A land of opportunity?

“With each new decade of the nineteenth century, free settlers entered the New World in even larger numbers. Some fled wars and persecution, and some sought political rights and religious freedom, but the vast majority were attracted by the potential economic rewards.” (Hatton and Williamson, ‘Global Migration and the World Economy’, p. 11)

Australia as a federated nation has never had a sustained period of borderless entry. This is despite a modern population shaped by migration perhaps unlike any other developed nation.

I think something that often gets lost in the collective immigration memory is that passports, visas and border controls are a relatively recent phenomena. This is not to say these concepts are not important – they most definitely are. But recent nonetheless.

In the US, the dream of immigration is still linked very explicitly to an attraction of economic reward, to the land of opportunity. In Australia this undoubtedly applies on a practical level to the migrants who seek a new life but I don’t feel it has the same resonance within broader society. This is the reason why temporary migrants end up as permanent migrants, from international students to 457 visa holders but as a society we continue to be somewhat uneasy about immigration. I don’t consider myself to live in the land of opportunity. An accepting, tolerant nation yes, but opportunity implies something different. However this is ridiculous when I think of what Australia has become – a bastion of developed economic prosperity.

Qantas and Tourism Australia have used to great effect the attraction of the Australian lifestyle. Yet it almost seems as if the Australian economy, foremost the incomes that can be achieved within it, is ignored. On some level, a connection can be drawn to the negative connotations around ‘economic’ asylum seekers. But as Hatton and Williamson make so abundantly clear in their excellent book, this is not new behaviour. Why then does it feel so foreign, at least in Australia?

Whatever the theoretical benefits of Open Borders, I don’t believe the developed world would handle the adjustment process all that well. This should not preclude mass migration. What it does require is public leadership and advocacy in Australia that incorporates a more detailed and thorough understanding of past immigration. Knowing what came before makes the future a little bit safer. In the case of global immigration, the past is both good, mass movement in search of economic opportunity, and bad, institutionalised slavery and other forms of indentured labour. Our society doesn’t allow the latter and leadership needs to be shown to ensure the former grows over time.

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