On engaging the business sector and migration

Khalid Koser recently commented on the difficultly of engaging the business sector in migration debates. While he is talking about global migration policy, there are important domestic implications from this critique.

In Australia, there is a sound argument the business sector have done more than elsewhere to support migration policy. Unlike many countries, this is not a ‘toxic’ policy discussion. Yet there is more than a grain of truth to the proposition many in the business sector steer clear of the contentious asylum debates wary potential backlash.

This is unfortunate. As Koser outlines, “Businesses can help rally support for migration, as governments are finding it increasingly hard to make the case for migration”. This is the tendency for asylum policy in Australia. One isolated example is the ~30,000 asylum seekers living in Australia without recourse to work rights. The notion this increases deterrence is bunk. It simply doesn’t. No evidence has been provided for this claim. Therefore we are looking at a policy – implemented by the ALP, continued by the Abbott government – which is essentially make believe.

Those who have cache with the Abbott government – business leaders – are likely the only organisations and individuals in the country who could conceivable turn this situation around. Either in the backrooms or publicly, there is a strong argument to be made about the positive longterm effect of employment on the ability of people to settle into Australia. This goes to budgets and welfare, an argument typically amenable to the business sector.

Now, it is easy to see why this will not happen. There are numerous reasons from the toxicity of the policy to using political capital on tangentially related policy matters.  Yet it would speak volumes. A stance on this particular issue would speak to how migration isn’t simply business enhancing, an argument often laid by a progressive movement instinctively cautious of current immigration policy. This would help, at the margins, insulate other migration programs from harmful public opinion. Lastly, there are those who question how far and wide business influence is wielded in Australia. A more holistic approach to the most complex migration policy questions would endeavour to reduce the effectiveness of this argument.

Koser is right to identify the business sector as vital for future migration policy. Employment is the central theme driving global migration and business (and labour) should have a seat at the table. In Australia, corporate leaders are often too circumspect to speak directly on these issues, steering a narrow path to preferred policy options. There is a downside to this approach, capsulated by those without work rights in Australia, stuck without the support which as a nation, we find unable to provide. Unlike many interest groups, non-profits and activists, titans of industry in Australia have the ear of politicians in Australia.

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