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.”

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