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.