How should one think about immigration as a progressive Australian?

Muddled thinking on migration is the norm. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in progressive circles.

In an article about why Malcolm Turnbull is not a progressive, Van Badham writes:

In his speech announcing his leadership challenge Turnbull affirmed he’d been provoked to action not to go against Abbott’s economic policies – but to give them better “advocacy”. Crucially, he declared support for the China free trade agreement (Chafta) that will allow non-union labour to be shipped into Australia from China on projects worth more than $150m.

I agree Malcolm Turnbull is not a progressive. But the manner in which the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement has been framed is an afront to considered thought on migration.

“Non-union labour to be shipped into Australia from China” is one way to think about the China-Australia FTA. I assume Van Badham is inferring Chinese people will work for lower wages than Australians, dragging down existing wages and conditions. This argument rests on an assumption of power imbalance between the worker and the employer, with little outside accountability. This type of thinking has strong foundations built upon Australia’s border and sovereignty, where those outside should be restricted to benefit those inside. This is fair enough as we live in a world of nation-states and very different economic norms. We also know it is difficult to maintain the status quo for rights and conditions under large influxes of new people.

However as a progressive, you could also think about it in a slightly different way. According to the World Bank, China has a GDP per capita of USD$7,593 for 2010-2014. Australia has a GDP per capita of USD$61,887 for the same period. The average Australian is about 8 times richer than the average Chinese person.

Working in Australia instead of China would see a massive windfall to the migrant. A Chinese person would go from being around the middle of the global income to amongst the very top. In fact, this is likely the largest and most effective method to get people out of poverty, albeit one with a range of other consequences. Importantly, this occurs via the individual and not the nation-state or government as per traditional aid and economic development.

These differences should matter more in a world where the number one priority for progressive thinking is inequality. You can think about inequality ‘within countries’ or ‘between countries’. Within country inequality dominates the debate as it relates to how individual countries like Australia tackle the gap between rich and poor through domestic approaches. Australian standards, such as high minimum wages and the right to join a union, are seen through this prism.

Yet considered progressives should care also about ‘between country’ inequality. Between country inequality is the main culprit behind increasing global inequality:

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 9.05.58 am

(Source: Dani Rodrik, who sourced from Bourguignon and Morrison (2002) updated using data from Milanovic (2013))

There are two ways to address the massive increases in between country inequality. The traditional method has been to try and create more prosperity inside poorer countries. However the oft-ignored second is by letting poorer people themselves move to richer countries. In Australia, we actively dissuade this option as we have a system of immigration based on skills. This has many proxies that stops poorer people from moving to Australia, such as wealth and education opportunities.

I don’t believe in open borders. In the source above, Dani Rodrik makes an excellent contribution on the central role in institutions in creating wealth. But if we are to have a serious discussion in Australia about inequality, we cannot be wedded exclusively to a nationalistic approach given most inequality is global. There is space in the discussion on inequality for more focus on these ideas, instead of simply looking within our own society.

Immigration can play a powerful role in helping to address this without undoing our social fabric. It’s not good enough to simply shout about human rights and demand higher standards as the only solution to building prosperous developing countries. Why does Australia have uncapped Working Holiday treaties with rich countries but cap those from poor countries? Why does Australia not have a visa lotto open to people in poor countries, a la the United States and New Zealand? Why does Australia’s Pacific worker program fail when compared to the New Zealand program?

Encouraging people in poor countries to move to Australia for work would be an excellent complement to a more generous aid and development outlook, as well as an important step in our contribution to tackling global inequality. Framing more migration from China as ‘non-union labour to be shipped’ does not help this cause as it implicitly excludes the opportunity to think about how more people from a middle income country like China could move to Australia. The China-Australia FTA isn’t perfect. It might not even be a good agreement. However it also isn’t an affront to progressive values or labour standards in this country.

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