likewise, we might put aside the claim that illegal workers “may not meet … stringent health and character tests”.

One final argument is the most convincing, but perhaps not in the way it is intended: illegal workers are susceptible to exploitation.

This is undoubtedly true. But it is because those workers face the threat of deportation that they are so vulnerable. The stricter we are about visa overstayers, the more we increase the chances that they will be exploited by unscrupulous employers who threaten to call Immigration if they complain.

We know from international experience that an aggressive pursuit of illegal workers and their employers can create as many problems as it tries to solve.

So that this crackdown on illegal workers is likely to sail through unexamined has nothing to do with its desirability. It is, instead, a window into the strangeness of the immigration debate in Australia.

Remittances Dominate Aid Yet Remain Unspoken

The underappreciated thread that ties the global economy together is remittances – the money sent by migrants back to their home countries.

Remittances are the silent player in the immigration debate. They’re almost never referred to in our domestic politics or press.

The news monitoring site Factiva records just two mentions of remittances in Australian newspapers over the past two years.

Compare that to the reams of copy filed about foreign aid – 706 newspaper articles in the same period. Then add all the vox pops, chat shows, and talkback calls. Recall the hand-wringing which greeted Wayne Swan’s announcement that foreign aid growth would be modest in this budget. Yes, both left and right positively obsess about the cash the government gives to the third world.
But, even though we’re also constantly yabbering about immigrants, the vast sums of money foreign workers privately send home themselves goes entirely unnoticed.

So a new World Bank report, Migration and Remittances during the Global Financial Crisis and Beyond, released last week is all but guaranteed to be ignored. This is a shame.

The report underlines that the amount of money migrants send home far, far exceeds the amount of money the West spends on foreign aid. Remittances are a big deal.

And they’re an increasingly big deal. Total remittances used to be double the total amount of aid, which was impressive enough. But now, after the financial crisis, they are more than triple.
This is not because foreign aid has declined – official development assistance has continued to grow during the economic downturn. It’s because remittances have shot up further. While the developed world spends roughly $US100 billion on aid every year, migrants now send more than $300 billion home. And as remittances are extremely hard to measure (not all of it is sent through formal channels) it is likely to be much more.

This is a good thing. The financial crisis demonstrated that remittance income is stable income. Foreign direct investment in the developing world has wildly fluctuated since 2008 and has not yet returned to pre-crisis levels. By contrast, remittance flows have remained relatively steady. They dipped slightly in 2009 but quickly popped up again; in two years, the World Bank believes global remittances will be close to $600 billion a year.

We’re all familiar with the long-running “trade versus aid” debate. Which is the most effective development policy? There’s an increasing consensus that the actual winner is remittances.
So the significance of the global remittance economy ought to dominate the immigration debate.

But it doesn’t. Understandably, Australians look at immigration through Australian eyes. The emphasis is on us: how will migration programs affect domestic employment? How will migrants culturally integrate?

Barely do the fortunes of the migrants themselves figure. Working in the rich world, whether temporarily or permanently, is extraordinarily beneficial for people born in poor countries. The opportunities are much greater, and the prevailing salary for equivalent work much higher.

This simple and obvious fact is virtually absent from discussions about immigration. Perhaps it is an unstated assumption shared by all participants. But as the development economist Michael Clemens has pointed out, the benefits which are conferred on the migrants and their countries of origin are almost uniformly neglected by all sides of the debate.

No more so than with remittances. The flow of money from migrants helps fund investment and grow capital in the world’s poorest countries. It keeps families above the poverty line. It goes directly to households.

And as a form of third world development, remittances put no pressure on taxpayers in the first world. They are not planned by clever development economists or policymakers. They have not been coordinated by an international bureaucracy. Indeed, remittances are nothing but the result of the hard work of migrants.

That might sound hard-hearted but it helps keep the flow of money stable and targeted – certainly more stable and targeted than foreign aid, which is highly influenced by political decisions, and subject to the budget planning of treasurers for whom third world development is not an urgent priority.

But there’s also a political reason that remittances don’t get talked about. It’s in nobody’s interest to do so.

They don’t fit the left’s vision of economic development. Foreign aid is grand and interventionist and state-driven. Remittances are earned by individuals and spent in ways the migrants and their families choose. One small, pathetic, but indicative criticism of remittances from the left says they encourage “conspicuous consumption” in the developing world. It’s a common complaint and a bizarre one. Is the third world’s problem really not poverty but consumerism?

And it’s clear that many calls for foreign aid are driven by a belief in distributive justice – that foreign aid should be a penance for first world wealth. Certainly this is the message broadcast by the fashionable anti-poverty causes marketed to young people.

Nor do remittances appeal to conservative populists. Remittances offer one of the most compelling utilitarian arguments for importing foreign workers from the developing world – not only is immigration good for our economy and the migrants themselves, it’s also good for the countries the migrants come from. This is not a story that those sceptical of immigration want to tell.

But it is one we’ll have to start recognising if we want to understand our place in the global age of migration.