An appetite for risk: Migration, industry and DIBP

Last week I attended the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s 2015 “Industry Summit”. This event combined a large number of departmental officials with representatives from large businesses, industry groups, migration agents, other bureaucrats and a mixture of interested people. I was pleased to attend and got a fair bit out of the sessions on migration (particularly Bob Gregory’s presentation on migration, the labour force and growth).

I didn’t agree with most of what I heard – particularly from the public officials – however I was impressed with the sincerity of nearly everyone to listen and discuss a range of issues in good faith. Kudos to the Department for hosting such an event and inviting a many different people to participate.

For most of the time however, something was nagging at me. There was an odd tension, particularly between the mix of industry and the Department. I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until halfway through the second day when a senior official posed this question, in a session on migration and the economy:

“What impact has DIBP’s expanded role in law enforcement and national security had on business and industry?”

I commend the official for asking such a question as it shows evidence of serious thought about how to balance competing priorities and interests. From my perspective, it also neatly captured what has become the dominant feature of how migration policy gets made in Australia today.

The discussion that followed clearly demonstrated the massive implications of law enforcement and national security on migration. Despite evidence of consideration, these issues have not been adequately addressed and will hurt migration policy over the medium- and long-term.

While the following would be disputed by many departmental officials, there is an inherent paradox between law enforcement and national security and what businesses and the economy require from migration. In national security policy and program management, a public expectation of zero-tolerance has been created. Whether this is right or wrong is almost irrelevant at this stage. The public service and political system responds to this expectation with ever increasing attention, meaning risk is minimised everywhere, regardless of the outcome or cost. Boats, citizenship, metadata. You name it, the same story plays out.

This is best summed up by a story in Ron Suskind’s fabulous book, “The One Percent Doctrine“:

Dick Cheney: “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response.”

I don’t pretend to have intimate knowledge of what goes on inside national security organisations nor am I comparing al-Qaeda’s attempts to procure nuclear weapons to Australian immigration. Instead I’m highlighting a mindset about national security, one which many people would agree with and support.

Yet this mindset has a massive impact on how business and industry engage on questions of migration. Businesses succeed because they take risks. They innovate by taking a punt on something new. Good business accept failure that is proportional to the pay-off. This explains the churn of failed businesses and the success stories – Facebook, Google, Uber – that litter the collective conversation about innovation.

At the 2015 Industry Summit, one group was enmeshed in a zero-tolerance environment while the other dominant group lives and breathes in a risk-fueled environment.

In the presentation, the senior departmental official used the terms “too risky” and “failure is a significant thing” in response to pertinent questions from industry representatives. This perfectly summed up what I had seen over the previous day and half. The appetite for risk due to the focus on national security and border protection, combined with the history of detention centres and asylum policy, is understandably close to zero in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

But at a conference where the primary purpose to was engage with industry and ‘collaborate’ on ‘innovative new thinking’, this was a serious gap in terms of common interests between the bureaucracy and industry.

National security and law enforcement is significantly different for immigration compared to when applied in the traditional domain of Customs: goods and services moving across borders due to trade between countries and businesses. Goods and services are not irrational creatures with personalities. Just as labour markets are not governed by the same rules and conventions around markets for goods and services, immigration and customs are distinct fields. The approach to goods and services in a law enforcement perspective can be rather black and white. There are objective criteria and feelings don’t get hurt.

When this same black and white approach is applied to migration because of national security and law enforcement priorities, the impact on industry is substantial. I’ve heard exactly the same story from over 20 people representing different clients and businesses in the last month:

  • The Department rejected our visa application(s).
  • I don’t know why, as very similar previous applications were approved without question.
  • Now I cannot contact anyone to discuss this and I don’t know what to do.

One industry representative mentioned how they had lodged 5 applications that were exactly the same, with 3 approved and 2 rejected. You can draw a direct line from national security and law enforcement priorities to the impact on businesses and industry in terms of immigration and this is part of that discussion.

There is obviously much at play here. The session and discussion helped clarify for me at least where some of the contention comes from and why the environment for immigration policy and program management is so different today compared to say three years ago.

This also points to different agendas. For industry, there should be more opposition to the drift towards zero-risk tolerance in migration. Should 99 businesses and migrants suffer the consequences of one business or person defined as risky by ever-shifting eligibility criteria? In an environment where 7m people criss-cross our borders each year, what appetite for risk should there be? These questions are difficult and likely have multiple answers. Yet it is critical to question and seek to understand why these trends are occurring and whether the outcome is positive.

A test of character

Imagine being deported to a country where you knew no-one. Where you had no connections. Where the moment you land, you feel like an intruder.

Ian Wightman is a 51 year old man who has lived in Australia for 50 years. Yet he is not an Australian citizen and after spending 15 months in jail, he is now being detained and likely to be deported to the United Kingdom.

Five decades in Australia including time spent in the Australian reserve forces count for naught. Locked up on Christmas Island, it’s impossible to understand what Wightman is thinking.

If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was fiction. However fiction doesn’t repeat itself.

Take Ko Rutene. A New Zealand man living in Australia who has committed no crime. A decorated war hero who served in Afghanistan and was part of John Key’s personal protection. Rutene’s visa has been cancelled as he was a member of a motorcycle club. He is being detained in a high security prison.

This scares the shit out of me. With over 27 per cent of Australia’s population born overseas, including 1.6m people on temporary visas at any point in time, recent legislative change has created a nightmare scenario where long-term Australian residents are subject to disproportionate, draconian police-state powers.

In October 2014, amendments to the Migration Act introduced mandatory visa cancellation for non-citizens who had spent 12 months or more in jail. Under Section 501 of the Act, applicants visas are cancelled and then as they do not hold a valid visa, subject to mandatory detention. There are no exemptions and the only avenue is one opportunity for the Immigration Minister to overturn the decision. This process is not reviewable, there are no second chances.

This is a black and white approach to a very murky area. While there are undoubted convicted criminals who many would support the detention and deportation of, there are also those mixed up in the arbitrary nature of these laws. There are those, like Ian Wightman, who have a lifetime connection to Australia and amongst the strongest moral claims to remain. Spending 98 per cent of your life in a country – regardless of the crime you commit – creates bonds that should be more difficult to break. There are those, like Ko Rutene, whose life has been upended without due process.

In today’s Fairfax papers, the New Zealand Interior Minister called this a ‘frontier approach to justice‘. It is hard to find fault with this assessment. We have created a system without discretion where these individual stories will continue to arise. Migration and residency are not black and white but subject to temporal and social norms and experiences. People – particularly migrants – do not live homogenous lives where the law can easily define right from wrong. This is why there are entire sections of migration law which rest heavily on discretion. This is why there are multiple institutions dedicated to due process and appeal.

Today this seems almost foreign. With visa cancellations from character grounds up over 500 per cent in the past 12 months, it is time to question why these changes occurred in the first place and walk them back. Reading the google alerts I set myself each morning has become more than a chore it once was. There is a sense of despair. While there may be larger issues going on in the world of migration right now, if we cannot get this basic stuff right, what hope is there for genuinely difficult questions?

I had no idea these laws were being passed last year and I should have paid closer attention. For this I apologise. Even a little bit more attention shined at the time may have led to a different outcome. Perhaps naively, I like to think those who did consider them did not expect these outcomes and the opportunity exists to redress such unfair treatment of people who have given so much to Australian life.

International student trends and what comes next

I had hoped the exploitation uncovered by the ABC and Fairfax at 7/11 would have changed the big picture coverage about international students. My hope was misplaced.

This week the Department of Immigration and Border Protection released the June 2015 statistics for international students. There were a couple of very interesting trends, mainly:

  • Growth in the total number of student visa applications continues to grow. In June 2015, there were about 374,000 international students in Australia which is +10% on the June 2014 figure. On these trends, 2016 will see the largest number of international students in Australia ever, besting the spike of 2008-09.
  • Growth in post-study work student visas is way below expectation. The Gillard government created two standardised post-study work pathways yet something is amiss as they are not proving very popular. Either more people are choosing to leave Australia or more students than ever are getting permanent visas immediately after graduating. Whatever the case, this is a space to watch as universities pushed really hard for the introduction of post-study work visas as a competitive edge over other countries.
  • People who used to hold student visas are moving onto other substantive visas in increasing numbers. The next visa for former international students included:
    • Working Holiday makers: 2,899 (+5.7%)
    • 457 visas: 14,707 (-7.2%)
    • Post-study work visas: 21,259 (+3.7%)
    • Student visas: 28,577 (+7.3%)
    • Permanent points-test visas: 5,328 (+19.4%)

Australia opening up our higher education system has been one of the most productive domestic economic policy shifts over the past two decades. I also believe it is largely beneficial for the students themselves.

Yet despite the outrage generated by the 7/11 story (of which nearly every single worker would’ve been an international student), I saw very little reporting or thinking in light of these trends for the big picture of international student migration. I think it is fair to conclude more exploitation occurs than previously and with the visa application trend increasing, something more substantial is required to address underlying issues.

Instead of shouting, thinking would be promoted. Put yourself in the shoes of a 19 year old kid from East Asia (China, India, Vietnam, South Korea and Nepal make up the top 5 countries of origin). Better yet, imagine 10 kids.

Survey data says five of these students don’t want to work. At least one works in their field of study. Of the remaining four, two or three are likely working with conditions very similar to anyone else. Yet one poor bastard has applied for 10 jobs and can’t get anything.

Instead of persevering in what she now deems as an inherently racist labour market, she takes an easier option but one she is willing to accept. $10-11 per hour with 10-12 hour shifts as the norm. She needs the money. This market wage is greater than the equivalent back home. The jobs are plentiful as they are hidden from the mainstream.

Creating a policy response to this labour environment is extremely difficult. There is no special lever the government can pull. There is very little incentive to report exploitation given this will, a) leave the person without a job, and b) risk the wrath of the community students are likely deeply embedded in. Past evidence tells us intra-ethnic employer-employee relationships are amongst the most risky in the labour market for exploitative practices to thrive. But doing something about this is much harder than simply making noise.

There are decent questions worth asking. Should students be limited to 40 hours per fortnight? How would whistle-blower provisions operate in this environment? Where are possible points of contact outside of formal immigration authorities? But I don’t see much evidence of engaged debate even in the face of recent, massive revelations about widespread exploitation. Working out why students come to Australia and what they want for their future is would be a good place to start. And most importantly, this stuff cannot simply be left to backroom Senate committees. Higher education providers, the media and the business community have a much larger role to play than what we currently see.

Speech to the Migration Institute Australia: Economic impact of migration

Today I gave a speech to the annual Migration Institute of Australia conference. Below are my prepared notes however I did deviate a little bit when speaking. I used to hate public speaking but now I really enjoy it, especially with an engaged audience who are knowledgeable on the topic of discussion.

Thank you to the MIA for inviting me to speak. My name is Henry Sherrell, I work for the Migration Council Australia. Before this I worked at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

After the population ‘debate’ that occurred around the 2010 election, there was a significant chance the next Intergenerational Report would kick off a game of ‘blame the migrant’ where migration becomes the public scapegoat for every single policy failure across multiple government jurisdictions: jobs, congestion, housing, healthcare, taxation. You name it.

The implication behind this public sentiment is that migrants are bad for Australia. This was the reason we decided to write a report about the economic impact of migration, bringing out of the shadows some of the effects that many people take for granted.

While many in this room will be well aware how the general migration program is biased towards skills and has a positive economic effect, the notion that migrants steal jobs and bludge off social security remains potent in some sections of society.

In a recent ANUPoll this year, 29 per cent of the population agreed migrants took jobs that should go to Australian born people (a majority disagreed with this statement). Further, there are those who will seek to exploit this in periods of economic uncertainty, something more likely than not in the coming years.

The last major attempt to canvass the economic impact of migration was undertaken by the Productivity Commission in 2006. However this report as is understandable, drew on assumptions that were derived of the era – lower trend numbers and lower average skills. A decade is a long time in public policy and these trends have changed. There was a particular emphasise on permanent migration.

However before I get to our report, it is worthwhile providing a bit of context to questions on the economics of migration.

The study of the economic effects of migration has grown quickly in the last two decades. David Card kick started the trend with his study into the Mariel Boatlift.

This is a seminal event for migration analysis. This is when 125,000 Cubans left within 6 months for the US. More than half of these people settled into Miami. Looking at Census records, Card found that a 7% increase in the low skilled labour market in 6 months for Miami did not have a negative impact on existing workers. While there were changes for individual workers, on average, both wages and unemployment remained unchanged (note the equivalent figure for Sydney would be somewhere in the range of 200,000 people in a 6 month period, more than the entire net migration rate for all of Australia over 12 months).

The research has become more sophisticated in the 20 years plus years since Card published his paper. If you are not a labour economist – and I’m not – it’s nearly impossible to read these papers. But the findings have remained largely the same, regardless of what country you look at or what labour market or what type of migrants.

Common migration trends do not result in negative effects for existing workers.

Underlying so much of the research is the concept that there isn’t simply a fixed number of jobs in an economy. Migration is not zero-sum and migration can be complementary as opposed to substitutes. A good analogy is the large increases in female labour force participation over three decades. Women did not take existing jobs that males previously worked in. In a dynamic, flexible economy, things sort themselves out over time.

If you take the migration trends from 2000 to 2013 and average them out, migration to Australia between now and 2050 will account for:

  • 7 per cent to participation rate
  • 9 per cent per capita GDP growth
  • 14 million people

On average, ten migrants will have the same economic effect of eleven existing residents.

These findings are based on modelling from Independent Economics and are the difference between what would happen with current migration trends and what would happen with basically a zero net migration rate.

I want to stress it is unlikely we will see a net zero net migration rate. However the purpose of the research was to account for the effect of migration as a whole and this comparison allows for that most effectively.

I’m going to get a little bit into the details because I think it’s important to the debate. There are a couple of key assumptions. The first is the rate of net migration and the second is the composition of the migrants.

We based the net migration rate on the trend between 2000 and 2013. It’s quite difficult to forecast net migration. Some might say it’s impossible. Our estimate contrasts to those used by the Treasury for the IGR. The IGR forecast a flat figure of 215,000 over 40 years. This figure starts off as about one per cent of our population at the start and gradually falls to 0.6 per cent by the end of the forecast.

This doesn’t look right to us. Why would net migration fall by almost half over a 40 year period? Instead, we used a forecast of 250,000 initially and transitioned to 0.85 per cent of population each year from 2030.

Of course, trends do change. But we know one thing for certain. Without a migration program, the population stagnate at about 24 million.

The model used is comprehensive. Attributes include; Labour and skills, participation, terms of trade, investment, financial wealth, natural resources, infrastructure, education productivity, R&D productivity, government expenditure.


Population in general gets a bad rap. We talk about overpopulation and sustainability almost came to mean ‘no new people’ a few years ago.

A quick glance of countries where the population is stagnating highlight the potential economic dangers. Italy and Japan are the two most common examples in this. We will soon add China to this list.

Australia is not amongst these countries. Our report projects a population of 38m in 2050, rising to 40.1m by 2055.

This does not sound like the Australia your parents grew up in. Yet it is important to note this is based on current trends. This is happening now. Infrastructure and urban planning are going to become more important, not less, in this future.

For too long, migration has been set aside by key policy areas. Instead of calling for sustainable population levels, integrating migration policy and population policy better into key priorities for state and federal governments will improve the transition for a growing Australia.


Labour participation is projected to be 15.7 per cent higher with migration than without in 2050. This means current migration trends are worth about 0.4 percentage points of labour participation each year.

This is primarily driven by two factors:

  • Migrants are younger than the average worker.
  • Migrants are more skilled than the average worker.

Again, this is based on trends and perhaps things will be very different in 2050. But on current policy, labour participation gets a big boost from migration. More directly than a population figure, participation points to how well the labour market will respond to an older society.

These effects offset some of the marginal costs of an ageing society. Migration cannot ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ an ageing population. But it can slow the rate of change and afford policy makers critical time to make adjustments.

These modelling results build on what we already know. A short paper from Mark Cully on the decade from 2000-10 showed similar findings. Increases in labour participation for that period were driven, at least in part, by the effects of policy change by previous governments.


The effect of migration on productivity is complex. While we project an overall increase in GDP per capita of 5.9 per cent by 2050, adding more people to a labour market hurts labour productivity if it is done in isolation.

This is because an economy takes time to adjust to change. Migration is no different. The model found a labour productivity decrease of 7.9 per cent because of the time it takes for capital to adjust to a larger population.

This points to a complex picture for productivity and a role for policy makers. If current trends bear out, reducing the barriers to capital adjustment for a growing labour market will enhance productivity. As a small, open economy, this is one of the most important complementary measures when running an open migration program. Speeding up the capital adjustment process will smooth the transition process as the labour market grows and underpin labour productivity.


The “Three Ps” tend to dominate these discussions. But we thought it was also important to have a look at the distributional role of migration given the increasing focus on inequality.

The distributional effects predominantly come back to a previous point. Migrants in general are more skilled than the average worker.

A skilled migration program adds labour disproportionately to the skilled labour market. This additional supply creates slightly more competition amongst skilled workers while also adding more demand for lower skilled workers. Overall this effect reduces income inequality at the macro-level.

Previous studies show the effect of migration in Australia on wage growth for low skilled workers could be as high as double the effect on high skilled workers. Our projections show a similar finding. This is a critical point often missed in the public debate.

Wrap up projections

To recap the economic effects to 2050 based on current trends against a hypothetical situation of no migration; 14 million extra people, a 15 per cent difference in labour participation, 5.9 per cent GDP per capita difference and a helpful method to mitigate income inequality.

The future

So what about the future and how might this economic contribution be enhanced? I have two quick suggestions I’d like to put forward that can better capture some of these potential gains. One relates to migration globally and the other here in Australia.

The world is becoming more mobile. Migrants make up on average about 10 per cent of OECD population. This is more than double since the end of the Cold War.

Australia is already ahead in many measures. Our diversity and social cohesion mean we can attract a unique blend of migrants. But policy makers cannot rest as global competition to attract migrants will only increase in the future.

While some advocate for a ‘world migration organisation’ akin to the WTO, I don’t think this is a viable idea for a range of reasons. But Australia can and should be doing more to formalise regional and bilateral migration links. Treaties have traditionally been the domain of security and trade policy. Yet to get the most out of future migration flows, formalised migration links will be necessary.

A great example exists, hidden in plain sight. A recent study from the ANU into the economic effects of the United States Australia Free Trade Agreement found there was little net benefit. However this ignored one critical piece of the USAFTA. As American’s already have excellent labour mobility to Australia through the 457 visa program, Australia was able to negotiate the “E3” visa. While the rest of the world has a total of 85,000 H1B visas to enter into the U.S., Australia has 20,000 to itself.

I was speaking to an Australian who works at Instagram in Washington D.C. a couple of weeks back. Their business is growing very quickly but visa restrictions means London has put on 1000 staff that they would prefer in California. As an Australian, he had no trouble with his visa. Thinking more thoughtfully about these issues will mean Australia can better integrate into a growing global marketplace.

Closer to home, there is more we can do to support new migrants to increase their contribution. Helping people to help themselves, and the economy. This is predominantly the domain of settlement support.

We know English language is the most important variable in how well an average migrant succeeds economically in Australia. With increasingly diverse flows of migrants, we need to think carefully about how this is done.

For example, the spouses of 457 visa holders are not eligible for English language support. Traditionally this is because the 457 visa is temporary in nature. But increasingly, this is an administrative description at odds with the labour market and society.

A 2012 survey of the 457 visa program showed nearly four in five non-English speaking migrants intended to stay in Australia. Spouses of these migrants are likely to become permanent migrants and future citizens.

It is common knowledge the best time for settlement support is right at the start.

If we are going to promote the ‘two-step’ migration model – coming to Australia on a temporary visa and then moving to a permanent visas – we need to also carefully assess where additional support might be required and how to best provide.

As I end, I want to acknowledge that the economic effects are just one part of Australia’s migration story. The social and cultural – not to mention humanitarian – motivations are equally strong. It is up to policy makers and governments to determine the priorities. Perhaps we have moved too far to emphasising economic narratives? Perhaps we haven’t moved far enough? These are questions that will play out over the following decades, particularly questions around low skilled migration and migration for high end services, such as health and education.

Thank you.

Should the Immigration Minister sit on the National Security Committee of Cabinet?

The Immigration Minister might not sit on the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Does this mean anything?


Forget about political payback because Dutton supported Abbott. This is a whacky theory concocted by those drunk on leadership talk. Instead give the Prime Minister the luxury assumption he is behaving because he has Australia’s best interests at heart.

Bill Shorten did not think much of this move:

I would have thought that if you’re fair dinkum about national security then you would have your representative in border security sitting regularly, permanently, on the national security committee of cabinet,” the Opposition Leader said.


I assume Peter Dutton doesn’t think much of it either.

But there are two other considerations. The first is purely practical. Is this the best use of the Minister’s time? This is the line the Prime Minister pursued on RN Drive last night defending his decision. Peter Dutton will be there when it is relevant to border protection.

But a different tack is whether Immigration should be represented on the National Security Committee?

I believe an Immigration Minister prioritising national security sends the wrong signal to the Minister and the bureaucracy. Any benefits are outweighed by playing into nationalistic stereotypes aroused by the combination of migration, security and borders. This creates terrible incentives for people who make decisions each day about what to prioritise in migration and border policy. Economic, social and cultural considerations are each pushed away from resources when security is raised.

Over Australian history, the negatives of migration pale in comparison to the benefits. Yet the explicit focus on security, fear and risk pose an existential threat to how we think about migration in the future. If Malcolm Turnbull has managed even a small step away from the current trend of embedding migration and security ever closer together, I for one am glad. There are many more steps but Australians who believe in a robust, generous multicultural Australia should applaud this decision.

How should one think about immigration as a progressive Australian?

Muddled thinking on migration is the norm. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in progressive circles.

In an article about why Malcolm Turnbull is not a progressive, Van Badham writes:

In his speech announcing his leadership challenge Turnbull affirmed he’d been provoked to action not to go against Abbott’s economic policies – but to give them better “advocacy”. Crucially, he declared support for the China free trade agreement (Chafta) that will allow non-union labour to be shipped into Australia from China on projects worth more than $150m.

I agree Malcolm Turnbull is not a progressive. But the manner in which the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement has been framed is an afront to considered thought on migration.

“Non-union labour to be shipped into Australia from China” is one way to think about the China-Australia FTA. I assume Van Badham is inferring Chinese people will work for lower wages than Australians, dragging down existing wages and conditions. This argument rests on an assumption of power imbalance between the worker and the employer, with little outside accountability. This type of thinking has strong foundations built upon Australia’s border and sovereignty, where those outside should be restricted to benefit those inside. This is fair enough as we live in a world of nation-states and very different economic norms. We also know it is difficult to maintain the status quo for rights and conditions under large influxes of new people.

However as a progressive, you could also think about it in a slightly different way. According to the World Bank, China has a GDP per capita of USD$7,593 for 2010-2014. Australia has a GDP per capita of USD$61,887 for the same period. The average Australian is about 8 times richer than the average Chinese person.

Working in Australia instead of China would see a massive windfall to the migrant. A Chinese person would go from being around the middle of the global income to amongst the very top. In fact, this is likely the largest and most effective method to get people out of poverty, albeit one with a range of other consequences. Importantly, this occurs via the individual and not the nation-state or government as per traditional aid and economic development.

These differences should matter more in a world where the number one priority for progressive thinking is inequality. You can think about inequality ‘within countries’ or ‘between countries’. Within country inequality dominates the debate as it relates to how individual countries like Australia tackle the gap between rich and poor through domestic approaches. Australian standards, such as high minimum wages and the right to join a union, are seen through this prism.

Yet considered progressives should care also about ‘between country’ inequality. Between country inequality is the main culprit behind increasing global inequality:

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 9.05.58 am

(Source: Dani Rodrik, who sourced from Bourguignon and Morrison (2002) updated using data from Milanovic (2013))

There are two ways to address the massive increases in between country inequality. The traditional method has been to try and create more prosperity inside poorer countries. However the oft-ignored second is by letting poorer people themselves move to richer countries. In Australia, we actively dissuade this option as we have a system of immigration based on skills. This has many proxies that stops poorer people from moving to Australia, such as wealth and education opportunities.

I don’t believe in open borders. In the source above, Dani Rodrik makes an excellent contribution on the central role in institutions in creating wealth. But if we are to have a serious discussion in Australia about inequality, we cannot be wedded exclusively to a nationalistic approach given most inequality is global. There is space in the discussion on inequality for more focus on these ideas, instead of simply looking within our own society.

Immigration can play a powerful role in helping to address this without undoing our social fabric. It’s not good enough to simply shout about human rights and demand higher standards as the only solution to building prosperous developing countries. Why does Australia have uncapped Working Holiday treaties with rich countries but cap those from poor countries? Why does Australia not have a visa lotto open to people in poor countries, a la the United States and New Zealand? Why does Australia’s Pacific worker program fail when compared to the New Zealand program?

Encouraging people in poor countries to move to Australia for work would be an excellent complement to a more generous aid and development outlook, as well as an important step in our contribution to tackling global inequality. Framing more migration from China as ‘non-union labour to be shipped’ does not help this cause as it implicitly excludes the opportunity to think about how more people from a middle income country like China could move to Australia. The China-Australia FTA isn’t perfect. It might not even be a good agreement. However it also isn’t an affront to progressive values or labour standards in this country.

The ABF in Melbourne: More than politics

A fundamental mistake was made in the aftermath of the Australian Border Force fiasco in Melbourne two weeks ago. In the days following, attention focused on the Minister and whether a media release had been approved. Since then, many people see the entire episode as a reflection on the government. A government so evil they wanted to profile migrants.


The actions on day had nothing to do with daily politics. This excuse was born of cynicism and partisanship and should be dismissed. The truth is more worrisome.

The type of operation to occur has a long history. They are not new and they are not scary. I take the Commissioner of the ABF at his word as compliance activities are part and parcel of any immigration framework. Immigration officials will hang around in the background and do what they are told by police officers. This is the correct hierarchy as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, the media release flagging the event sounded very different to what actually would have occurred. I thought racial profiling was a proud new addition to standard duties. I was heartened when this was rejected. But it dawned on me later the episode – the process itself – was another signpost along a very uncertain road.

Most people would not have heard about the Australian Border Force until that day. At the time, this new institution was less than two months old, being the combination of parts of the Customs and Immigration bureaucracy. Being new, the cultural environment of the organisation is still taking shape. Those at the top have flagged the desired direction with important speeches (which I have written about here and here). Those who fundamentally disagree have been leaving in droves.

The fact the media release itself was able to clear the internal bureaucracy is the story. This exposes deep gaps within the institution. Critical oversight and administrative controls are missing. When I was at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, you couldn’t sneeze in public without it being cleared by Sandi Logan who headed up the National Communication Branch. This approach had pros and cons. For example our innovative new migration blog was turned into corporate mush after the comms people got their hands on it but on the whole, it was a functional approach. In a brand new institution, rebadged as a national security enforcement agency, you would have thought these considerations would have been a higher priority.

And this is where we should be worried. If something like this has not attracted the proper attention, what else has been left to junior and mid-level officials, with little experience who are being primed for a focus on national security? From the ABF website:

We have significant service and enforcement functions, including:

  • facilitating the lawful passage of people and goods
  • investigations, compliance and enforcement in relation to illicit goods and immigration malpractice; and
  • onshore detention, removals and support to regional processing arrangements

Significant service and enforcement functions deserve more attention and institutional support. Yet in announcing an internal inquiry into the events leading to the chaos, the Commissioner offloaded at least some of the blame onto the media. This was hardly mentioned in the media (thanks Crikey) and neatly captures how culture can be shaped even when responding to fuckups.

One serious political concern is Ministerial oversight. Scott Morrison is perceived very differently depending on your political background. However no-one should doubt his intelligence or capacity to achieve a desired outcome. He was a Minister who drove the creation of the ABF and had strong direction. Peter Dutton is a former law enforcement official himself however he does not appear to be particularly well-suited to administrative duties associated with massive bureaucratic transformation. This is not politics per se but how government functions in a space where the lines of policy and operations are blurred at best.

Unlike the events in Melbourne, these transformational changes are happening away from the front page. In the long-term, this fiasco might be one of the best things to ever happen as it has focused attention on the ABF. For example, for the first time outside obscure migration blogs, I saw someone critically evaluate the following new definition of the border:

We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating nation states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border.

To me, this is an attempt to stretch the power of the institution into many non-customs, non-immigration domains.The ABF want a seat at the big boys table. The statement is also rather crude and ill-considered as they have defined the border as all of Australia.

The idea of the ABF was rejected by the Gillard government. In the wake of ‘stop the boats’, we’ve ended up with an enforcement agency running immigration without anyone noticing. You can blame the government if you want for the events in Melbourne but this would be a mistake. A brand new institution has emerged without some fundamental ground rules in place. Hopefully this will be addressed in the short-term as migration and perceptions about migration are too important to be sacrificed to national security.


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