Book Review: Tim Soutphommasane’s “Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From”

In “Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From“, Tim Soutphommasane has written the new benchmark on Australian multiculturalism, with one major caveat.

His ability to clearly define Australian multiculturalism is the centrepiece of the book, “If there’s an essence that defines multiculturalism, is it liberal citizenship” (p.49).

Multiculturalism emerged as a reaction against an ideal of cultural homogeneity which has defined nationhood across most Western nation-states. Those who didn’t belong to the domination national group within a state were either to be assimilated into it or excluded from it altogether. A multicultural state is based on a different idea. Rather than assimilate or exclude differences, the state should recognise and accommodate cultural diversity. What this means in practice will vary, depending on the minority cultural group in question. For indigenous minority peoples, multicultural rights may mean the recognition of land rights or self-government rights; for immigrant groups, it may mean, amongst other things, the introduction of discrimination laws or greater sensitively to diversity in public institutions. Either way, a multicultural state involves some set of ‘group-differentiated’ rights or policies targeted at minority groups who have been traditionally excluded from the nation-state.

Soutphommasane is particularly good on why Australia has succeeded where others have failed. Compared to the U.S. and Canada, multiculturalism in Australia is “straightforward”. Integration of migrants has been “an overwhelming success”. He serves up litany of facts concerning education, language and employment to show why this has been the case. His case is strong, particular as a response to those attracted to the idea multiculturalism has failed, the forceful claim argued by David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkosy.

Nothing illustrates this better than the attraction of multiculturalism as ‘nation building’. “Many of those sympathetic to cultural diversity regard the very idea of nation-building as anathema”, writes Soutphommasane. Incorporating nation-building into the multicultural story, jingoistic exclusion is severed away.

This flows into the guts of what the future holds for Australian multiculturalism, particularly the discussion on population, a bigger Australia.

Reading this chapter, I sensed something close to sadness from Soutphommasane. Up until this point, the book is a celebration. The unique ability of Australia to overcome past wrongs and triumph over the difficulty of diversity is lauded. Yet on population, a shadow clouds the future.

He opens with a description of Julia Gillard’s first major speech as Prime Minister, one where she repudiated Kevin Rudd’s call for a big Australia and toughened government asylum policy.

“What she actually said seemed to jar with the nation-building history of Australia’s immigration experience”

Soutphommasane says Gillard needlessly conflated the issues of multiculturalism, immigration and population. He argues this is wrong, as these concepts in Australia require thoughtfulness to “clarify the relationship between them”.

I agree with this insight as well as his call for a ‘bigger’ Australia of between 30 and 36 million people (since publication, the ABS projections are nudging 40m by 2050).

However our views diverge on one major point of difference: temporary migration.

Soutphommasane is wary of how a population of temporary migrants (primarily 457 visas, international students and working holiday makers) has increased over the past decade. This growth “hasn’t been an entirely positive development”. His major concern – migrants beholden to their employers, removed from citizenship – creates the risk Australians will regard immigrants as simply guest workers instead of citizens. He approvingly quotes Michael Walzer;

Democratic citizens’ have a choice: if they want to bring in new workers, they must be prepared to enlarge their own membership; if they are unwilling to accept new members, they must find ways within the limits of the domestic labour market to get socially necessarily work done. And those are their only choices.

The chapter ends with, “If we have learned anything from the experience of guest workers in democracies such as Germany, that is one addiction Australia would be better off without”.

This is a provocative argument. After spending the first half of the book extolling why Australian multiculturalism is different from other settler countries such as Canada and the U.S., as well as why we should reject the European argument that multiculturalism is dead, Soutphommasane now asks us to recall the social debacle which accompanied guest workers in post-war Europe. Is this fair? If Australian multiculturalism is different, perhaps Australian temporary migrant is also different?

I believe this to be the case. Unlike Germany, where Turkish and other eastern European workers were fundamentally excluded from German citizenship over generations, Australia has an immigration framework which has adjusted as temporary migration has increased.

In 2012-13, a total of 190,000 people become Australian permanent residents via the family and skilled pathways. Of these, a full 50 per cent did so from within Australia. In the skilled pathway, this number approached 70 per cent. These people are temporary migrants becoming permanent migrants. Becoming citizens. This is not immigration policy designed to exclude. This is the modern iteration of a great Australian tradition.

Of course, the fact many people acquire permanent residency does not not excuse those employers who exploit temporary migrants. Nor does it stop exploitation. But to frame a conversation about hundreds of thousands of people around a very particular set of employers is not conducive to improving the immigration and population debate in Australia.

Yearning for the past, where permanent visas were granted on arrival and worked in regional Australia, is not a solution grounded in a modern understanding of labour, student and cultural migration. Instead, we should seek to ensure temporary migration policy finds the sweet spot, allowing large numbers of people to share in Australia without undermining social cohesion by creating a tiered society.

The right policy mix can achieve this. Limiting the time spent on temporary visas can substantially reduce the risk of exploitation and create direct connections to citizenship for those who desire such. This is particularly relevant for working holiday makers and international students, where work experience and an understanding of Australian labour market norms for employees may not exist. As just one example, there is no reason for instance why these migrants should hold Australian Business Numbers instead of being more regular employees. This leads to underpayment and aversion of migration regulations by employers.

However it is important to recognise the benefits of temporary migration in Australia in its own right. Australia as a country – as a nation – gains much from temporary migration. Cultural links with international students are building a connection with Asia for the next generation. My own education was enhanced hearing about the Beijing housing market and the Japanese approach to climate change. Working holiday programs allow young people the world over to experience Australia and return to their home countries. In addition, young Australians are also provided the opportunity to explore countries the world over, as this is a reciprocal arrangement. While 457 visas appear to now be simply associated with exploitation, the unrecognised story is how international labour is perhaps the key import of ideas to Australian business and industry. Soutphommasane does not shy away from some of this, citing one estimate placing 30 per cent of all Silicon Valley firms being founded between 1992-1999 by the U.S. equivalent of a 457 visa, the H1B visa. But he mostly laments what temporary migration means for the future of Australian multiculturalism given the bridge to citizenship for many.

On closer examination, this pessimism is unwarranted. In 2011, I was told less than 1 per cent of temporary migrants (excluding New Zealand citizens) have been in Australia for longer than ten years. This is important context for programs that are increasing seen as poor public policy. It is vital to keep striving for such a low percentage, as this signals temporary migration and a citizenship-based multicultural Australia can coexist (this statistic should be published and tracked, creating accountability for temporary migration policy in Australia). I agree with Soutphommasane the existence of ‘permanent temporary’ migrants would be a poor outcome for Australian multiculturalism and social cohesion. Yet it is unwise to make comparisons to guest worker programs when this is clearly not the case in Australia.

Tim Soutphommasane has produced a book unlike any other I have read – a coherent understanding of what Australian multiculturalism means. He provides the important historical underpinnings yet paints a picture for the future, one where cohesion is strongly based on liberal citizenship. While I disagree on his conceptualisation of temporary migration, it is a great positive for Australian society he is now ensconced in the Human Rights Commission, leading from the front on this most important public good.

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