By RD Wood
According to George Megalogenis’ documentary Making Australia Great, Australia managed the global financial crisis of 2008 through a strong and decisive economic policy that allowed us to spend our way out of trouble. There is longstanding merit and support for this action, which many would attribute to the economist John Maynard Keynes. It also makes simple good sense because when one feels down one can often rely on a bit of retail therapy to help one out of the slump. Nations are no different. That this action can become viciously partisan is problematic, but what Megalogenis simplifies is that the long-term levers of economic growth are simply an open economic policy and open migration. It is as if he has failed to interrogate the application of free trade and increased population, both of which seem like a failed inheritance of centrist American economic theory. We need to ask: what is economics in service to and how can we make it work for us? In both senses, it needs to be about good communal management and informed decision-making not a chimerical openness that unfairly disadvantages the most precarious. That is where the economics of labour in our society are intensely fought.
That the debate about the arrival of people, and hence labour, in Australia has oriented itself around refugees is unsurprising. Although in the context of global numbers there are relatively few people in detention, it is still a spectacular tragedy. Part of our response to the issue of people in detention needs to expand out to other detained people including prisoners, the mentally ill who are institutionalised, those in custody. Yet, our obsession with asylum seekers might obscure other important conversations about labour. I say this as someone who has volunteered with grassroots refugee organisations like Tamil Feasts and think we must express solidarity and empathy with people in detention as well as in perilous situations more generally. Nor is this to dismiss that we need to talk about the high number of people who overstay their visas, particularly those from the United Kingdom and United States, or the number of visa cancellations for breaches and criminal activity. Illegals from the United Kingdom outnumber all refugee applications put together. But to my mind all these issues are smokescreens for a proper discussion about migration.
If taxation deals with the monetary side of the equation then migration, and hence labour, needs to be considered as well. That we have re-directed labour towards economically difficult areas in regional Australia is a good thing. This has often been through the working holiday visa, where people mainly from Western Europe and Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea provide a short-term labour force. Where more young people can contribute to regional Australia is in significant growth from other Commonwealth countries provided of course that they are not exploited and can retain economic freedom. Indeed, if we can compete with Jamaica or Nigeria for medals, why can’t those people come here to pick oranges? This might reinvigorate the working holiday program and help us sustain growth in struggling areas even while we must ensure locals have first access to jobs.
Migration into Australia is more generally split between ‘skilled’ and ‘humanitarian’. In 2013-14 the skilled migration intake was 190,000 people; the humanitarian intake, which includes refugees, was 13,750. For skilled migration, India, China and the United Kingdom were the major source countries. According to the ‘Migration Trends 2013-14’ paper released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection:
The Skill stream is designed for workers who have the skills, qualifications and entrepreneurship most needed in the Australian economy. These skilled migrants help the Australian economy directly through increased productivity and by filling labour market needs and shortages. They also provide an indirect benefit through increased demand for goods and services, creating more jobs and reducing unemployment.
Migration to Australia is based on a points scheme that includes age, language proficiency and occupation. The program also includes a family stream, with the aim of ‘family formation and reunion by allowing the migration of family members such as spouses, children, parents and certain other members of extended families.’ This is interesting because one notices that the rhetoric used to justify the family visa is not solely economic. In other words, the official language is loaded with social values. This opens up the question of how we assess both skilled and humanitarian categories of labour. Afterall, skilled migrants have humanitarian needs, which is why they are migrating in the first place; and humanitarian migrants have skills, which is why they contribute to Australia economically.
What might be best however is the creation of a new type of migration program. We could call this skilled humanitarian, which would be a visa stream that consciously combines the economic objectives of the nation with social objectives. This is what the family stream already does. But we could expand this program and make it the hub not the spoke. The ideal type of skilled humanitarian would chart a middle path. This might not be a first world accountant seeking sunshine, but neither might it be a third world victim fleeing bombs. It might be a second world professional wanting to make a better life and positively contribute to a new society. This is attractive because it can help us respond to our economic needs and help us move towards a better idea of our community. This needs to be a conversation we have in addition to making more space in our community for refugees, who come here with vast economic ability. It is about seeing through to the best skills we can find in other people from other nations in a way that supports our values and ideologies. That, surely, is a good thing.
Migration, as a continuing and important source of new ideas, labour power and entrepreneurship is an important starting point in thinking about the future of the Australian economy. So too are ways that recognise the skill base of new arrivals to make sure they are being used efficiently and effectively. This has as much to do with educational opportunity and training pathways as it has to do with ideas like social inclusion. We can combine new policies on labour with a reformed taxation system to enable Australia to become an activist state, which is surely what has to come after the middle class welfare we have grown accustomed to. That is a task for economic reform and the good of immigration that simply cannot wait.
 Number of visa cancellations in 2014 – UK = 9,245 (72) This is due to breaches of visa or criminal activities; 9072 applications for refugee by illegal maritime arrivals (61); Number of Unlawful Non Citizens, or people who overstay their visa, for UK – 3660, US – 5240 in 2014. (70) IE ME: Total then = 8900
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