Looking back at the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies

In the lead up to the 1987 election, Prime Minister Hawke had promised a review of Australia’s immigration policies. The result was ‘the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies’ (CAAIP), or the Fitzgerald Review, published the following year.

Stephen Fitzgerald (and other committee members) produced what is perhaps the most defining document for Australian immigration policy in the period proceeding the post-world war two era. The report reads like an historical artefact—not because of the ideas within it but due to its style: eminently readable, dissenting from the worldview of the government of the day, and informed by deep expertise. I’ve been re-reading the report for a project I’m working on and, looking back, two aspects are particularly striking.

The first is the executive summary for Chapter One of the report. It’s not that hard to imagine this having been written in recent years instead of 1988:

Central Issues in Immigration Reform

Immigration, worldwide, is under pressure. At present, Australia’s immigration policies are not managing the increasing demand. Without immediate reform, current selection mechanisms will deliver many tens of thousands of immigrants more than the planned immigration program.

Problems with current immigration policies are not limited to the numbers. Widespread mistrust and failing consensus threaten community support of immigration. The program is not identified in the public mind with the national interest, and must be given a convincing rationale.

Selection methods need a sharper economic focus, for the public to be convinced that the program is in Australia’s interests. Without it, the core principles of current immigration policy, non-discrimination, and family immigration plus the need for opportunities for non-English speakers, are clearly at risk.

Research commissioned by the Committee indicates that the skills profile of some groups of immigrants has fallen. Improving the skills level of immigrants is critical if immigration is to contribute to enhanced economic performance and improvements in living standards in the longer term.

Many Australians are not convinced that immigrants are making a commitment to their new country. Inevitable changes to their society, brought by immigration, trouble them. Poor rates for the taking up of citizenship disturb them.

The status of citizenship is seriously undervalued. One million immigrants have declined to take it. Citizenship should reflect a commitment to Australia and its institutions and principles.

Immigration must be a two-way commitment between the immigrant and Australian society. Key Australian principles and institutions must have the support of the immigrant, and citizenship must be a watershed in the immigrant experience.

Government should move to restrict the non-survival benefits and privileges available to non-citizens. Non-citizens should not be able to sponsor immigrants, except in certain compassionate circumstances.

Reading this, I’m struck by the similarities of language and form which shape public debate on immigration today, compared to the 1980s. There is a similarity also to the nature of the issues being discussed. I find this extremely helpful in thinking through debates about policy direction today as it shows there is often little which has not been considered in great detail previously.

Second, and perhaps more relevant to our times, is to reflect on the lasting influence of the Review. In a research thesis from 1990, Heather Clauser wrote about the Fitzgerald report:

Little wonder the Labor government was dismayed when it delivered this offspring bearing so many of the hallmarks of the opposing political Right’s ideology… How readily could a moderately socialist government endorse the denial of welfare to non-citizens, the deliberate disengagement from a refugee obligation, the subordination of humanitarian immigration to economic interests, the virtual repudiation of multiculturalism, the denunciation of its own bureaucracy, and a compelling prescription for a nationalism redolent of the now-discredited attitude of assimilation (pp. 48-49)

Famously, the Hawke Government was decidedly lukewarm on the report, and many of the core recommendations were essentially ignored in the short-term. In 1990 is was indeed difficult to imagine many of these recommendations being introduced by the Hawke Government. But fast forward more than 30 years later and let us re-examine what has happened to immigration policy since:

  • Denial of welfare to non-citizens: Just under two million people on a temporary visas are denied access to welfare, while those granted a permanent visas are now subjected to a four year waiting period for some types of welfare, such as unemployment benefits. This waiting period was first introduced by Paul Keating in the 1993 Budget (the period was six months). This has become one of the defining debates for the COVID-related welfare debate.
  • The deliberate disengagement from a refugee obligation: I feel this does not need additional analysis for Australian audiences, noting the bipartisan movement towards more hardline asylum policy.
  • The subordination of humanitarian immigration to economic interests: From 1984 to 2000, humanitarian visas accounted for ~15 per cent of all permanent visas granted, while from 2000 onwards, this has declined to ~10 per cent.
  • The virtual repudiation of multiculturalism: Judged by public rhetoric from political leaders and symbols, this has not occurred across the board. But a very strong case can be made that multiculturalism as a ‘civic institutionalism’ and in relation to a coherent set of policies from the Commonwealth Government, is greatly diminished compared to the 1980s.
  • The denunciation of its own bureaucracy: Australia’s immigration bureaucracy has been reduced to a shell of its former self within the Department of Home Affairs [for the political environment, google “Australian Cabinet”; Ctrl-F “immigration” to see how this manifests itself]
  • A compelling prescription for a nationalism redolent of the now-discredited attitude of assimilation: This has largely not occurred in the political mainstream however there remain politicians who advocate a 1950s-style assimilation of recent migrants into Australian society.

There is a lot of noise from conservative politicians about the influence of the “Left” on migration policy making. Yet look at the record since the late 1980s. There is a clear move away from mainstream social-democratic and progressive policy on immigration, towards a more economic-centred, neo-liberal approach.

It would be surprising if immigration policy had not changed over such a long period of time. However both the similarities of the language and issues debated now and then, combined with the direction of policy shift is notable.

What is fascinating is that Stephen Fitzgerald was an adviser to Gough Whitlam. His firm belief in the importance of an expansive immigration program lead to him towards prioritising broad public support of immigration, and he argued this was best achieved by creating a stronger economic narrative. To this day, Australia continues to enjoy higher public support for immigration than many other OECD countries. Many point to the economic priorities of the approach however it is difficult to untangle public attitudes from asylum politics, government administration, and the general state of the labour market.

It’s hard to look back on documents like this and read about the headline public debates about immigration and Australian society. These were big conversations in the 1980s, which occurred with a frequency unlike anything today. Today, we see a much more narrow discussion on immigration policy, which ignores the hundreds of thousands of individual stories where policy-makers have an oversized effect.

One thought on “Looking back at the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies

  1. Thoughtful as always… though I suspect that the boat arrivals over 2012-13 are the primary reason that those conversations are not happening.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s