Interview Outtakes (V): Sam Dastyari and Tim Watts on asylum policy

Yesterday, I blogged some interview outtakes on asylum policy from Andrew Markus, Peter Lewis and Andrew Leigh. These interviews occurred to provide material for my series on Australian immigration in the 21st century yet not everything could be incorporated, including the following contributions on asylum policy.

Today’s contribution is from Sam Dastyari and Tim Watts, both new-ish ALP politicians. Both have substantial contributions to make.

Sam Dastyari:

“We have a terrible debate when it comes to asylum seekers. It’s all about inflamed passions, it’s all about playing politics and putting aside international obligations, there has to be a humanitarian angle about a progressive, wealthy, nation being able to take some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. This is the broad context.”

“At no point is there going to be a situation where people don’t want to come to this country. The modern era, the idea that people are going to want to stop coming to Australia is not going to happen. The push pressures are only going to increase as global instability, the impact of climate change in the Pacific, there is always going to be pressures that push and yes you need processes to deal with it. But to keep it in the context we are not actually talking about a huge number of people here.”

“You have got to be careful about not being disingenuous about the long-term impact of this. Some of these arrangements will exist for a period of time but it is hard to see how they are sustainable for 10, 15 years. This will be sustained for awhile and not forever.”

“Unless there is a proper regional based solutions that brings in all of our neighbours in the next 10-15 years, in how we are actually going to set up institutions to deal with this, it’s always going to be, and I think, always going to be playing catch up. If something happens, we react to it.

“The problem is that none of this can be done in an electoral cycle. Understandably, naturally we try and do everything in shorter and shorter cycles. You look at PNG, you look at turn back the boats. All of this is done in a political context, the politics are being played and this has been the case for years now and that is not a good thing.”

Tim Watts:

“It is inarguably true, an immigration policy that in any way prefers or gives advantage to people coming by boat benefits people by geographic luck or financial luck as they are able to take that journey compared to people who have been in Kenyan refugee camps for a decade and can’t get to the next country, let alone the next continent.”

“This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working very hard on the processing centres in our region to give options to people. But it’s a longer conversation saying these are not bad people however I don’t want attention on boat arrivals to deflect from attention on people who are just as desperate and have been waiting for literally decades.”

“This is a policy area where you are forced to play God. I say to people, I joined the ALP because I believed in a notion of fairness and social justice. I don’t want luck to determine who we are taking. I want there to be at least be an attempt to have a system based on fairness and values. Start from the proposition that there are 40 million refugees in the world and we clearly cannot take everyone. As soon as you say that we are playing God.”

“Frankly, the line that we an enormous country and we can take everyone is utter bullshit. I don’t want to see an Australia that is like Italy, where all the government gives to arrivals is fresh air. You don’t have detention centres but you have these slums around cities, on the outskirts, with no government services, no support. That’s not the Australia I want to live in. With an under-class of non-citizens, I refuse to live in a country like that.”

Australian immigration in the 21st century (Part 1)

This is the first in a two part series about Australian immigration in the 21st century

Two symbols of Australian suburban life – the Hills-Hoist and the lawnmower –were broadcast to the world at the Sydney Olympics. Both command attention in backyards across the country, most of which are more than big enough to play cricket in. At the dawn of the 21st century, a bemused global audience caught a glimpse of how we see ourselves. Above all, our space – an entire continent to ourselves – embodied an idyllic Australian lifestyle.

This is the heart of the our population debate. More people means less space. This sentiment fused with electoral politics makes for uncomfortable public policy and strange bedfellows.

The most recent iteration of this potent mix was seen in 2010. A new Prime Minister ran from her predecessor’s policy agenda and a future Prime Minister surveyed the political landscape and made the easy call. Divisive public opinion provided the foundation for ‘a great big new tax’ and ‘stop the boats’. Yet even in this period of heightened political division, bipartisanship in Canberra was far from extinct.

A ‘sustainable Australia’ was born.

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott campaigned almost in tandem. Abbott called immigration ‘out of control’, Gillard created a Minister for Population and Sustainability and we were promised a Productivity and Sustainability Commission from a Coalition government, which was inevitably scrapped very quietly.

In the four years since, sustainability has been incorporated as a buzzword into the political lexicon, littered within endless talking points and speeches.

This bipartisanship shades the truth. A big Australia is here to stay. Whatever the word sustainable once meant, it must incorporate at least 36 million people by 2050. Sam Dastyari uses his own word to describe the 2010 debate: rhetoric.

“When Gillard redefined the issue from a big Australia to a sustainable Australia, it was actually more rhetoric than policy. It was rhetoric. Rather than embrace it and debate, we’ll redefine it into a less scary concept. There was obviously politics in that. Rhetoric not being matched by policy change was actually disingenuous but everyone is in on it. The Conservatives have got in and nothing at this point indicates anything serious in terms of the broader immigration framework but again, it’s almost as if there is this secret that everyone is in on.”

In his short time in Parliament, Dastyari has become the poster boy for a big Australia.

“It’s become this huge taboo in politics, talking about immigration, talking about population. This is the most significant challenge that is going to be facing us in the next 20-30 years”

This taboo doesn’t apply to Dastyari. A pivotal figure in the much-storied NSW Right faction of the ALP, his position in the Senate allows him a wide berth to explore the controversial. The fact he is Iranian-born is nearly lost in the whirlwind that trails him down the corridors of Parliament House. As his colleagues focus on the deterioration of manufacturing across the eastern seaboard or defend the union movement from another conservative advance, it is easy to dismiss his claims as hyperbolic.

Yet hyperbole it is not. Current rates of net migration are trending above historical levels, something demographic forecasters have had trouble with, making future projections almost impossible. In 2001, the Treasury in the first intergenerational report based its long-term net migration rate at 90,000 per year. A decade later in the third intergenerational report, this number had doubled to 180,000 per year, creating the magic 36m figure where public debate floundered on. As we await the next iteration of the intergenerational report, current net migration trends are hovering at about 240,000 per year. 36m is likely to become 38-40m.

Dastyari is right there is a secret about immigration policy. You’ll find very few politicians who will seriously discuss the issue. Unlike other economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, no politician has been able to explain to a sceptical public how and why a bipartisan consensus exists on the wholesale reform immigration policy has undertaken in the past two decades. This starts with a simple yet somewhat uncomfortable truth: with economic growth, comes immigration growth.

Historically, the federal government picked the number of immigrants to enter Australia every year. This was loosely based on the unemployment rate and strength of the economy. These migrants were provided permanent visas, as the vast majority settled in Australia, a concept in direct contrast to many European countries, where temporary migration was the norm.

Two major policy changes in the 1990s transformed Australia’s immigration framework.

These were the introduction and expansion of temporary visa programs such as 457, student and working holiday visas and the shift away from family reunion towards skilled migration. Bipartisan in nature, there has not been a set of policy changes in the past two decades designed specifically to limit migration in any way whatsoever.

Taken together, these reforms lay the foundation of a ‘demand-driven’ immigration system where demand from the labour market and universities largely determines the number of people who immigrate to Australia. Like interest and exchange rates, immigration has changed from a policy wholly determined by government to one where the market plays the dominant role.

This has not removed government agency from immigration policy. Governments establish boundaries through various program settings but cannot determine the exact number of immigrants who come to Australia each year. Economic growth, such as the much touted 23 years without a recession, will bring more people. This is why the past decade has seen such large increases in population projections.

I ask Bob Carr how he would see a lower rate of population growth. He calls for the government to lower the level of permanent visas in the annual budget process. But he doesn’t touch on the policy settings behind student, 457 or working holiday visas, all of which are increasingly doing the legwork on population growth. These are complex programs now interwoven in our labour market, higher education sector and foreign relationships, arising in the last two decades without the accompanying percolating public discussion akin to how we discuss home loans.

We do not understand immigration as a market driven institution but this is exactly what it is. By constantly relying on politicians to set a limit without acknowledging the policy transformation, we are poorer in our understanding.

Elsewhere in Parliament, particularly with the loss of Bob Carr, you find the very same support for immigration and a larger population. Andrew Laming, a Harvard-educated, beer-swilling, Liberal MP represents the electorate of Bowman, a suburban seat in Brisbane’s east.

“On population growth I regard myself of supporter of what we are currently doing. I’m very comfortable with the current growth and wouldn’t dream of any slower.”

From different sides of the political divide, Dastyari and Laming represent the dominant view in Canberra on population.  This bipartisanship emerged as Australia’s period of economic sunshine began in the 1990s. Dastyari calls this “a secret political consensus” on immigration and population, a journey where the public have been left behind.

Those outside this consensus who advocate for a lower rate of immigration, such as former Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, agree with Dastyari’s central point – how difficult it is to talk about Australia’s population. Says Carr:

“Governments in Canberra have traditionally assumed they can ramp up immigration without any accountability and whenever it surfaces as an issue, I’m struck by the fact that Australian’s have made it pretty clear they don’t accept the simple arguments for a bigger Australia”.

I ask Dastyari if this is simply because no one talks about population or if there is something deeper, a wariness of what this conversation might unearth.

“No-one likes change. People are comfortable and change is an unknown. Historically there has been this sense of the Australian psyche which is wrong, that we are this lucky country with this amazing land of prosperity and peace and someone is going to come and take it away from us.”

Bob Carr on the other hand sees the delineation of federal and state jurisdictions as an important factor. He mentions the oft-cited call by federal governments for an infrastructure response to immigration as not being borne out historically.

“I’ve never seen a federal government – Liberal or Labor – make a serious commitment to the nations cities since the era of Whitlam. No subsequent prime minister has shown any commitment to the quality of urban life”.

These are sharp words for his own side, as the ALP oversaw six years of strong population growth from 2007-2013.

Peter Lewis is a director with Essential Media Communication and has tracked public opinion on population.

“Our leaders don’t want a debate about population, they know they can’t win on a ‘big Australia’. Instead they allow immigration to quietly increase while creating panics around specific groups. The slogan trumps the big issue.”

Lewis’ comments about an inability to win a ‘big Australia’ debate are concerning given Bob Carr is hardly inventing what is a genuine public concern about population.

Following the 2010 election campaign, 47 per cent thought there were too many migrants arriving. This tapered off to 42 per cent last year but remains in the top handful of issues raised by voters after the traditional staples of the economy, health and education.

This entrenched gulf between the public and the political class is dangerous. The result is tokenistic urban planning frameworks across capital cities, devoid of vision and detached from reality.

Exhibit A is Infrastructure Australia’s National Priority List. The largest ‘transforming our cities’ project – the Melbourne Metro – is classified as “only not ready to proceed due to a small number of outstanding issues” despite the fact Premier Napthine has likened the Metro plan for Swanston St akin to the Berlin Wall. There is a lack of transformative infrastructure projects simply awaiting approval.

This even extends to where we live. The Grattan Institute has found Australians have strongly divergent preferences about the housing we live in now as opposed to the housing we want to live in. Something is not quite right.

This is where the politics of population crashes up against a brutal reality about sustainability. Policy and discussion are kept in the backroom instead of the front page. Peter Lewis believes politicians have convinced themselves this debate is ‘unwinnable’ because of a reliance on focus groups.

“It’s not impossible. When people think this is simply a choice between development and no development they opt for the status quo. But when you tell them the population will grow, regardless of who is in power, they accept this and are prepared to engage in a debate about what sort of development we should have.”

We now have a sustainable in name, market driven by nature immigration policy that will push Australia’s population past 36m by 2050.

The 20th century lifestyle celebrated in the Olympics by our love for traditional quarter acre is already in the rear view mirror.

The question is not how many people but what does this mean for Australia? The social and economic impacts on Australia are lost in the debate over the headline figure.

(See Part Two here)

The end of softly, softly for the ALP on asylum policy

Senator Dastyari said five principles should underpin the offshore processing regime if it is to continue – greater transparency in the form of open access to offshore processing facilities, fair access to legal assistance, faster processing and improved care for asylum seekers.

Most significantly, Senator Dastyari has called for an independent review of every asylum seeker case by the refugee tribunal.


The softly, softly approach on asylum policy lasted six months for the ALP. Dastyari is one of a handful of people in the ALP who is able to seriously start this conversation.

And he’s right. Offshore, regional processing does not have to be this way. Secret and nasty, brutish. At the moment, there is no processing on Manus Island. It’s not processing, it’s offshore detention.

I would echo the call in particular for transparency, legal assistance and recourse. In conjunction with an increase to the humanitarian program, the ALP can have an asylum policy which recognises Australia has a role to play in this global issue, defines a genuine regional framework and treats people with respect. The young Hazara men profiled in this piece – Taking the Carrot – should not be forced to wait forever.

The most successful period of Australian asylum policy – participation in the post-Vietnam asylum resettlement scheme – was integrated into a regional approach. While the scope and scale is vastly different today than it was then, similar notions of cooperation should be at the heart of Australian policy. Manus and Nauru shouldering this burden alone isn’t good enough.

Interview outtakes (II): Sam Dastyari on bipartisanship, immigration and the public

I’ve been interviewing a range of public figures about immigration, population and multiculturalism, amongst other topics. However its impossible to squeeze everything said into written form so I’m posting bits and pieces here which I found interesting in one way or another. Earlier this week was Andrew Leigh on immigration, unions and the labour market.

Below is from Sam Dastyari, on the question of bipartisanship on immigration:

“Broadly the idea of migrant intakes has been bipartisan. But the Australian public haven’t been brought in on that journey. It is almost as if it’s a secret that has been kept from them.

The danger is, as we are going to have to make some tough choices around things like transport and housing, at what point do we turn around and say there is a housing crisis in Sydney and we are going to be increasing the population? How do we increase density in the inner city?

There is a huge federal government role in this and no-one is having this discussion. This is not a sexy thing to talk about about the moment but this will be the big issue.”

Dastyari spoke about these issues in his maiden speech which I wrote about here. He has been vocal on the need for politicians to talk about population more. This is a fascinating topic, as there certain appears to be a level of bipartisanship on population that is not apparent on other issues yet you rarely hear about it. The federal-state dynamic between migration and infrastructure is horribly under-explored in policy circles, which in a period of high population growth is probably sub-optimum.

I’ll post links to more of his comments exploring the intersection of population, immigration and asylum when I’ve found the appropriate place to publish.

A progressive response to Operation Sovereign Borders

Many progressives see no difference between the ALP and the Coalition in terms of policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Like many political stereotypes, there is a grain of truth to this argument. Both support offshore processing, offshore settlement and mandatory detention, three central pillars of official policy.

Yet there remain substantial differences. I want to outline two and comment on how both can contribute to a more progressive policy position for the ALP, something craved by its members and progressive supporters. This will not “solve” the gap between federal politicians and supporters, nor will it change offshore settlement for asylum seekers, what many see as the greatest mishap of the Gillard/Rudd period. Yet it will help by providing more opportunity for refugees to settle in Australia and fostering a better relationship between advocates and the only party that can implement a progressive policy for asylum seekers and humanitarian migrants.

The first major difference is the language used by politicians to describe policy. It is clear John Howard’s infamous “We decide” line was the start of the current era of asylum and refugee policy. Asylum policy became incorporated by an overtly nationalistic tone, appealing to voters who abandoned the Coalition in 1998.


Sam Dastyari said it best in his maiden speech, “I believe John Howard’s calculated response to the Tampa affair appealed to the worst in us. It may have helped win an election but it hardened my resolve as a then 18-year-old living the Australian dream in Sydney’s north-west”.

The ALP successfully shifted the terms of this debate, something few people are willing to concede. Instead of an appeal to the ‘worst in us’, policy was shaped as preventing the inevitable drownings which occurred too frequently off the coast of Indonesia and Australia. Some will say this doesn’t matter as it doesn’t help those stuck on Manus Island, yet it matters a great deal.

By removing the policy from the clutches nationalistic far-right, the ALP were able protect asylum seekers and humanitarian entrants in Australia from vicious barbs, filled with hate, directed at any asylum seeker. This behaviour was accepted and condoned, because of the words of the then-Prime Minister. While undoubtedly discrimination occurs everyday in Australia, the ability to change the debate from sovereignty to avoiding drownings actively sought to provide society with the means to say these people were accepted. They were not infringing on our sovereignty and they were welcome here.

Operation Sovereign Borders removes these means. The name alone signals aggressive opposition to asylum seekers, not the apparatus which supports and maintains the status quo. The militarisation of asylum policy is the most provocative signal in asylum policy ever taken in this country. Operation Sovereign Borders begs people to blame asylum seekers, inferring these people threaten Australia in a manner more akin to wartime.

Based on this critical difference, it is time for the ALP to renew its commitment to Australia’s humanitarian program. One of the most pleasing policy changes of the Gillard government was the increase in the number of people granted humanitarian visas to 20,000, up from 13,500. The program had stagnated for nearly two decades while other parts of Australia’s immigration program – skilled and family visas – reached historic highs. It was entirely predictable that one of the Abbott Governments first decisions was to remove the additional places, on the premise of saving ~$500m per year to help stem the ‘budget emergency’.

The 20,000 figure remains ALP policy. Yet somehow it feels as if the party simply wishes the issue would disappear. This policy arguably does more for the poorest, most destitute people in the world than any other government decision or money. It is time to build on this.

Every time Operation Sovereign Borders is mentioned, the humanitarian program must be invoked. The Coalition say they support “real” refugees yet their action in government betrays these hollow words. Nothing crystallises the difference in approach between the ALP and the Coalition more than this policy decision.

To press home the importance of the humanitarian program, a long-term commitment to link the humanitarian program as a proportion of the overall migration program is required. This is the best method to ensure a constant increase in the number of humanitarian migrants as Australia’s immigration program grows naturally over time.

Unfortunately Australia cannot take as many refugees as a country such as the U.S. (currently ~50,000/year) however we can make a decision as to what is the appropriate proportion of the total immigration intake and work towards that. This would be very similar to indexing family welfare payments so that overtime, inflation doesn’t eat away at the real value. As Australia’s population grows, so too can our humanitarian intake.

This will not happen in a vacuum. It will take a sustained campaign by ALP supporters and members to change policy. You should stop reading this and email your federal MP. Propose a motion at your local branch meeting. Nag your friends who might not like asylum seekers but support the humanitarian program (about 50 per cent of the population regardless of voting intentions).

The prosecution of this argument should be done with vigour, drawing out the true intentions of the Abbott Government. There is ample evidence to suggest the Australian public strongly supports the humanitarian program, meaning this policy will find support in the community when advocated for.

In a decade, the difference between the Abbott government and an ALP government would amount to ~75,000 people. This is a real difference, one which changes lives and provides opportunities unlike anywhere else in the world. It shows the ALP is serious about helping those most in need while the Abbott government only gives lip service to the notion. It will help repair the fractious relationship between the progressive left and the ALP, where together further change can be advocated for.


On Sam Dastyari, asylum seekers and a big Australia

When you type “sam dastyari” into Google, the ‘people also search for’ feature spits out the following:

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Based on Dastyari’s powerful maiden speech in Parliament today, future Google results are unlikely to reflect similar identities.

When I first saw Dastyari was moving into the Senate after a stint as NSW Secretary of the ALP, I was disappointed. I do not know the man, yet he was someone who many members of the ALP had come to appreciate. Here was someone actually undertaking reform, not talking about it.

What really bugged me was the notion he was joining the Senate to pursue ‘policy’ and reshaping political debate. I scoffed when I first read this profile back in August, seeing it as a shallow attempt to justify the never-ending search for more power. A re-run of past ALP luminaries.

Now I consider that judgement misplaced. Dastyari’s speech centred on the most difficult policy for an ALP politician to address, immigration. While others within the ALP are known supporters of a larger population, his was the warmest embrace I have read:

“Friends, let me be clear, I unequivocally believe in a big Australia. Immigration adds to our national wealth. Immigration is nation building. Immigration makes us strong. The people who come here will drive Australia’s economic prosperity for decades to come. We are right to do so now.

Our conversation about immigration should start from the same optimism, the same activism and the same faith in the future which has been the key to our success as a nation for over 200 years. But it does not, and I believe it is no coincidence that a country whose national conversation about immigration is so poor is also one where we are far too willing to predict hard times and focus on the negative.”

Some may say actions speak louder than words. But these words are in themselves inspiration for policy. An Iranian-born man, representing Australia’s ability to integrate disparate people from all corners of the world, standing in the Australian parliament passionately arguing the case for a big Australia.

This is a most positive step forward for a political party tarred with the permanent memory of White Australia. Dastyari’s words crystallise the choice ahead. The ALP can look inward on immigration, as it did all too regularly in the past, or it can choose a ‘richer, stronger’ path forward. To continue a conversation “so poor” or recast that conversation in search of something better.

There is now a growing group within caucus who have seen the recent debate on immigration and population and made a very conscious choice to reject it. Bill Shorten flagged his support for a big Australia during the leadership ballot. Perhaps this has allowed others to speak up more openly. By passionately advocating a big Australia, Dastyari seeks to renew the policy debate and hopefully help move the ALP ever closer to better defining what a bigger population means for Australia and Australians.

Not content with tackling one area of immigration policy, Dastyari also addressed asylum policy. He hinted at this last week, highlighting the vote against Temporary Protection Visas. However this missive was personal, a clear reminder of what separates those in the ALP and those in the Coalition on the policies of asylum:

So let me put it plainly: I believe John Howard’s calculated response to the Tampa affair appealed to the worst in us. It may have helped win an election but it hardened my resolve as a then 18-year-old living the Australian dream in Sydney’s north-west.

Twelve years on and I believe we have not made nearly enough progress. The rhetoric of our national discussion about the so-called boat people still lacks a real sense of compassion. That is why I believe it is time for us to have a real conversation in this country about asylum seekers—a conversation that is not about the number of boats but about the names, the faces and the stories of the people they bring. A conversation that is not just about how we stop the boats but about what we can do to improve the situation of those so desperate that they would consider getting on those boats in the first place.

That conversation isn’t easy. The ALP is alone with the Greens on one side and the Coalition on the other, a government whose policies will forever push the boundary of what is acceptable. The simple fact Dastyari is prepared to stake out this position is a healthy sign for future policy debate, both within the party and for the country. It points to a progressive agenda, where the boundaries of asylum policy blur into economic development and global citizenship.

My image of Dastyari as a fixer, a machine man, albeit a reformer, remains. One does not simply become NSW Secretary of the ALP without a set of traits most people would be wary of. Action over time will change this perception. And have no doubt, the opportunity to act will come again in a big way. The “debate” over population will arise again within this term of government. Hopefully Dastyari et al will have laid the groundwork to ensure the conversation is not a revision of 2010.

Of all the policy reform claimed by the ALP since 1983 (Keating and the economy, Button and industry, Dawkins and higher education, Gillard and schools etc etc) there has yet to be a figure associated with radical achievement in the field of immigration and population. Perhaps Sam Dastyari is that figure. More likely, he isn’t, given the vagaries of the political system. Whatever the future holds, the final words of his maiden speech, “Friends, never forget where you came from”, are a poignant reminder to Australians of our shared history, a history where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else.

Well said Senator.