Does global migration miss the Berlin Wall?

The most powerful imagery from the Cold War was the Berlin Wall, designed to keep people in as opposed to keeping them out. “A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in and how many want out”, once said Tony Blair.

Perhaps the Wall was used simply as an ideological and political crutch by politicians in a different era. Maybe the generations to follow were meant to take the Wall as a figurative reminder of ‘something bad’, i.e. Communism, as opposed to an actual concrete structure locking people in. It is hard not to think of this contrast as one scrolls through Twitter in the age of Brexit and Trump.

The latest example. Today, the entire government of the United Kingdom is moving in lockstep towards peak anti-migrant fervour. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is launching a ‘crackdown targeting students, taxi drivers and EU criminals‘ while simultaneously investigating how to make businesses publish how many international staff they hire. Her Prime Minister, Theresa May, will “attack politicians who sneer at ‘patriotic’ working class voters concerned about migration“. The only thing lacking at this point is a land border for France to pay for.

The West derived real cultural power during the Cold War for not requiring a wall, for welcoming political dissidents or simply those wishing to leave. The first big wave of migrants to Australia were not all refugees as is commonly remembered but amongst them were people fleeing totalitarian regimes. Soviet citizens able to escape became heroes in the United States, fated by the government and communities they became a part of.

In 1945 there were only 17 democracies in the world, with a combined population of 262 million. Yet by 1990, democracy had grown to 52 countries with a combined 2.3 billion people:

world-pop-by-political-regime(Source: the wonderful OurWorldInData website)

During the Cold War, the United States was not opposed to hypocrisy. However walls and locking people in countries were frowned upon. During this time, a social norm for governments of a newly functioning democracy was the inclusion of freedom to emigrate. Indeed today when you look at a list of countries where emigration controls still exist – for example banning women from gaining passports – it appears emigration is a key tenet for a number of authoritarian regimes: Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, amongst others (Table 6, Page 16).

It is worth considering what role the symbol of an open country in perpetual conflict against a closed country had underpinning norms around migration from the end of World War Two until around the turn of the century. What have countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia lost in terms of their ability to win an argument, not against a naturally defined foe, but against their own citizens clamouring to pull up an illusory drawbridge? Australia has transformed our migration framework over this same period yet at various times it feels like we are in a tinder box just waiting to catch fire. What big, moral authority can we appeal to today? In terms of a direct appeal to what is the right path to take, the economic case doesn’t seem to have the same vigour and weight as pointing to those nasty Communists and doing the opposite.

I’m thankful people are trying. Chris Bowen and Scott Morrison have both been out pumping the case for openness in recent weeks. However Chris Bowen has a relatively easy job given he is in Opposition and Mr Morrison, forgive me for saying, seems rather hollow given his performance to date with foreign ownership laws and his legacy in the Immigration portfolio. Regardless, they both seem in need of something bigger to carry along their shared message, a vehicle to pick people up and bring them along for the ride instead of shouting into a wind of nationalistic pessimism. Nothing will bring back the Cold War and national security is not just a poor substitute but a detrimental one when it comes to migration.

To me, these are powerful arguments for not viewing the current migration debate through a left-right lens but considering the question it terms of an open or closed approach to engaging with what falls outside of sovereign borders. The United States had left and right governments throughout the Cold War but they were largely open. This is also not a question about big or small government. Indeed, a closed country requires a large, heavy handed government, something which might slowly dawn on the May Government now running the United Kingdom. Memo Vote Compass: throw away your left-right scale for questions of migration because it doesn’t mean anything.

It is a fair and open question to ask whether global norms around migration are fundamentally changing. While emigration barriers are not strong and only apply in small pockets across the world, emigration requires immigration as well. And immigration is being challenged across the developed world unlike anytime since the first regulatory walls went up in earnest in the early 20th century.

I don’t expect massive social norms for governments to emerge overnight and lead the way with regard to questions of migration policy and migration flows. But it is sort of confounding nothing even appears on the horizon. Thankfully there are still optimists around. Here is what Khalid Koser – who you should watch on Q&A next week – has to say about how Australia is primed to lead the way on these issues:

But in fact it is in Australia’s national interest to take a lead. First, it is important to pre-empt future shocks that may result in an increase in asylum applications. There is no guarantee that Operation Sovereign Borders will be sustainable – it may be overwhelmed by large numbers of boats or undercut by legal challenges and financial constraints. In the next decade, Australia should also expect growing pressures from people seeking to escape the effects of environmental change.

Second, in comparison to most other industrialised states, especially in Europe, Australia has a historic opportunity to be proactive. As Australia learned a few years ago, there is no political appetite or policy bandwidth to focus on long-term reform in the throes of a short-term asylum crisis. This is exactly why the world needs Australia to conceptualise, propose and support reform now. Promoting reform of the international protection regime may also be one way for Australia to allay some of the international criticism it has attracted because of its asylum policy.

Third, advocating to improve the performance of the international protection regime is a logical progression of Australia’s historic commitment towards it. It was Australia’s signature in 1954 that brought the 1951 Refugee Convention into force. One of the underlying principles is shared responsibility. Proximity should define responsibility, and Australia has a responsibility to help improve the response to the global refugee crisis, even if it is not directly affected for now.

Endnote: The answer in the title is no because the Cold War was not good. But it was the best I could manage in a new era of attempting to lure people to read this blog.

Endnote II: Tom Westland writes better than I do about walls in this must-read post about immigration and economics.

Some additional thoughts on the Productivity Commission’s migration report

Max Corden, one of Australia’s great economists, gave a speech in 2013 to the Productivity Commission which I like to read from time to time. He concludes:

In my own judgement, a substantially higher population attained within a period that allows plenty of time for adjustment, would be highly desirable. This is the Radical Approach. But the real constraint comes from the combination of two factors. First, there is the trend decline in the total fertility rate. Second, there is the political difficulty of bringing about the substantial increase in the rate of net migration that would be required. This difficulty, in turn, results from the combination of the conservative approach to immigration policy by the public and the pragmatic approach by governments. It is these two factors that lead me to believe that we will, after all, not have forty million Aussies by 2050 … though perhaps we will get to thirty.

Max Corden is an incredible economist, pioneering the study of what we now know as dutch disease and a career spanning from Oxford to the IMF. By the looks of things, he also has an interest in immigration.Yet both his underlying assumptions and his informed guesstimate have turned out to be out by a fair bit in the decade which followed. Fertility kicked up immediately after 2003 (although not to replacement levels) and it appears there are only very weak political constraints on the rate of net migration to Australia. We are going to smash past 30 million people and on track to end up somewhere between 35 and 38 million by 2050.

This begs the question: if one of Australia’s pre-eminent economists can get it this wrong on immigration, how are the urban planners, state governments, local councils, universities and host of other businesses and groups who are touched by migration dealing with the trends?

I was reminded of this by the Productivity Commission’s report released this week on Australia’s Migrant Intake. The first recommendation and one with the most punch is how Australia needs a formal population policy, instead of using immigration policy as an ad-hoc proxy. I used to disagree with this but I’ve changed my mind.

Clearly, we are unable to work through the variation in immigration flows adequately. Planning infrastructure, urban housing regulations, and urban transport need to be anchored in something stronger than “we’ve got this”. I used to think state governments could muddle through, that they wouldn’t fall far enough behind the eight-ball. An election campaign spent in suburban Sydney tells me this was incorrect.

I believe it’s a strong mistake to chalk up disquiet about congestion and housing to immigration itself. It’s not simply ‘take away the migrants and sit back to prosper’. The economic, social and cultural benefits of migration stand up by themselves but nothing can exist in a vacuum. The lack of planning and follow-up, the uncertainty fosters concern and hubris. The state government or local council who ignore or wish away increasing population only create a bubble down the road. See Sydney post-Olympics until the GFC.

After being knee deep in the mud for over 12 months, this is what the Productivity Commission proposed:

The Australian Government should:

• develop and articulate a population policy to be published with the intergenerational report

• specify that the primary objective of immigration and the Government’s population policy is to maximise the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of the Australian community (existing Australian citizens and permanent residents) and their future offspring.

Australia’s immigration and population policy should be better informed through:

• genuine community engagement

• a broad range of evidence on the economic, social and environmental impacts of immigration and population growth on the wellbeing of the Australian community

• a published five yearly review of Australia’s population policy.

The Australian Government should calibrate the size of the annual immigration intake to be consistent with its population policy objectives.

Arguably, the actual population policy document, like the IGR, isn’t the important part of this process. It’s the lead-up, the conversation and the national debate which shapes public opinion and political will. Getting people excited about these issues not from a position of fear but looking ahead to the future is a worthy goal. Yet at the moment, we are a long way from where we need to be to even have these discussions.

‘Genuine community engagement’, as proposed by the Productivity Commission, simply does not exist in immigration policy. Consultation occurs only on the surface and a select group of ‘stakeholders’ are sought out for opinion and invitation to comment. A mickey mouse process between the federal and state governments covers up for massive deficiencies in jurisdictional mismatch.

A real world example is required here. Why has the number of permanent visas available – 190,000 – been exactly the same for the last five years? Over that period, the economy and immigration trends in general have moved up and down yet not once has the number of permanent visas moved. I have no idea why this is the case and I don’t know if it’s good or bad. I don’t even know where to start because so few people realise this is the case or the role permanent migration plays in Australia’s migration framework in this day and age.

There isn’t a ‘broad range of evidence’ available for policy makers to assess. As very few people are engaged in the topic, research is starved and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is reflexively risk-averse when it comes to sharing the trove of administrative data they have. We don’t know how many international students work. We don’t know the location of working holiday makers. We don’t even know how long migrants have been in Australia for. Newsflash: We don’t know. A population policy would hopefully address these massive gaps.

I disagree with most of the stuff written about immigration from Macrobusiness – this for example. But at least they have a clear, well-stated position and attempt to use what evidence there is to argue the case. A bigger discussion about population, and by implication immigration, would produce better policy and better outcomes. For full marks to the Productivity Commission for leading this conversation and calling for change.

Thanks to David Sligar for his comment on my previous post about the PC report. He raised a number of points, a couple of which I’ll post here and add my comments:

Some things I would like to have seen more of:

Discussion of defence and national security impact. IMHO the strongest ‘hard’ argument for migration from existing citizens perspective isn’t economic (effect on per capita income of existing residents is theoretically ambiguous and empirical studies suggest isn’t very large), but rather increasing total GDP and thereby defence capability.

By coincidence, Corden discusses and promotes the same concept in his 2003 lecture:

Furthermore, I have no doubt that Australia’s influence, whether in the region or the world, would increase if it were a substantially larger economy, able to provide more funds in aid, in contributions to international organizations or in joint international action. There are many ways in which other countries can benefit or harm us, and also many ways in which we can do some good in the world — if that is our desire. I have spent thirteen years in the United States teaching in a school of international studies where such matters are studied closely and considered important.

I have never been heavily engaged in this argument myself and when I first heard about it, I was sceptical. I understand the scale argument but specifically for defence, it makes me queasy. What exactly does a larger economy mean for defence policy? More submarines and JSF airplanes? More influence at the big kids table? These seem to be questions where there can be both good and bad outcomes, meaning a bigger scale could be beneficial but also could increase the damage done. Perhaps if I had a higher level of trust in Australia’s place in the world, I’d see this as a positive. There is definitely more to discuss here though and it is often ignored. David moves onto social cohesion:

On the flip side, migration could potentially damage social cohesion and this could obviously undermine domestic security and harmony. The report addressed integration but I thought this part was somewhat glib and insufficient given most the Western world is currently seeing large scale destabilising anti-migration movements. At one extreme there is obviously Belgium and France, where somehow something has gone very wrong. There is a hypothetical risk that even if things look pretty good now in Australia, social harm could be non-linear and rapidly increase once some tipping point is reached.

There is always the danger social cohesion could go backwards but to me, immigration flows today are not the driving factor behind this. For example, to take Brexit. The best political science research I’ve seen to date emphasises a range of factors, including “Of the twenty places with the fewest EU migrants, fifteen voted to leave the EU. By contrast, of the twenty places with the most EU migrants, eighteen voted to remain. In many of the areas that were among the most receptive to the Leave campaign there were hardly any EU migrants at all.

The people who are agitated about social cohesion and immigration aren’t – 0n average – living where the immigration is occurring. And the people who are living with migrants don’t – on average – have a major issue with it. To me, this means more or less migration isn’t going to have a marginal effect on social cohesion. It will be other factors which determine social cohesion. This isn’t an argument for more immigration but I also feel it isn’t a strong argument for less immigration.

How much does immigration reduce natural resource rents to existing citizens? Australia gets more income from stuff in the ground than most countries – how much does immigration reduce minerals per person? I don’t know how significant this would be but it’s almost never-ending addressed.

This is an excellent question. If anyone has decent research on this, please mention it in the comments.

Frankly acknowledge that we might have to assume second best policy settings for population policy. It’s fine to say migration would be great if matched with optimal infrastructure provision, tax transfer adjustments etc… but is it actually plausible that this will happen? What if Sydney never increases taxes enough to pay for the infrastructure that is needed?

I don’t know about plausible but I firmly believe the more people who gain an interest in this topic, as well as more information made available, can help address policy settings in a substantial way. At the moment, there is a complete dearth of interest in this area. In a relative sense, there are only are a handful of demographers, planners and technical specialists working across and between governments. No-one actually goes and asks what people think either. What type of housing do people think should be available? How far are you willing to travel to work? While Grattan has touched on some of this work in their Cities Program, I’m at a loss to think of common understanding to these questions as they aren’t on the radar.

There is no reason to accept second-best policy settings for population if we haven’t even had a decent crack at it doing it properly in the first place. This goes to the comments above about a formal population policy process, an attempt to better engage with policy matters which have material impacts on people’s lives each day. It’s almost unbelievable this issue goes under the radar as it does, occasionally bursting out in some form over a road development or house price debate.

No government can plan everything out perfectly – many mistakes will be made along the way – but at the moment we don’t even seem to be trying, at least on a federal level.

Lots of people are talking about Pauline Hanson: What next?

Lots of people talking about Pauline Hanson. It’s hard to think of another maiden speech that has attracted such attention.

Most people in my social network – what I imagine a standard inner-city, ‘elitist’ network looks like – are contrasting her opinions with their own. They stand with those being demonised (as do I). Many are reacting to what she says with outrage and shock. This will continue for sometime. It’s important these public reactions occur for a couple of reasons: To support people who feel genuine fear from Hanson and reinforcing social norms about what is acceptable to us as people.

Fewer are engaging, or at least in the way intended by thoughtful pieces like this one from Katherine Murphy (read it in full if you can). This is not intended as a criticism. I expect the ratio of contrast, outrage and engagement is about right. It’s also hard and takes some time to occur. After all, Hanson has given a total of one speech so far in Parliament and it occurred yesterday. With those caveats, here is something I noticed about her first speech. At one point, she said:

If you are not prepared to become Australian and give this country this undivided loyalty, obey our laws and respect our country and way of life, then I suggest you go back where you came from.

I’ve been thinking about the process of broad versus deep support for minor political parties. In Queensland, ONP gathered about 10 per cent of the vote. If these supporters represent her core support, perhaps a good thing to do is start thinking about who else might want to vote for her? Who might they be, given the opportunity?

The quote above gave me pause because I’ve seen work directly about this. In the 2015 Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey, Andrew Markus cleverly asks about what people expect from migrants when they arrive in Australia: assimilation or cultural pluralism?

‘We should do more to learn about the customs and heritage of different ethnic and cultural groups in this country.’ (Question C4_2)

‘People who come to Australia should change their behaviour to be more like Australians.’ (Question F2_5)

With 68 per cent agreeing with the first question and 65 per cent agreeing with the second question, a decent plurality of about two in five people see this as a two-way process. Migrants need to learn about Australia and Australians need to learn about migrants.

Helpfully, the second question is a good proxy of what Hanson discusses in her first speech. People who agree with this while rejecting the notion of learning about different customs and heritages make up about one in four Australians.

(Photo source / credit unknown)

One in four Australians see this as a one-way process, where assimilation is a major priority. These attitudes may occur in places where there aren’t actually many migrants at all. I think this is true but I’m going to wait to confirm and see if I can dig deeper. People who feel this way but to date have not voted for “outsiders” might simply not see this as an important issue compared to say taxation or Medicare. However it does signal to me there is room to grow and no-one should take for granted the level of support for One Nation. There might be a ceiling but it isn’t 10 per cent.

For anyone asking, this is where I would point them towards in kicking off a conversation about what next. When Oz says on Twitter to target ‘anti-politics’ and ‘common sense’, this provides some context for the size of the potential audience (sidenote: I agree with him these should form part of the response but also it is a very difficult thing to have multiple conversations with different parts of the public all at the same time. I don’t imagine anti-politics would go down too well in my social network for instance.)

This is hardly hitting a home-run but understanding, bit by bit, who exactly we are all talking about is something worth doing. And it leads to additional questions collectively we need to answer in a relatively short time period: where potential ONP support is, who potential ONP supporters are and how to persuade them to reconsider an alternative representative for their community?

Shock new poll: Public overturn 15 years of political opinion

In the last week of the election campaign, The Australia Institute released a poll claiming a majority of the public wanted changes to asylum policy. From the Guardian:

A poll of more than 1,400 people commissioned by The Australia Institute found 63% of respondents oppose the bipartisan policy that refugees who arrive in Australia by boat should never be allowed to settle in the country, instead saying those found to have a valid claim for protection should be brought to Australia.

In reporting this poll, Ben Doherty went to some length to demonstrate the validity. For example, the cross-tabs of the poll were published and it was highlighted how the poll was ‘a nationally representative sample’. The Australia Institute had this take:

Ben Oquist, executive director of The Australia Institute said the polling showed a “real disconnect” between the government’s specific asylum seeker policy measures and public expectations.

“The vast bulk of political discourse from the major parties on this issue has been broad ‘tough on border security’ rhetoric. And while that tone may be perceived to be popular, the actual details of the policy do not appear to have public support.

I have no doubt this poll was commissioned and released to have the maximum political impact, because The Australia Institute are very good at what they do. Mr Doherty is also an excellent journalist who I respect. However I had difficulty believing this particular story and poll. I thought of this today as there was a similar poll, this time commissioned by Save The Children:

Pressure is mounting on Malcolm Turnbull to end detention of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island, ahead of two summits at which world leaders will discuss the global crisis.

Save the Children released the results of a poll on Wednesday that show that two-thirds (66%) of Australians believe the prime minister should act urgently to resettle refugees held in offshore detention by the end of the year.

I want to be clear. I’m not saying these polls have been deliberately doctored by advocate organisations to get specific results. The second poll was undertaken by Galaxy, a respected polling organisation. But the results simply do not accord with what we know about public opinion and asylum policy in Australia over the last 15+ years.

The most important current factor driving public opinion is absence of boats arriving (noting there are still boats leaving and being turned back). For example, in both 2012 and 2013, about 12 per cent of the population thought asylum policy was the most important issue facing Australia. This is from the long-running Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey (Table 8, page 21). The following year in 2014, this had fallen away to 4 per cent (Table 9, page 22). This means regardless of the numbers supporting or opposing a suggested policy option from The Australia Institute or Save The Children, the issue as a whole is not registering in public opinion.

This Scanlon research is careful and methodical, now supported by a dataset of over 25,000 people stretching over a decade. It is not a snapshot, devoid of context in a highly charged political debate. It is supported by numerous Lowy Institute polls and also work out of ANU. For example:

ANU Poll, March 2015 (Report No. 18, April 2015) asked respondents to indicate agreement or disagreement with the proposition that ‘Australia should take stronger measures to exclude illegal immigrants’. The term ‘illegal immigrants’ was not defined, although in the context of current political discussion it can be assumed that many, perhaps a large majority, would see the question as referring to asylum seekers arriving by boat. 65% agreed (38% strongly agree), 32% disagreed (11% strongly disagree).

For a comprehensive list of sources on public opinion and asylum, see here. Taken over a longer-time frame and rooted in strong methodology, it shows a relatively static picture:

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-11-54-59-am(Source: Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey, 2014)

This is clear, cold evidence that public opinion is distinctly divided in Australia on the topic of asylum. Hardened positions do not change overnight on policies which have been contentious for such a period of time. For people who despair at the status quo, and I include myself here, trying to trick ourselves into believing the public is onside is a dangerous game which will end in failure. I previously thought the death of Reza Barati would lead to at least marginal change in public opinion but that never eventuated.

As I said previously, this does not mean advocate organisations are deliberating juking the stats to get their preferred outcome. The strategy behind the polls is quite clear. Demonstrate the Australian people are ahead of the curve and use this to push for policy change. The numbers in both the pre-election poll and the poll today might hold up in a vacuum – about two out of three people wanting some type of change – but the fundamentals of public opinion and policy change don’t operate in a vacuum. For example, at the election, asylum policy wasn’t even a top 10 political issue. It might have been kicked along by Peter Dutton and the Daily Telegraph but it didn’t register in the way other issues did.

I spent about 8 weeks in suburban Sydney and it was raised with me a number of times, mostly in the negative sense by people worried Labor would bring back the boats. Away from the personal experience, Malcolm Turnbull ignored numerous occasions to jump into the asylum debate while Bill Shorten stayed as far away as possible. The Greens – a party where asylum policy has come to be perhaps the defining issue – were largely unsuccessful, going backwards in the Senate and failing to capture additional inner-city electorates. To me, this combination of events reflects what we previously knew.

Asylum policy doesn’t register as a mover of political opinions in the manner advocates need. It is stuck, regardless of the compassion people might feel, regardless of the outrage. Politicians and other decision-makers know this public opinion better than most. They consume it and know when it actually cuts through. These advocate-sponsored polls might show what they say they show but this sentiment is not fixed or grounded in anything stronger than what someone read that morning over breakfast in their Facebook feed. They might show that when people aren’t thinking about these issues, their opinions become softer. However this doesn’t help the poor souls stuck on Manus as there is no impetus to change.

The political ramifications of this are clear. Malcolm Turnbull is not under any domestic political pressure at all to accept New Zealand’s offer of 150 asylum seekers per year. In fact, he is under pressure to do the opposite and hold the line for another three years. I used to believe he would have to do something about Nauru and Manus but today, I don’t see how this arises. This is why New Zealand’s standing offer has not been accepted.

I genuinely hope the Prime Minister is working on a plan away from the day-to-day media cycle, a battle he would certainly lose to his conservative caucus. The New Zealand offer will hopefully make up a part of this response. Until then, other factors will push and pull at the margins of asylum policy. For example, recent pressure has reportedly come behind the scenes from Barack Obama, as he prepares to host a global summit of humanitarian resettlement. There was speculation countries had to commit a specific number of new resettlement places to score an invite to his summit. We’ll see if this holds up over the weekend.

I don’t want to say stop to any advocates doing what they think is the best response to the current policy mess. Save The Children and The Australia Institute have savvy, smart political operators working on these campaigns. But I feel the only thing these polls achieve is getting people already onboard amped up only to be deflated shortly afterwards.

The Productivity Commission’s Australia’s Migrant Intake report released

The Productivity Commission’s inquiry, ‘Australia’s Migrant Intake’ was released today. See here:

To follow up my Twitter notes after a brief skim read of the summary, here are a couple of additional notes, with a few longer posts to follow later this week on tricky policy questions:

  • The report is comprehensive and doesn’t easily fit an ideological straightjacket. For example, the Commissioners completely reject the notion of a price-based migration program, often associated with libertarian immigration advocates yet also call for higher prices for parent visas.
  • The Commissioners noted and highlighted how in general the current system is operating well. This is important to reiterate, particularly when there are a raft of recommendations calling for policy change.
  • The explicit call to bring migration policy ‘out of the shadows’, so to speak, by the introduction of a formal population policy sitting alongside future IGRs is a major positive in my opinion.
  • The three priorities for immigration policy according to the PC – better integration of migrants after they have arrived; raising the barriers to permanent skilled visas to get better economic outcomes; and, increasing the price of parent visas – each appear to be politically viable, particularly if rolled into a package.

A Government that knew what it was doing could sell their response to this report as a package and could do so without animating the far-right. At the heart of nearly all recommendations is an ‘Australia-first’ approach, meaning the policy change is rooted in advancing the economic interests of existing residents.

There are a number of recommendations which I think are underdeveloped and one or two which are borderline crazy. But more on those later because, in general, I was impressed by the work. As migration in Australia has economic, social, cultural and security ramifications, it is difficult to easily distil everything down into a neat set of proposals. Kudos, Productivity Commission.

Finally, the Commissioners almost plead for Government investment in migration policy. The dearth of evidence and research is hurting the ability to politicians and bureaucrats to make informed decisions. The ‘key point’ reads: “A stronger evidence base is required to inform future immigration policy. This requires further investment in data collection, integration and dissemination, and data analytics capacity.”

From a self-interested standpoint, I couldn’t agree more and I hope the Government implements each of the associated recommendations for promoting evidence as well as a general investment in migration research given the importance migration will continue to play in Australia.

Note: I helped write a submission to the inquiry and gave evidence in person (transcript).

What does ‘fairness’ mean for immigration in Australia?

Chris Bowen made an important public contribution to the ongoing debate about Australia’s place in the world and our appetite for engagement. Here is the Guardian’s take.

Bowen boils down winning the big argument about maintaining Australian trade and migration openness to a platform of evidence, passion and fairness: Evidence to make the case for openness, passion to counter the demagogues and scare mongers, and fairness to bring people on the journey as a collective. I’m glad Bowen isn’t shirking from these difficult questions in light of the election result and re-emergence of One Nation on the federal scene.

Bowen laid out the evidence and showed a fair bit of passion. And while he touched on fairness – focusing on the nature of inclusion – it’s often a concept which seems a bit undercooked to me. To kick along these thoughts, from an immigration instead of trade perspective, please indulge the following about how to better talk about ‘immigration fairness’ in Australia:

  • Australian immigration, unlike nearly every other Western counterpart, is unabashedly egalitarian from a domestic perspective. We collect and train up skilled workers, adding to the labour supply towards the top end. This has a twofold effect of slowing wage growth for skilled workers, making services like healthcare more affordable and accessible than they otherwise would be, while at the same time inducing demand for lower-skilled workers, pushing up their incomes.
  • This is an inequality busting machine but one which never seems to attract the headlines over brown people buying houses and exploitative employers. Wealthy and skilled migrants support universal healthcare and prop up domestic higher education. It’s time progressive Australia stood up and owned it before the far-right appropriates support for anti-migration themes. Reinforcing the fairness of our immigration programs from the perspective of someone without higher education is one way to create a bulwark against negative views.
  • This is because across the Western world, education outcomes correlate strongly with attitudes to immigration. While a number of other factors are interesting – gender, age, ethnic background etc – education seems to stand out*. Doubling down on this in a fairness debate means being able to clearly show why immigration is fair and how taking it away would be unfair.

None of this is easy and there is obviously some crossover between talking about evidence, passion and fairness. But the time to own these discussions is now.

Progressive Australia is in a race. The starting gun went off sometime ago. The finish line is when the far-right finally professionalise itself in this country, as has occurred in France, the United States and the United Kingdom. The rules might be unfair when your opponents include George Christianson and Pauline Hanson but that doesn’t matter, it is irrelevant. Their support base is built on 10-20 per cent of the population who harbour strong resentment to our societal status quo: a diverse, cohesive community. If the fighting continues to occur on their turf and on their terms, their support will broaden and deepen.

Instead, it’s time to shore up support by identifying where and who to talk to. Outer-suburban families and older males in regional Australia are in my mind the two most important groups to persuade on merits of immigration and fairness. Incorporating the progressive messages about immigration into language and discussion about the labour market and about inequality is an important first step. Taking that message of fairness into the electorate is the logical next step.


*See Brexit analysis: “The public vote for Brexit was anchored predominantly, albeit not exclusively, in areas of the country that are filled with pensioners, low-skilled and less well-educated blue-collar workers and citizens who have been pushed to the margins not only by the economic transformation of the country over recent decades but also by the values that have come to dominate a more socially liberal media and political class.”

Australians Today: Where to Next?

Australians Today is a landmark survey on social attitudes in Australia. Andrew Markus, working with, and supported by, the Scanlon Foundation, has taken a spot check of our society and pushed to better understand what these attitudes mean. By asking over 10,000 people, and complementing this with 51 focus groups, the results are large enough to break down into smaller sub-groups, allowing comparison and contrast to highlight where we are heading as a society. What we could only infer and hint at in the past is now on firmer ground.


The immediate media response focused the most pressing differences of attitudes and experiences. Here is David Crowe’s lead from the Oz:

Deepening divisions over immigration and racism threaten to shatter Australia’s acceptance of new migrants according to a disturbing study revealing a “polarisation” in attitudes that will shape a growing fight over multiculturalism and free speech.

Gabrielle Chan at the Guardian:

The report – titled Australia Today – illuminates a people who are both hopeful and sometimes hurtful, largely cohesive but segmenting in a way that is becoming increasingly common in the midst of a communication revolution. It is fair to say we are mostly happy with our lives and what our country offers, though our background often determines our values.

When I attended the pre-launch of this report, Assistant Minister for Social Security, Zed Seselja, said we needed to own and recognise the “ugliness” which exists in society, saying “we need to be honest about it”.

This is positive sentiment from a fresh faced Assistant Minister. These concepts and what they mean are hard to grapple with and I was impressed he sat through the presentation even after having a personal briefing that same morning. This shows multiculturalism and social cohesion isn’t a left-right issue in Australia, as it used to be, but one which is embedded in our approach to social policy regardless of who holds government.

Here is a handful of questions asked by the survey and my take on what the results mean.

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