Since Tampa, the community refugee movement has leaned heavily on public protest as their preferred form of advocacy. The results speak for themselves. This broad, disparate group of people and organisations have failed to influence government policy or shift public opinion.
The future may be slightly different thanks to a different campaign being waged.
This week, the Biennale of Sydney, “Australia’s largest and most exciting contemporary visual arts festival”, found itself without a chairman of the board. In addition, the Biennale organisation withdrew from a sponsorship arrangement with Transfield, a company with strong links to Transfield Services.
This occurred because Transfield Services was recently awarded a $1.22bn contract to run Australia’s offshore detention centres in PNG and Nauru. The combination of such a contract being awarded and the timing of the Biennale, sparked a backlash from artists and refugee advocacy groups, particularly RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees). Multiple artists withdrew from the festival and within four weeks, the link between the festival and Transfield were broken completely.
At first, I was highly skeptical of such a campaign. Transfield is a major sponsor of the arts in Australia and I found it hard to link their participation in this with something such as operating offshore detention centres. Further, many in the arts industry would lean progressive, meaning a campaign was unlikely to change opinion of those people participating.
I was wrong. This is one of the most positive campaigns run by community refugee advocates in recent history. It was practical and not overtly aggressive. It was targeted. It achieved its goal and has increased public knowledge through media reporting about the Transfield Services contract. Further, the campaign successfully fused online activism with offline action, such as artist meetings and conversation groups. This was not just another change.org petition.
This points to the success of carving out discrete goals instead of pithy, anti-establishment calls to end mandatory detention and offshore processing. The key for this movement will be to use this initial success and turn it into something bigger, generating momentum which can change policy and public opinion over the long-term. Asylum policy will not change in the short-term. But this is a sign small victories can be effective in creating an environment more conducive to long-term change.
Perhaps the most significant of future options is divestment. Typically divestment is difficult given the cross over between progressive activism and corporatism is slim. Yet Australia has a major point of difference to most countries in terms of corporate investment. Superannuation means a large majority of voters each hold very small stakes in large firms, like Transfield Services.
When you combine this with established industry super funds and union-dominated boards, there appears to be a direct link for how a possible divestment movement would operate within a framework to change asylum policy. This is not an easy route to take for refugee advocates. However the consequences of a well-run divestment campaign could far-reaching. Shareholder activism speaks because money speaks.
Let me be clear. I don’t support most of the goals outlined by this movement. Yet, it is pleasing to see a more concrete opposition to current policies based on achievable campaigns. A more informed, better run community advocacy campaign on asylum policy in Australia will force better political and policy outcomes. When governments and businesses operate in a vacuum, the most favourable policy options can be overlooked for those which are easiest to implement.
Arguably, the PNG policy shows some of this in the sense it was only a sketch when announced and the details behind the policy are still being put into place. Again, I agree with offshore processing but the manner in which the PNG policy has been implemented is clearly sub-optimal. There are serious questions about the management of the detention centre.
A refugee movement build on firmer foundations than endless rallies is a good thing for asylum policy in Australia.
For more information on this campaign, see the website xBorder Operational Matters.
Arnold Kling has a great short ebook called The Three Language of Politics. In this podcast, he outlines how language can frame politics and specific political positions on issues. Here he is discussing the U.S. immigration debate:
A progressive might think of the people who have crossed the border from Latin America as an oppressed group, and native white Americans who are hostile to the immigrants as oppressors. And so they would be favoring allowing these immigrants to come in.
For conservatives, I think that having a border, and a well-defined border, and a well-defined population is part of civilized values. They would worry that if you allow immigration that you might undermine that, and they would feel very strongly that people who have crossed the border illegally have, by definition, carried out an illegal act and therefore certainly ought not to be rewarded for it and perhaps ought to be punished for it.
Most importantly, Kling outlines this does not explain why people hold their opinions but how they will “be most comfortable expressing their points of view”.
Basically we talk past each other in this debate.
It struck me there are many parallels with the Australian asylum debate. Generally opponents of a policy such as offshore processing will see asylum seekers as being oppressed by the Australian government, the embodiment of Australian public opinion.
However supporters of offshore processing don’t think of themselves of being oppressors. Indeed, the exact opposite. The are upholding a different set of values, seeking to preserve the status quo via border management. “Illegal” behaviour cannot be rewarded.
You can see this difference in the language refugee advocates and government ministers use all too readily. This isn’t a conversation. The Greens and the Government will continue to talk past each other, each appealing to separate blocs of public opinion.
For a political party such as the ALP, with a combination of both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ world views, this means internal mechanisms need to be developed to work and recognise these differences. I see no meaningful progress on this which means the tension internal to the ALP on this issue will persist. The progressives (Anna Burke and Melissa Parke have both recently spoken out) will not persuade the conservatives, who in turn are unlikely to persuade the progressives.
This is one of the most difficult policy environments to work through. Different world views are likely at the very heart of this. Appeals to reason and justice for one person are completely different to another. But this does not mean we shouldn’t try. Finding a small amount of common ground could help lead to a more fruitful policy framework. For example, progressives may agree not every single person is being oppressed and conservatives may agree some punishments are unnecessary and unduly harsh. Even this won’t happen quickly, but is much more likely to succeed than big pushes for radical reform.
The rest of Kling’s podcast is excellent, as is his book which outlines the same topic. We have much to learn from each other but we need to be able to understand each other first. This would help to reduce the moral smugness of both sides as well as much of the ‘intolerance and incivility’ which wracks this public policy debate.
(Note: It is called the ‘three languages’ because he also discusses libertarianism however this does not play a meaningful role in Australian asylum policy so I left it out)
The Significant Investor Visa (SIV) was introduced recently by the Gillard government. Wealthy people who live overseas can apply for an Australian visa if they are willing to part with $5m for a specified period of time. After four years, this temporary visa can lead to permanent residency. They also have access to the money at a future date – it’s an investment, not a fee.
Since its introduction, significant investors have been few and far between. Less than 100 visas have been granted while over 900 are pending according to this take in the Australian yesterday (H/T Peter Mares). While the trend is improving (less than 20 were granted under the ALP governments) I’ve heard and read various calls from immigration specialists and lawyers to speed up immigration processing and tweak the regulation to encourage a more efficient process. One feels there is a fair amount of self-interest in this as I imagine the fees are hefty.
Should Australia operate a visa program such as this one and, if yes, what should it look like? These are valid questions to ask at the moment given Assistant Immigration Minister Cash has indicated the government is seeking to “reboot the program”.
$5m is a lot of money for most people. But not everyone. This piece from the SMH outlines how Canada have moved to shut down it’s equivalent visa program due in part to fraud and corruption allegations (as well as claims the benefits of the program do not justify its existence). Over 45,000 visa applications from Chinese citizens were cancelled in the process. Australia is marketing this visa directly to Chinese citizens at the expense of other countries where the the wealthy are less numerous.
The major issue in any of these ‘cash for visa’ programs, regardless of country of origin, is how people have earned or found the required money. I bet the AFP, Customs and intelligence agencies were none too pleased when the government introduced this visa. Substantial delays are likely given the extensive checks which presumably occur to ensure the validity of the money being transferred. I have no idea how to solve this problem. I imagine it is difficult to verify where money originates from and account for any discrepancies between visa applicants and other sources. If we accept this type of visa program is a positive, there will be issues with visa processing and efficiency which may be inevitable.
There is also an ethical question about these visas. Should we preference people just because they have cash? Personally, I don’t see a major problem as long as the places set aside are relatively small proportionate to the overall number of immigration Australia accepts. Others will disagree however I think its good policy to have a wide variety of avenues to attract people to Australia. The benefits of diversity – including diversity of income – are large. Therefore I see scope in Australia’s immigration framework for a limited number of these visas.
That said, there is an overriding theme of current policy. It is overly conservative, with a very large opportunity cost. This is in relation to the method of investment and the total dollar amount required for the visa.
Currently, visa applicants can invest their $5m in a range of products, including government bonds, managed funds and direct company investment. The problem is that investment in Australian government bonds is extremely safe relative to other forms of investment. If the main purpose of the visa application is simply to acquire Australian residency (which it is), why would you also risk the $5m investment in the form of less certain investments such as direct company investment, infrastructure or real estate? As Peter Cai raises here, Australian governments have access to cheap market loans due to their AAA or AA+ ratings and don’t really require relatively small $5m investments to be made by rich visa applicants. Even 1000 of these visas is the equivalent of $5bn. Sounds like a lot? The value of current Commonwealth Treasury bonds is currently over $260bn.
This presumably withdraws the incentive for visa applicants to invest in things such as start-ups, provide direct investment for jobs in existing businesses or even in infrastructure works. This is not to say investment in government bonds is bad – it isn’t – but that it is likely there would be similar demand for these visas in more risky investments. That is, the marginal benefit for Australian governments from these investments could be substantially higher.
This is because permanent residency is the real goal of these programs, not a safe return on capital. Further, it doesn’t matter if the Minister introduces a bevy of new investment choices, as she did last November, if the safest choices remain on the table. This is why the program as currently stands is inherently conservative and prevents true financial investment innovation.
One way to introduce both more dollar value per visa and induce more risky investment would be to establish streams of investment; infrastructure, government bonds, real estate, direct company investment etc. Then, instead of setting a standard price of $5m per visa, auction visas allocated to each stream. This would attract the market value and the greatest possible return on the allocated number of visas. Visa auctions are not a new concept and have recently been recommended by the British Migration Advisory Committee. However there is no current system in the world I am aware of that currently does this.
This would be a real innovation for Australian immigration while supporting a more varied investment environment. It would capture the fullest amount of possible gains for each visa. Further, by splitting the investment decisions into discrete categories, different types of capital investment would flow into Australia instead of simply sitting in state government bonds, unnecessarily replacing other markets.
Perhaps most daring, the government could introduce a category which wasn’t an investment but purely an auctioned visa, with the proceeds going into government revenue or replacing other visa fees; for instance family visas for humanitarian migrants.
This wouldn’t be easy to implement at first. However it is not impossible. An auction could occur, with winners being invited to apply. A similar process happens at the moment for skilled visas, but instead of money, points are attributed to qualifications and experience. The more points you get, the higher priority you are granted for your visa. Because this would be such a specialised service, the department could justify a select tender process and invite proven auction providers to provide the auction system. I’m looking at you Google.
Again, some might considered auctions unethical. However given we already sell visas for a set $5m price, I don’t understand why this would be any better or worse. I believe it is important to keep the total amount of places under this program limited to 1-5 per cent of the total visa program – something currently occurring. There is the remote but not insignificant chance that governments would steadily increase the number of auctioned visas to increase general government revenue. This would need to be watched carefully.
There is no question the changes introduced by the Gillard government were a step in the right direction. However instead of this inherently conservative program which delivers a very moderate benefit, the Abbott government could transform this visa policy into something truly innovative and world-leading, better achieving the stated aims of the program.
Last year I wrote about the New Zealand citizens living in Australia, many of whom are stuck without access to permanent residency and without welfare rights.
At December 2013, there were 625,000 New Zealand citizens in Australia. This includes tourists and visitors. The number of people living in Australia is generally thought to be about 80%, meaning 500,000 residents.
Importantly, these people are split into two categories. New Zealand citizens living in Australia prior to February 2001 have are “protected”, those arriving after this date are “unprotected”. All of these people have the same visa conditions; full work rights and no time limit on residency.
The differences come from eligibility for government support. Protected citizens are generally provided the same government support as Australian citizens. The unprotected category are restricted from a range of services including:
- Unemployment benefits
- Single parent benefits
- Youth allowance
- Student loans (HECS, HELP)
This has been a fairly stable policy area since the 2001 changes. New welfare or support provisions have been provided to pre-2001 citizens while post-2001 citizens have been excluded, with the NDIS being the most prominent recent example (despite post-2001 arrivals being required to pay the income levy for the NDIS…).
Unfortunately this distinction may be changing.
A new bill - Social Security Legislation Amendment (Increased Employment Participation) Bill 2014 - introduced to the House of Representatives on February 27, specifically excludes pre-2001 arrivals from new welfare incentive payments linked to labour mobility. The Explanatory Memorandum reads:
“The Bill provides that a person must be an Australian resident throughout the period of work on which they rely to claim the Job Commitment Bonus. The Bill provides that, for this purpose, Australian resident has its usual meaning in the social security law (i.e. a person who resides in Australia and who is an Australian citizen, the holder of a permanent visa, or the holder of a protected special category visa (SCV)), except that the Bill would exclude protected SCV holders from being eligible for the Job Commitment Bonus.”
Specific exclusion of protected New Zealand citizens from new forms of government support is the first time this has occurred (to my knowledge).
An advocacy organisation for New Zealand citizens living in Australia – OzKiwi – had this to say on the proposal:
“This bill may relate to only one government programme, but it sets a very dangerous precedent. The Federal Government is effectively claiming that ‘protected’ status is not absolute and no longer equivalent to holding a permanent visa – it can diminish the rights of pre-2001 Kiwis however and whenever it wishes. It is using its poor treatment of post-2001 arrivals to justify stripping rights from pre-2001 arrivals in the name of equality.”
There is no official figure on the number of protected and unprotected New Zealand citizens. A broadly used guestimate is 300,000 protected and 200,000 unprotected.
That is 200,000 people living and working in Australia, in some cases for up to 13 years, without the prospect of permanent residency or government support when needed. While there are many other temporary visa holders (students, 457 visas etc), the vast majority have a pathway to a permanent residency.
Unfortunately this policy issue will not simply disappear for governments. The detrimental effect on Australian society is compounded every year these welfare restrictions are enforced. High school graduates unable to go to university, holding back labour force productivity. Unemployed people without income support, forcing impossible decisions on food and rent. Non-English speaking pacific island New Zealand citizens unable to access English classes, entrenching disadvantage and sowing the seeds of future social discord.
Now we see the winding back of eligibility. This latest bill removes protected status for a new form of support, potentially impacting a group of up to 300,000 people who were previously assured of their place in Australian society. This likely sets a precedent for future eligibility requirements and threatens, in a period of budget uncertainty, to unwind previously provided support.
This is not the type of policy most Australians would imagine when thinking about immigration. Diversity, multiculturalism and a country transformed from 1900 is the very best our country has to offer.
This penny pinching language from the Abbott government, excluding long-term residents from the rights and support the rest of us enjoy, has no place in Australia. Over the long-term, as the number of people from New Zealand living in Australia continues to grow, a future government will be forced to address these issues. Until then, a tiered support system where exclusion becomes more common is the new norm.
[Edit: The bill in question has not been debated yet in the Parliament. Therefore any opponents of measures and exclusions like those outlined above should get in touch with MPs and Senators. This is especially true for Senators from the ALP and the Greens, and Independents such as Nick Xenophon (SA) and John Madigan (VIC), as the government do not hold a majority to pass legislation. You can contact Senators through this link - http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/find-a-senate-member-by-a-z.htm]
I’ve been interviewing a range of public figures about immigration, population and multiculturalism, amongst other topics. As its impossible to squeeze everything said into published articles, I’m posting bits and pieces here which I found interesting. Previous outtakes come from Andrew Leigh and Sam Dastyari.
Below is from Tim Watts, the member for Gellibrand. We touched on the ideology debate within the ALP around communitarianism, social liberalism and a ‘progressive consensus’ approach:
The consensus driven progressive space is a much better fit for multiculturalism than social liberalism. George Megalogenis has reduced this approach to ‘markets and multiculturalism’ (referring to social liberalism). But multiculturalism doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of work and takes a lot of work by governments. When someone arrives in this country, to become a full participant in society as a citizen, we need to invest in them.
Language skills for economic participation provide a sense of dignity, a contribution to the nation. We need to invest in broader citizenship skills, as this is what it means to be a member of a democracy and contribute to your country. We also need to invest in the broader community and say ‘this is diversity in this country’ and make sure everyone is treated the same by the state and within society on an equal basis.
This are good conversations to have as I think they blur some of the lines between ideological purity of different parts of the ALP. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the ALP who disagreed on the notion of provision of support to migrants. Government funding for social capital has been mentioned by every ALP politician I have interviewed. However the magnitude of this support would vary across the party. Also, importantly, this financial investment by governments is one of the main constraints around a growing population, something easily overlooked in debates about immigration.
Watts was impassioned on this topic. He has clearly thought substantially about immigration and multiculturalism and spoke lucidly throughout our interview. His refrain “Multiculturalism doesn’t just happen” is an excellent reminder about the very stark difference between supporting multiculturalism and investing in it, a lesson already being received loud and clear after the Abbott government withdrew the funding for the ‘Building Multicultural Communities’ program. Here is the election costing for the program, total: $14.5m.
So the headline screams.
Bianca Hall is one of the best journalists on asylum and immigration matters in Australia. However this story stinks.
First, exclusive? The information about this comes from a question put to the immigration department in November and answered on the 18th of February this year. See here. This is not an exclusive, whatever that means. It is publicly available information, available for a full two weeks before the story was published. The tag exclusive probably has nothing to do with Bianca Hall but goes to the growing distaste at dressing up routine information.
Moving onto more serious matters, the headline is completely incorrect. Again, this is unlikely the authors domain. Her story leads with “the Immigration Department employs…”, correctly stating where the 66 staff members come from as opposed to the headline which is incorrect. Let me state is clearly: Scott Morrison does not have 66 spin doctors. This doesn’t sound quite so snappy in other circumstances, ”MORRISON HAS 900 POLICY WONKS”. Nope, not quite.
Away from editorial decisions and into the article itself, Hall compares the 66 communication staff in the department to the 39 Ministerial communication staff who work for the government. The 66 DIPB staff are public servants, the 39 Ministerial staff are political advisers. There is a strong difference and conflating these people does not add to the reader’s understanding of how the world of politics and the public service operates. This is another tiny example of how the major newspapers, television and radio do not contribute to a more informed knowledge about how Canberra actually works but reaffirm an image far from reality. One Ministerial staffer often has more power than all but the most senior public servants, especially in communications (as opposed to policy and operational areas).
Further, the story conflates Morrison’s refusal to provide information with the staff who work at the Immigration department. These two things are completely separate. The government has made a decision not to provide information on matters. This doesn’t concern any departmental staff.
The counter argument is why are 66 staff members required when the Minister doesn’t release any information? The answer is that these 66 people are not all banging out press releases for the government.
Hall notes that in 2011, the department had 11 ‘spin doctors’. However in 2011 communication unit was substantially larger than 11 people. From what I remember, there were three general areas; Media, Internal and Production. While it is true the media team did a lot of government related communication (press releases, liaison etc) the other two areas worked predominantly on internal matters. They occupied about a quarter of a floor. These are some of the work functions: the production of the annual report, shooting film clips for the department’s youtube channel, proofing internet content and blog posts (much to my chagrin), communication strategy for client interaction and public campaigns etc etc etc.
These people are not sitting around waiting to provide advice to Minister Morrison or members of the media. They are going about pretty standard work involving communication material. It might be filming an infomercial or updating fact sheets.
I am not denying that there is a legitimate debate about what the appropriate number of staff is for communication staff in the public service. But this isn’t the argument being pursued. For my 2 cents on the former, 66 sounds high although I would be wary of any comparison to 2011 given how titles change, staff are reclassified in roles and departmental restructures occur almost biannually. I always thought there were too many people in the communications area however it is easy to understand why a department like Immigration is extremely wary after the past 15 years of policy in this country.
Further, I believe whatever the actual number of staff had been, the response would have been the same. “12 Spin Doctors!”, “27 Spin Doctors!!”. The number doesn’t matter in this narrative.
What we shouldn’t do is reinforce the message that the Immigration department is an agent of innate secrecy. For the entire six years of the ALP governments, the Immigration Department worked for the government and provided a broad level of access for the media in the form of press releases and access to officials. Now the government has changed, protocol has changed. Some may not like this but the pivotal point is the government.
My opinion is that beating up the Immigration Department via nefarious claims of ‘spin doctors’ only adds stink to the ongoing asylum debate.
Again, Hall is an excellent journalist. But this article is completely bogus. There is always more than meets the eye to these stories, and that includes within the newsroom.
The Australian Electoral Survey is excellent. Ian McAllister and Sarah Cameron have recently authored a report on political opinion trends from 1987 to 2013 using electoral survey data.
Here are a few graphs highlighting public opinion on immigration and asylum matters within that time period. They tell an interesting story of both relative stability and change in opinion.
The first table is ‘which party best represents your view on immigration’ and the others are self-explanatory:
From the author’s website:
“Interpreting political opinion polls is sometimes difficult. On particular issues or with regard to particular personalities, opinions may change significantly in a short period of time as a result of an event or a changed circumstance. Small changes in question wordings or in sample design may cause what appear to be significant changes in public opinion when such changes are, in fact, an artefact of the survey’s methodology. The most reliable way in which to monitor trends in public opinion is to examine responses over an extended period of time, using questions asked in the same way and included in surveys that use the same methodology.”