A nation beyond? Reframing migration, settlement and engagement

Pessimism is the overwhelming emotion I feel when considering Australian migration in 2015.

Michael Pezzullo, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, has called for his department to “reframe” how they see themselves. In a speech to staff extracted to the Mandarin, he says:

For us as a department, we should assist in this national endeavour by re-framing how we see our role. Yes settlement will be an ongoing element, but the mission of mass migration that was set for us in 1945 is long accomplished and should be declared so. More than settlement, we should look to become Australia’s gateway to the world, and the world’s gateway to Australia. On occasions, at times of heightened threat such as caused by terrorism or pandemics, we will need to act as the gatekeepers and as necessary man the ramparts and protect our borders. But the overwhelming and predominate role of the department will be to act as the open conduits of Australia’s engagement with the world around us, whether for the purposes of trade, travel, or migration — for time limited purposes or for tomorrow’s settlers. And how different will tomorrow’s settlers find tomorrow’s Australia: a unique society and culture in a unique land, a fusion of the ancient and the modern, proud of the ancient culture of our first peoples, our British legacy and our multicultural unity-in-diversity.

This is a clear break with how the Department of Immigration has seen itself for decades. A disposition of openness has quickly transformed to one of caution.

Mr Pezzullo does not attempt to gloss his message. The “gateway” paints a picture of control, a border that is both high and wide, with but a small window to pass through. The Department of Immigration as a “gatekeeper” neatly describes the new policies that will see some staff carry weapons. Usurping the traditional role of the federal police, gazing toward the United States for inspiration, Mr Pezzullo wants a department with a more overt focus on keeping people out.

“Terrorism and pandemics” should require a calm explanation of the situation, not a trumpet call to ‘man the ramparts’. Australia’s response to Ebola last year was a case in point of how not to make migration policy. Arbitrary bans on the movement of people are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions that inflict damage. A immigration framework tilted in this direction betrays a startlingly negative outlook towards anyone outside Australia.

Mr Pezzullo edges close to implying “we’re full”. Declaring mission accomplished for mass migration in Australia signals a strong message that the Department should shape migration policy based exclusively on the flow of people in and out of Australia instead of also incorporating people who want to live here and those who already do. There is a need for checks and balances in any system yet the emphasis of the border above all else combined with the lack of support for the great migration tradition of settlement is spectacular coming from the person at the very top of the migration bureaucracy. Indeed he seems to completely miss the point about settlement, saying “but we should increasingly reframe our national self-understanding and speak more of engaging with the world, and not just settling our land”.

The concept of settlement has often been poorly understood by the public yet never by a Secretary of the Department of Immigration. Settlement is not about ‘settling our land’ but the process by which new migrants settle within the existing society. This is a process not bound by geography or land but one embedded in the hearts and minds of our community.

Settlement has deep roots in the Department of Immigration. The process of welcome and assistance has been refined over time, successfully reiterated according to the demands of the time. This was relatively easier back in the day as nearly everyone who migrated to Australia did so permanently.

Today things are different. Temporary and circular migration intertwine with settlement. Should the government and department help a new migrant settle if they may head home within five years? When should a non-english speaking migrant be eligible for english lessons if they are on a temporary visa? These questions remain unresolved. Disappointingly, instead of tackling them head on, Mr Pezzullo is more interested in removing them from view. Given he sees the link to the land instead of the people who live on it as the central component of settlement, this is unsurprising. His desire for engagement with the world occurs naturally when new migrants feel they belong in Australia, not to be seen as simply a number alongside import and export quarterly reports.

Shifting the discussion away from settlement is a grave error. While Mr Pezzullo says the age of mass migration is over, I contend he is wrong. Australia remains a destination where people migrate to in large numbers. In fact, the number of new arrivals is trending up. You can see this by looking at the net migration figures.

The past decade is second only to 1945-55 in terms of how many migrants have arrived as a proportion of the population. Perhaps we are entering a new era of mass migration? Perhaps not. But for the bureaucrat charged with oversight of migration in Australia to belay such sentiment is extraordinary and anathema to a 70 year project.

The next Intergenerational Report is due out before the end of February and should project a figure between 220,000 and 240,000 migrants coming to Australia each year for the next 50 years. How these people settle – not how they are screened by gatekeepers – is the most important question for Australian society stemming from our migration policies. For Mr Pezzullo to side-step this in favour of a more muted “travel, travel and migration” agenda is baffling.

Even if Mr Pezzullo wants the age of mass migration consigned to the history books, a migration framework which he oversees is the catalyst for the higher number of new arrivals. Temporary migration has removed much of the control governments once had over the number of migrants arriving in Australia. Decisions once made by bureaucrats in his very position are now made by employers and migrants themselves. Many of these temporary migrants transition and become permanent residents and Australian citizens. Putting the genie back in the bottle would not only be difficult but a disaster on multiple policy fronts.

This means settlement is arguably more important than ever before. In Australia’s first age of mass migration, society was more homogenous. Diversity was in its infancy. English was easier to learn. Communities were stronger. Information spread slowly.

Today Australia is the most successful diverse nation in the world. This did not occur by accident. Settlement is a primary concept of this success, bringing untold political, social, cultural and economic benefits. But the maintenance and improvement of this unique environment requires hard work. People, money, thinking and commitment are all necessary to continue this rather incredible human experiment. This hard work is currently missing and the future will be poorer for it.

Remarkably, the tone of the speech is almost more striking than the theme. Mr Pezzullo appears to come from the in-your-face school of rhetoric. This bravado is best summed up by this passage:

With every passing year, we move further away from the vestiges of these colonial origins that came about as a consequence of the imperatives and decisions of an expanding Empire. But we must never forget that legacy. If you doubt this, ask yourself this question: what did these imperial, red-coated Romans ever do for us? What, other than giving us:

  • Parliamentary democracy;
  • Representative government, commencing with self-government in the 1850s;
  • The rule of the common law, an independent judiciary and the check on executive power;
  • Our public institutions, including the architecture of executive government and its agencies in which we serve today;
  • The separation of the parliament, the courts and the executive government;
  • The freedom of speech, belief, faith and ideas;
  • The English language;
  • The settlement and farming of the land, and the building of our cities; and
  • The foundation of our modes of cultural expression, which have of course evolved distinctly and independently.

Apart from these things, what indeed did the British ever do for us?

Those accustomed to how leaders of public service agencies communicate should be surprised and disappointed.

This borderline rant veers into extremely subjective areas. Mr Pezzullo appears to be egging on his detractors by venturing head first into questions traditional enmeshed in the esoteric world of Australia’s culture wars. One can easily imagine the above passage front and centre of the next Quadrant magazine. This is a poor outcome for a bureaucrat charged with impartially implementing Australia’s migration policy and unimaginable from those who have preceded him.

A final comment. This type of discourse points to the explicit link between asylum policy and migration policy.

In the past, I believed it was possible to clear disaggregate these policies into distinct entities. The Howard government walked that line with remarkable skill.

I’m less sure this is the case today. The direction migration policy is now heading is wrapped up in the words and images of the broader asylum debate unlike before. A hardline approach has begat a small but growing group of acolytes intent on “reframing” migration away from what it means for society and towards what it means for security.

This has incredible ramifications, particularly for political leadership. For progressives, Australia’s successful multicultural society is being shoved to the past and nobody appears to be that interested. For conservatives, this is simply another policy area where the nefarious words of our security discourse are crash tackling the great tradition and status quo of Australian migration and simultaneously reasserting the power of the state at the expense of the individual. I hope we are able to stumble back from the edge we are fast approaching but until those with powerful voices speak up, this will continue to go unnoticed.

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