The Case for Work

Sometimes an outcome occurs in which nobody believes. Asylum seekers living in the community without the right to work is such an outcome.

Many people who have sought asylum in Australia cannot work. We don’t know the exact number at any one time except that it is high (above 19,000 in February 2014).

This arose in August 2012 as the Gillard government introduced a number of policy changes intended to slow the arrival of asylum seekers via boat. The idea is that the right to work is an attraction to people seeking asylum.This policy – removing the right to work – has been maintained by the Abbott government. Devoid of context, perhaps this belief can be sustained particularly for those at the margins. Yet this claim is completely unsupported by evidence (much like mandatory detention and unlike offshore processing).

To date, much of the campaign to reinstate the right to work for asylum seekers has centred around the negative impact this decision has on individual asylum seekers. Most calls for a change stem from traditional advocacy organisations. A good example is this brochure (.pdf) by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre which adopts a human rights approach. People are harmed by this policy. A more nuanced portrait is painted by Peter Mares in a recent edition of the Griffith Review yet the case remains the driving force of his argument is empathy with the individual asylum seeker.

While I believe in the fundamentals of this human rights approach, the campaign is unlikely to force change. Despite this, I will offer a short contribution. The nature of this campaign appears to lack an important coda. The mantra of “Work” has become the centrepiece of this government, from reintroducing ‘work for the dole’ to removing unemployment support for people under 30. Yet when we look to a most vulnerable group living in our society, this philosophy does not apply. This powerful contradiction embedded in Coalition policy across the two most visible portfolios has yet to fully resonate. The restriction on the right to work is deeply illiberal in an age of government where liberty is paramount.

Source: Star Network

Instead of this style of argument, two very specific charges should be levelled more forcefully at the status quo.

The first is the fiscal impact of denying work rights to asylum seekers. This includes the direct cost of welfare payments to support asylum seekers. Mares touches on this with a ‘rough estimate of over $100m per year’. Perhaps more importantly, indirect costs such as healthcare and the opportunity cost of current government expenditure, are likely a source of long-term fiscal drain. These fiscal costs are not insignificant in an era where fiscal surplus is fettishised. In any other policy area, this “quick win” would be offered up in the name balancing the budget.

Establishing the fiscal burden of this policy choice is critical for the second charge, being restricting the right to work does not deter people from seeking asylum. As we have seen, the Abbott government appears unconcerned about the short-term fiscal costs of its asylum policy in the name of deterrence. Yet their own policy logic supports the right to work. The attempted introduction of temporary protection visas was primarily justified as a deterrent but an important secondary consideration was the reintroduction of work rights. If the Coalition saw the right to work as a deterrent, Scott Morrison would not be seeking to introduce such a policy. In Australia, giving asylum seekers the right to work does not induce asylum claims (it may in other jurisdictions, particularly Europe).

These two rebuttals to current policy – combined – are likely more effective in changing the status quo. You will not find a single prominent business or industry group who support restricting the right to work for asylum seekers. Building an argument centred on fiscal concern allows a more direct engagement from industry on what is a social policy question. This occurred with the recent public debate on raising the dole by $50 per week. While ultimately unsuccessful, the Business Council of Australia brings a more effective voice for advocacy with a Coalition government than another salvo from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. A costed figure to the budget on removing the restriction on work and an emerging public debate on the policy places more pressure on the government to change this policy given they likely do not believe in it anyway. Much like Barack Obama has mostly stayed out of the U.S. immigration reform debate to provide space for more conservative supporters, there are important considerations for those who want to see an opportunity for asylum seekers to work in Australia.

By creating a false dichotomy of work rights and temporary visas, the government has failed to deliver basic support to those under its jurisdiction while increasing the fiscal burden on taxpayers. Parliament has considered, and rejected, temporary protection visas. Scott Morrison needs to find a different way forward. This need not be radical. The ALP will likely support anything outside of temporary visas.

Nobody supports the status quo and it is incumbent on governments to find solutions to policy problems.

My book club of one

I used to read books frequently but uni work and the endlessness of long-reads on the internet chewed through my book reading time over the last couple of years.

However, travelling has always been a great time to read. Here are some short reviews of what I’ve been reading, mostly to help me remember in the future what I thought of these books. As you can see, I needed a break from immigration-related material.

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Robert Gates) – A warts and all look at the U.S. military and defence policy from the person at the top. Gates writes openly and honestly about what went well and what didn’t. At times a bit over the top patriotic but the candor makes it worth it. Gates in the Obama administration is what bipartisanship should look like in politics. 7/10

The Insurgents: David Patraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Fred Kaplan) – A highly readable case study of change within massive bureaucracies, in this case the U.S. Army. It’s fascinating to see who succeeds and who fails to advance change, due to timing, luck, scheming and persistence. Kaplan is an excellent storyteller and there are many lessons here. Many processes the U.S. Army struggles with I saw first hand when I worked at the immigration department. If you can’t commit to the book, Kaplan writes the War Stories column at Slate. 9/10

Jerusalem: The Biography (Simon Sebag Montefiore) – An intense history of Jerusalem. It takes a couple of chapters just to get to Jesus and the Romans. I don’t know much about the different religions but Montefiore fleshes this out expertly for the layman while weaving in tidbits about life in Jerusalem throughout different eras. Horrifying in parts, this book serves as a gentle reminder that conflict seems inherent and even peace over decades and centuries is shattered at some point. 8/10

This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital (Mark Leibovich) –  A rollicking birds eye view of ‘inside Washington’. Some (most?) of the people seem like fictional characters. Perhaps the saddest part is how realistic it appears. Hope gets brushed aside quickly for power. I can imagine many will be disgusted by what occurs on these pages but I don’t think that is the lesson of the book. To me, Leibovich wants to show how the combination of politics, media and money is part and parcel of doing business and that despite the the borderline nihilistic behaviour on display, the city functions. His portrait of Harry Reid in particular was excellent. 8/10

Power Failure: The Inside Story of Climate Politics under Rudd and Gillard (Philip Chubb) – I was excited to read this after a glowing review on Inside Story. However I was disappointed. I’m a pretty keen follower of progressive politics and I think Chubb does a disservice by playing to stereotypes. His exploration of the whole field lacked something (particularly parts about the Greens and the Liberals). I was unpersuaded by his case as I felt the complexity of the issue was underplayed. Undoubtedly critical mistakes were made along the way by important people but the end result was a policy on the cutting edge of addressing climate change from country with a massive carbon footprint. 4/10

If you have any books to recommend, please shout out in the comments. I’ve got a 36 hour trip home soon which needs filling.

Some thoughts on population figures

I’m waiting. I know it’s going to happen. And it’s going to be ugly.

The debate about Australia’s population is never pretty. Out of the shadows come deep convictions, straight from the gut. We hear big numbers, unbelievable numbers and we gasp.

Earlier this year, Andrew Leigh gave a speech to the Lowy Institute about Australia’s population (conflict of interest note: I provided comment on a draft). The main thrust of his argument was migrants – on balance – provide economic justification for a larger population and we need to focus on ‘who’, as well as ‘how many’.

I wholeheartedly agree. Yet this argument will get swept away when our collective consciousness is diverted by the appearance of a new set of numbers.

Debating who gets to come is a first-order priority with third-order public interest. Students? Workers? Family members? Asylum seekers? For each of these categories, there are eligibility criteria and such. The legislation underpinning much of the migration program is cumbersome, off-putting.

Yet Australia, for about a generation now, has experienced seismic change in terms of who arrives. This has been driven by the bureaucratic machine along with occasional support from political interventions (such as the FitzGerald report in the late 1980s).

Public interest in the who is not just limited, it simply doesn’t exist.

Leigh’s speech was hopefully read in full by those who make decisions about who migrates. But to see just how hard it is to talk about who instead of how many, the headline of his op-ed in the Daily Telegraph was “Don’t be scared, let’s populate and prosper”. Not much nuance there.

This is because on the numbers, everyone has an opinion that can be vividly supported by anecdotes and facts.

So, what are the numbers looking like? Thanks to some probing questions by Senator Sam Dastyari at the February Senate Estimates, we can piece together a couple of important trends.

In 2010, the third Intergenerational Report (IGR3) said Australia was on track for a population of 36m by 2050. 36m is a forecast, a number plucked from the middle of a range (28m-44m).  This range depends on how many people arrive and depart in Australia and how many births occur.

36m was the best guess at the time which combines medium migration with medium fertility. It’s also called Scenario B by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Four years later, these forecasts have shifted. Scenario B is now estimated at 37.6m, a 4.4 per cent increase from IGR3.

This shift is nearly all from the change in migration trends. The ABS says net migration has a 10-year average of 195,000 while a five-year average of 234,000.

Migrants are now making the biggest contribution to our population than at any point in the 20th century. This means past trends like the 10-year average are now below even the lowest level of migration forecast used by the ABS (Scenario C uses a forecast of 200,000 – the lowest migration scenario). If I were a statistician at the ABS, this unlikely situation would be giving me pause (and probably some level of discomfort when it comes to answering questions from politicians).

To Andrew Leigh’s point, who are these people? According to the ABS, in the last five years have seen students (~30%), permanent skilled migrants and their families (15%), New Zealand citizens (14%) and permanent family migrants (13%). Please note the lack of asylum seekers. From a policy perspective, indeed from an economic and social perspective, this is the key question.

But we don’t like that question. Coverage and discussion of population is akin to a heart-rate monitor. Nothing happens… an explosion of activity… nothing happens.

Take the recent debate about university funding stemming from the Budget. I saw very little analysis about international students. This is despite international students making up 30 per cent of the increase in population by migration over the last five years. When talking about the ‘who’ in immigration policy, this is the perfect example. Do we want more international students in Australia? Do more international students want to come to Australia? Is it good for universities? Is it good for students? What impact does it have on other immigration policies? There are many unanswered questions.

At the bottom of his op-ed in the Tele, Leigh writes: “If we want to have a healthy migration debate, then ensuring that our migrant mix reflects our national values and priorities matters more than fretting about the next set of demographic projections”.

We could do this by talking about these values and priorities regularly, such as international students in the context of higher education policy. But we don’t.

IGR4 is due sometime in the near future and with it a new number to shout about for a small amount of time. The best guess for 2050 is 38m. If you want a preview of this coming debate, just google “2010 population debate”.

The world according to Mahmoud

“My brother from another mother, how are you?”

He loves to talk. A young man with dark summer skin lurches a hand towards me.

I find it difficult to brush off people, a required skill for most tourist destinations. Ten seconds of chit-chat and he wishes me well on my adventures, sensing my discomfort.

Recognised the next day, he approaches again.

“My brother from another mother! How are you today?”

He exudes warmth. A massive smile plastered across his face. I say I’m having a great day.

“I’m Mahmoud.”

His English is near flawless. He tries to sell me a tour. Proud of myself, I decline his perfected pitch.

Far from disappointed at another rejection, he asks if I know this building. Did I know it was built over 1000 years ago?

He offers I must visit the Palace, “it has over 50 rooms!” he says, amazed that such a building can exist.

This precocious young man is more than your standard street hawker. Quasi-ambassador would be a more suitable title.

His boss spots him. He lingers slightly and then departs, with a firm handshake and warm laughter.

I pass by Mahmoud multiple times. My hostel is less than 500m from the tram stop, a space that is his office. He patrols the pathway, knows the stones inside out. He sees the route people take before they have decided themselves.

By day four, I have decided to take Mahmoud’s tour. Smiles, winks and handshakes have worn me down over the past three days. I feel like I am the one making the decision to purchase the ticket but thinking about this later, this is far from the truth.

I buy the ticket. It is $10 more than the alternative. He promises the experience is better. He tells me how to get the good seats even though I have the cheapest ticket.

Selling a ticket is an opportunity. An excuse to sit and talk without being moved on by the unflinching stare of his boss.

In less than five minutes, I learn much about this person, his thoughts of the city he lives in now and how the world works.

He is Kurdish. His family is from Syria. He came here en route to Germany and has stayed. At first he travelled around but now works to support himself.

“My pay is good. My boss is good to me. I get holidays. But I don’t have any insurance because I have no papers.”

This simple fact prevents his next step.

“I don’t have any documents. I want to go to Germany, where I have family.”

He speaks of the opportunity to work in a rich country, earn a living.

“You don’t need any help from the government. You don’t need papers. My community will support me.”

Why not stay in here?

“You only need to go 10 minutes that way. You see over 75 per cent of this city is poor.”

Seamlessly he moves onto world affairs.

“The Prime Minister, he is smart. I don’t like him, but he is clever.”

He pivots slightly.

“The events in last year, they happened because also of Islamic rebels. They are making things hard for everyone.”

I don’t say anything and he expresses his thoughts about radical Islam.

“What they (ISIS) are doing, this is not Islam. Murdering, killing people. How can they say this is Islam? I hate them.”

“If I met one, I would slap him to death with my hands”, gesturing just how intense this slapping would be.

Mahmoud cannot contain himself to one topic.

“Do you know where the fighting started in Syria?”

“Aleppo?”, I offer incorrectly.

“Hah! We call them the pussies of Syria because they joined in the fighting last. The fight started with the Kurds. My friend (points to another young man), he is from the town where it all started!”

He is proud of this. But talk of Bashar al-Assad draws a seething response.

“He could have just left. Gone somewhere else and everything would be better. But he stayed and now nothing will be good for 50 years.”

He also laments. “Now they (Aleppo) fight and we don’t.”

Pointing out his friend has awakened a dormant thought.

“My friend, he knows 12 languages. I only know four. He is teaching me Spanish. But I watch too much TV. Not enough study. I’m watching the New Ellen show. Have you seen it?”

I don’t have the opportunity to say anything before he springs up. His boss has seen him.

“My boss, he says I talk too much! I have to go. Enjoy your tour.”

The best part was already over.


I’m travelling for awhile over June and July so this blog is on a break from day-to-day posting about immigration topics.

I’m undecided at this point, but I might post some ad-hoc writing on a Medium account during this period.

Some additional thoughts on asylum policy

I had some highly critical feedback on my blog post from Tuesday. I’d like to outline some additional thoughts, relying on inference and ‘gut-feels’, something the asylum policy debate in Australia seems to be founded on.

I think most people would agree the current status quo is unacceptable, if (and this is important) they are aware of what is occurring. The death of Reza Berati is one example. The new (leaked) report from Nauru is another we learn 190 children currently being detained, who do not have access to basic health procedures and are not assessed by qualified paediatricians. I think this belief of the merits of the status quo also hold true for a not insignificant number of politicians (however for a range of reasons we mostly do not hear about this, with some obvious exceptions).

When the Howard government decided to remove children from detention centres in Australia in the mid-2000s, it was a popular decision. This was not always the case. Public opinion changed over time as government MPs, refugee advocates and activists increasingly publicised this as a policy stance that was unacceptable. Knowledge about the impact detention had on children, as well as an appeal to morality, slowly embedded itself within broader public opinion.

I believe this is a good historical example for the present and that current events are undermining public support for some tenets of current asylum policy. These elements of policy are becoming more unacceptable to an increasing number of people in Australia. I’m unsure as to what proportion but I would hazard a guess it would increase with government voices speaking out about their concerns.

However, being critical of a specific part about offshore processing does not mean one cannot support the concept. Just as children in mandatory detention lost support, support for mandatory detention remained.* Further, supporting parts of the current policy approach does not mean you endorse the whole framework. If the basis for the public discussion about asylum policy becomes whether you are simply for or against Nauru and Manus “as-is”, we are poorer for it.

For instance. It is increasingly clear the capacity to deal with asylum seeker processing is too limited in its current form at Manus Island under the PNG government. This may also be true of Nauru under current conditions. If I hold this opinion, I’m not automatically against offshore processing. If I support the Malaysia solution, this does not force me to also support every instance of burden-sharing. The EU Dublin agreement has obvious flaws which undermine cooperation over time. Support (or opposition) with caveats and limitations is important for finding common ground and moving away from where we are.

Further, supporting a regional framework does not limit other policy prescriptions. I would like to see a humanitarian program of 40,000 or more refugees, increasing over time. I would like to see a structured program of foreign assistance integrated into our aid program, fostering contemporary practice on the treatment of asylum seekers within our region such as promoting work rights and access to basic health care. I would like to see Australia leading the movement to increase resettlement in a sustainable manner, not simply to solve a problem before an election. I also believe no onshore resettlement for all asylum seekers into the future is simply unsustainable as a policy option over the long-term.

I’m currently living in Timor-Leste and I had no idea that recently the military chased away an asylum boat and prevented them from landing in Timor-Leste. What should the Australian government position be on this? Should they have one? I think a position would be easier to hold if a regional framework allowed Timor-Leste more scope in their position to act instead of simply pushing the boat away to a different (Indonesian) island. Imagine a regional framework where the Timor-Leste military and government know Australia will support their effort to deal with asylum seekers instead of the current status quo where very little help is afforded outside of international organisations (who are not in a position to assist outside of very basic assistance).

I would like to see as many people assisted as possible, while also ensuring the public are supportive of key government policies. I also want any possibility of an anti-immigrant backlash heavily mitigated. These are necessary in our liberal democratic system of government.

None of these the policy options discussed above are going to emerge by themselves. We are so far from the approach long advocated by opponents of the current regime – onshore processing without mandatory detention – that is appears almost too distant to imagine. For example, the last two progressive governments introduced mandatory detention (Keating) and introduced offshore resettlement (Rudd). Hoping politicians in the ALP or the Liberal party suddenly discover a different set of values is a poor method to enact change. This is why I respect commentators such as John Menadue – progressive stalwart – whose analysis is grounded in a pragmatic progressive spirit.

However it is important to note success. After many years of leaving the humanitarian program at 13,750 places, a combination of events over the past four years increased this number to 20,000 in 2012-13. An ALP victory at the previous election would have seen this increase further to 27,000. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the humanitarian program has been reduced once again to 13,750. But this example highlights how there can be change to long-held policy stances.

Opponents may (likely do) see all of this as meaningless, designed to obfuscate what is, to them, an essential truth about the human rights of an individual to seek asylum. But if the past 15 years have taught us anything in Australia, it’s that change doesn’t appear out of nowhere and ‘human rights’ are a construct of what we make them, particularly what governments make of them.

All of this said, I would be amiss to admit I am increasing uncertain about what is the right thing to do. There are so many competing factors – political leadership, policy outcomes, foreign government capacity, international relations (just to mention a few) – that uncertainty should be an overriding factor. This should not result in policy stasis but a more circumspect approach to policy-making. We are a long way from there but I remain hopeful we can improve this long-fraught policy over time.

* A discussion on mandatory detention seems out of place at the moment considering the policy combination of offshore processing and resettlement. However, mandatory detention has been proven as ineffective at preventing boat arrivals as well as inflicting cruel impacts on those detained. There is no rationale for it as a policy and any future onshore processing/resettlement should be done in conjunction with asylum seekers living in the community.

Not quite right: The Australian and 457 visa data

The Australian, on 457 visas:

EMPLOYERS have recruited 37,620 foreign managers, professionals and tradespeople this year, despite a growing pool of 191,000 unemployed Australians qualified for the same jobs.

Official data reveals that while 67,000 Australian technicians and tradies search for work, employers have brought in 10,210 foreign trade workers on 457 work visas during the first nine months of this financial year. Employers also looked offshore for 19,260 professional staff, despite a pool of 83,700 Australians unemployed.

And 8150 managers were sponsored on 457 visas, despite 40,200 Australian managers on the dole queue.

(the rest of the story is a tit-for-tat union/business stoush which I’ll sit out of this time)

To me, this reads as if 37,620 new managers, professionals and tradespeople – who happen to be foreign citizens – have arrived in Australia to work on 457 visas in the 2013-14 financial year.

I infer this because of the specific mention of “recruited” workers and how employers looked “offshore”.

But this isn’t quite right. This table shows the number of 457 visas granted to people outside of Australia:

1 Managers   3 605
2 Professionals   11 135
3 Technicians and Trades Workers   3 716
4 Community and Personal Service Workers    138
5 Clerical and Administrative Workers    229
6 Sales Workers    97
7 Machinery Operators and Drivers    175
8 Labourers    33
Not Applicable   23 425
Skilled Meat Worker    144
Not Specified <5
Offshore Total   42 699

The article claims 10,210 tradespeople were ‘brought in’ to Australia when in fact the number was 3,716.

The article claims employers ‘looked offshore’ for 19,260 professionals when in fact the number was 11,315.

The article is less certain on managers, of which 8150 were simply ‘sponsored on 457 visas’ (true), but the number recruited from offshore was 3,605.

Note the numbers in the article are all inflated to how many people total were sponsored by employers – not the figure for those recruited from offshore.

This is the corresponding result for visas granted to people already in Australia, i.e. the number recruited onshore:

1 Managers   4 542
2 Professionals   8 120
3 Technicians and Trades Workers   6 489
4 Community and Personal Service Workers    406
5 Clerical and Administrative Workers    568
6 Sales Workers    182
7 Machinery Operators and Drivers    87
8 Labourers    38
Not Applicable   12 736
Skilled Meat Worker    49
Not Specified <5
Onshore Total   33 218

As you can see, over 40 per cent of 457 visas were granted to people in Australia already.

Unfortunately we lack more precise data on these people. But I believe it is likely a majority of these people already work for their employer, probably on either an existing 457 visa, a working holiday visa or a student visa.

If this is the case, there is no ‘recruitment’ occurring. We know for certain these people did not materialise ‘offshore’.

Further, if this is the case, we can debate whether this is a good practice or not and whether these people should lose their jobs and be given to Australian’s who are currently unemployed.

But we shouldn’t debate the numbers as reported by the Department of Immigration. The report in the Australian overestimates the number of people actually entering the labour market by a large proportion. Onshore visa holders are already living and working in Australia.

These files are easily available and even in handy pivot table form on the Departmental website.

For the only national broadsheet to not put some context around them is disappointing. And we haven’t even touched on adding in some historical comparisons to understand trends in either unemployment or visa grants.

I cannot imagine a similar standard of reporting concerning economic growth or unemployment statistics.


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