Taking policy lessons from 12,000 more humanitarian migrants

I disagree with the emerging consensus that public opinion on refugee and asylum policy is shifting. I see it as hardening existing positions.

For example, on the government’s decision to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees, Lenore Taylor writes:

There’s a lesson here. When voters speak loudly enough, politicians listen. The Abbott government has come a long way since Sunday, when the prime minister suggested any additional intake of Syrian refugees would have to come from within the existing humanitarian intake.

The lesson isn’t when voters speak loudly enough, politicians listen. “Voters” spoke as loud when Reza Berati died. The public spoke loudly on marriage equality and a Private Member’s Bill languishes.

Refugee and asylum policy remains entrenched in the status quo: ‘orderly’ offshore resettlement is accepted while irregular migration – boat people – rejected. Over 15 years of public debate and the public has a clear ability to see the difference. Best practice research on migration and public opinion show these trends are the norm.** Nothing that has happened this week changes this. Ignore shitty polling as a reaction to immediate events as it is a poor indicator for policy sustainability.

It is false to say nothing has happened. The Syrian exodus has created space for policy choice and magnitude. German leadership kick started a rapid reaction from other rich countries who could not hide from what had been occurring for months. But why can Syrians sit in detention centres in PNG and Nauru while planning begins to accept 12,000 additional people? Why can both the government and ALP confidently state they will continue to turn boats back even with Syrians onboard? Reporting on these matters is almost an afterthought. In the populist tabloids, it does not exist.

This is not to cast judgment on these policy options but to explain that this type of post-hoc ergo justification is wrong. Given modern migration advocacy has a long record of failure, I would recommend those seeking permanent change in asylum policy to disregard the “change has come” narrative and start to think differently. Poor attribution to policy cause and effect can have massive opportunity costs.

To me, the lesson is something Lenore Taylor identifies later on in her piece. Transparency is central. Awareness and information change attitudes. Secrecy is a blight on the ability to change policy outcomes. This is the reason detention centres are offshore or in the outback. This is the reason media are kept out of camps. Images and stories that allow the communication of human nature are deliberately locked away.

Some people might say now is not the time to debate or nit pick these points as we can collectively be proud of the decision to accept 12,000 more migrants. I disagree wholeheartedly. Now is exactly the time to debate these points if there is to be continued progress. 12,000 more migrants is a positive step in the right direction. Yet it should be viewed as a first step of a journey, not a policy victory.

** As reminded to me by Ben Wilkie on Twitter, leading to this blog post.

A look in the mirror

Two events this week demonstrated how the progressive movement can struggle when it comes to migration in Australia.

The most obvious is how the lack of movement on asylum policies will occasionally come back to bite.

Richard Marles’ comments this week – when you actually read them – are nothing out of the ordinary. He spoke about how Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is paramount and boat turn backs damage the relationship (true). He said how the government had yet to establish how the process was safe (true; at least publicly this has not been shown). He did not mention the concept of refoulement but that is more difficult on a five minute talking head spot.

But that’s not how it works. We live in a binary world of yes/no. “Might” doesn’t exist and thinking through issues occurs privately. Marles’ should have known better. The tension within the ALP over asylum policy isn’t going anywhere and this was an opportunity for it to flare up onto the front pages.

Is it possible to simple not talk about asylum policy in Australia for an entire term of government? We’re going to find out as the ALP try.

And least anyone assume I say this negatively, I believe this is the only way forward. Compare it to how the Abbott government handles workplace relations. Don’t respond. Don’t bite. Ignore the question until you are blue in the face. In a vacuum, I would prefer a different approach, one where issues are debated on their merits and evidence is advanced. This is not quite the environment we find ourselves in.

There is a relatively straightforward pathway for the ALP to take into the next election; a world-leading humanitarian program of 20,000-25,000, a commitment to keep relations with Indonesia above politics, offshore resettlement as part of a regional solution and opposition to TPVs. This might sound familiar give it’s the status quo for the ALP.

One cannot forge proper relations with the Indonesian government from opposition. You cannot craft a sustainable regional solution from opposition. The hard work will come in government as the current set of asylum policies are unsustainable over a period of time any longer than 3-5 years. While pull factors exist, push factors also play out over time. This is the largely unacknowledged gap in Operation Sovereign Borders, the most expensive per capita migration policy in the world.

Passionate ALP members and progressive community advocates do not like this status quo. But the way to improve the long-term outcome of Australia’s asylum policies is from government. Witness the current lack of visa processing from the government and you immediately see a stark difference in asylum policy despite the incessant cries that the two parties are the same.

The other event was less political, more difficult. It should generate a reflection of what an Australian progressive movement wants when it comes to immigration. Unfortunately the moment will likely pass us by unnoticed or ignored.

The Scanlon Foundation produces an annual survey on social cohesion and public attitudes to migration. To quote David Marr, the reports contain “a beautiful set of figures”.

In 2014, Australian attitudes to immigration are stark. Unlike OECD countries across the world, Australian’s are largely supportive of immigration. Only 35 per cent of people think immigration is ‘too high’ whereas 58 per cent say it is ‘about right’ or ‘too low’. We are a positive outlier in one of the most socially divisive issues in the developed world.

This is incredible for a number of reasons. The actual number of migrants arriving is high and stable. Combined with soft feelings about the economy and slightly higher unemployment, tradition would dictate about half the population would think there are too many migrants arriving.

Yet this is happening (in part) because people are not concerned about asylum. In 2013, a full 12 per cent of the population thought this was the most pressing issue facing Australia. A year later this figure is four per cent. While the economy still plays a strong role in determining Australian attitudes to immigration as a whole, it cannot be doubted that these attitudes are also influenced by the particulars of asylum policy.

How should a progressive respond to such findings?

These are some of the most popular comments on the Marr’s write-up of the findings which represent attitudes similar to what I’ve seen and heard elsewhere:

DameEdnasGlasses: “Oscar Wilde nailed it.’Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious’. If people are happy now they are bloody idiots who deserve to lose the excellent quality of life we used to have to bigoted thieves.”

Wobbly: “Great weather, beaches and food, but too right wing, too intolerant, too anti-intellectual, too apathetic about environmental degradation, Murdoch too powerful and Abbott is worst PM in Australia’s history. You can live well with blinkers on but nirvana it is not.”

Brnost: “What we are seeing is not, as the article suggests, a rise in patriotism, but rather a rise in nationalism of the worst kind – the kind that fuels xenophobic right-wing groups such as the Tea Party and UKIP.”

There are a couple of take-aways from this. The most evident is people will write uninformed rubbish in the comments section.

Take the last comment above. The Tea Party and UKIP exist (in part) to oppose immigration. This is clearly not compatible with Australian attitudes to immigration, where concern is at a historic modern low. One way to look at the current environment is that there is no space for a UKIP to emerge because people do support immigration, on the proviso it is ordered. Look at the failure in the 2013 election of the myriad of far-right, explicitly xenophobic parties.

Other commenters seem perturbed how public attitudes will ‘follow’ politicians. Yet on asylum, you only need to examine opinion over time to see where our failure as a progressive force on asylum stems from.

Since about 2010, between 20-25 per cent of the public support permanent residence and settlement in Australia for asylum seekers. The rest of Australia – around three-quarters – doesn’t. This finding hasn’t changed over time. 63 per cent of Green voters agree, 31 per cent of ALP voters and just 13 per cent of Liberal voters.

That’s the equation for progressive Australia on the question of asylum and public attitudes to immigration.

I think about migration a lot. I work at the Migration Council Australia. I have an Amazon wish list titled ‘migration books’. My Twitter feed is about 30-40 per cent migration-related.

I believe both; people should have more freedom to move, particularly those seeking asylum, and, public attitudes to migration are extremely vital for long-term societal cohesion.

And at the moment, I have no idea what to think about these results. But I do believe if we continue with the current approach embodied by the comments above, history will simply repeat.

Review: “Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders” by Peter Hughes and Arja Keski-Nummi

In May, the Centre for Policy Development, partnered with Australia21 and the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, coordinated a report called “Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders: A Long-term Asylum Policy for Australia“. This was a discussion paper for roundtable discussions held in July.

It is without a doubt, the best policy document I have seen in response to Operation Sovereign Borders.

Authored by Peter Hughes (former Deputy Secretary of DIAC) and Arja Keski-Nummi (former First Assistant Secretary of DIAC), this document is pragmatic, grounded in fact and presents a sustainable asylum policy where one can imagine bipartisan support. This won’t occur tomorrow. But the ideas and concepts at the heart of this document show a viable pathway forward for the political class.

The paper tackles two issues.

The immediate concern is of people in detention, both in Australian and offshore. The authors say a time-frame is required for decisions on visa applications to force a more responsive system. The old 90 day rule from 2005 is considered. This is maybe one of the only proven methods of pushing the massive bureaucracy towards constant movement on protection visa applications. Given the caseload currently in Australia, the authors say a goal of June 2017 should be considered to clear the backlogue of cases.

In an obvious effort to move the needle on the 30,000+ asylum seekers in Australia and offshore, the authors find Temporary Protection Visas may be appropriate despite their lack of deterrence, as long as a determination is made on the claims of asylum. Paragraph 30:

“UNHCR acknowledges that, at times, temporary protection may be the most appropriate arrangement. For example, in circumstances where there are mass influxes (generally involving larger numbers than experienced by Australia), temporary protection may be a valid tool in ensuring protection is available for asylum seekers while allowing authorities the breathing space to more fully examine and determine the need for a permanent protection and stay in a country at a later stage.”

With regard to those people on Nauru and Manus, the authors are less forgiving. All cases should be complete by June 2015. Given the lack of progress in both countries, this is highly unlikely to occur despite the conditions of detention. The authors hint at more resources from Australia but part of the deterrence is the process.

The authors come out strongly on work rights and community living. This is not just two lefties banging on about their pet issue. This reflects decades of executive experience at the Department of Immigration and the understanding that particularly punitive measures such as restricting work and mandatory detention simply do not work as a deterrence. The cost of detention is raised, with people on bridging visas equal to 20 per cent the cost of detention, while community detention is about 50 per cent (paragraph 78). This cost savings are massive when we consider the total cost of detention, approximately equal to funding the NDIS.

The options regarding those detained offshore are much more limited. There are real constraints on Australian government action for those already in Nauru and PNG. This is reflected in the questions and options raised. This is the sad reality, limiting the ability to even consider a broader range of options in offshore detention centres.

Questions of scale when working with third-countries are raised. To me, this paragraph (92) raises some very important contextual information which I had not considered before:

“It is unlikely that either PNG or Nauru has the capacity to locally integrate many more than the current number of people in the detention centres there, particularly if a high proportion of them are recognized as refugees. Given the size of their local populations, these numbers alone would put them in the top 10 resettlement countries globally, comparable to European resettlement countries and New Zealand.”

However the authors highlight the positive also. There is an opportunity for both Nauru and PNG – with significant assistance from Australia – in attempting resettlement. A concern I would have is that any large package of resettlement assistance will contrast with the opportunity for local citizens, something that does not occur in Australia. This has the very real potential to undermine the concept of resettlement as we understand it in Australia.

Returning failed asylum seeker applicants is a critical part of the system. The authors reflect on some “known knowns” however do not acknowledge some well-known issues. Iranian asylum seekers are particularly difficult. Returnees to Syria may work on occasion as we have seen in the past fortnight but attempting to return more than a handful may prove extremely difficult. The question of what happens to failed asylum applicants in many countries – including Sri Lanka – is a difficult one to engage with.

The second issue considered by the paper is a future policy to replace Operation Sovereign Borders.

The most important piece of context that asylum flows are likely to increase over time (paragraph 121, p.31). Demand for migration to the developed world, via asylum or other considerations, is growing and supply is drying up. Where legal avenues close, others open. Given Australia cannot change global migration trends and increasing flows, we can either engage or ignore them.

The key points for a future asylum policy are: integrating a refugee policy into broader policy considerations and working with our region instead of unilaterally. This is based on the long-term goal of near universal ratification of the refugees convention, a medium-term goal of a regional initiative on force migration (suggested with ASEAN working through a deliberate framework to neutralise the politics) and a short-term goal of building on existing institutions, such as the Bali Process. The long-term goal is acknowledged as unlikely given the current strategic environment and the lack of any catalyst to change this.

These goals are not sexy. The work needed to meet them  will not appear on the front pages. But together they generate the most likely opportunity for a long-term outcome which meets the bipartisan consensus on asylum movements. The proposals are pragmatic. They can adapt and appeal to a range of people and interested groups.

Obviously, there is much work to do to achieve these outcomes. With resources – time and money – being spent elsewhere, this is not a blueprint for the next 12 months or for this government. However it is a clearly laid out plan with discrete steps towards outcomes based on historical realities. There is more explanation of what is required from paragraphs 120-168.

This proposal shows why any plan for Cambodia would be a failure. I was wrong back in May when I wrote how we should keep open minds about new proposals. Perhaps one day Cambodia will be a suitable society to resettle refugees but that day is not today. The fundamentals for regional cooperation are not in place: cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia. This prevents any possible success when working with countries with a much reduced capacity to assist. Instead, we would see more cases of mistreatment and an inability of countries to manage asylum claims and resettlement to a standard we should accept.

There is so much uncertainty in this policy. Those who are the most confident make rash decisions and are ill-prepared to consider a broader perspective. This is Hughes and Keski-Nummi’s most important contribution. Drawing on their decades of experience, they help guide the way for the next generation of decision-makers, advocates, policy wonks and those who are genuinely interested in advancing the cause of those who seek asylum.

Perhaps as important is the fact this proposal – with the concept of regional cooperation at its core – is sponsored and coordinated by the Centre for Policy Development, one of a handful of progressive think-tanks in Australia. Tacit endorsement from the CPD will allow those of us in progressive politics a better avenue for discussion with those who have long opposed such measures mooted within this document.

Some might look at asylum policy now and think anyone who believes positive change can occur is dreaming. Yet Hughes and Keski-Nummi have laid a credible path towards a better policy, an extremely difficult thing to achieve in the current debate.

Why can’t asylum seekers fill those low-skilled jobs instead of more migrants?

There’s an immigration meme that does the rounds fairly regularly. Asylum seekers should fill low- and semi-skilled jobs that are going to other migrants.

In an otherwise good column for the Guardian, Richard Ackland slipped this in at the end:

“There’s something else that could work to our benefit. The government has given the go-ahead for visas to foreign workers who are prepared to do skilled and semi-skilled jobs at discount rates. Yet, we already have a supply of these workers sitting in wretched camps waiting to be processed on Christmas Island, Nauru, Manus Island and elsewhere.

The problem? Work rights for asylum seekers and providing semi-skilled visas to other immigrants are not mutually exclusive outcomes.

Before I expand, let me say there has been no “go-ahead” for migrants working below market salaries. This is a misunderstanding stemming from the government’s inability to communicate properly and some in the media skim reading the detail of policy announcements. Even in op-ed’s, this isn’t a high bar to clear.

Yes, asylum seekers should be allowed to work. Here is my take on that. The fact a government who purportedly have a strong belief in individual liberty refuse some the right to work is hard to fathom.

Further, at least for asylum seekers in Australia, mandatory detention has not proved to be an effective deterrent. This is the case in both Australia and in other developed countries (see Tim Hatton’s work on asylum seeking in the OECD). I would argue living in the community with work rights while asylum claims are processed would have a minimal impact on the trend of people arriving by boat.

Moving onto Ackland’s specific claim. It is true that asylum seekers would be able to perform many jobs in the labour market, some of which Australian citizens have shown a preference to avoid and employers face high vacancy rates.

But it is also true asylum seekers may not be able to perform some of vacancies that employers seek workers for. In the mooted ‘Designated Area Migration Agreement’ for Darwin, occupations such as childcare workers, disability carers, mechanics, bricklayers, office managers, carpenters, chefs and nurses are apparently included.

While the population of asylum seekers may include perfect matches for these vacancies, they likely do not.

Think about it this way. In a vacuum, should we force asylum seekers to live and work in specific places, such as Darwin? While the obvious retort is that this is better than mandatory detention, I think a superior policy outcome would be the freedom to work anywhere they choose. Government forcing already vulnerable migrants to work in particular locations on particular jobs is a recipe for failure.

Community support for newly arrived asylum seekers is a critical part of any settlement process. Given the large ethnic communities in major metropolitan cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – compared to where many of these Designated Area agreements are likely to be in place, this is fanciful thinking. The lack of community support combined with the lack of government support will fall flat.

Looking for a better outcome for asylum seekers should not be dependent on implicitly scapegoating other migrants. Further, any solution should be thought out and considered, something this policy meme is not.

Reconciling asylum and humanitarian policy on “Australian Agenda”

There was a very interesting exchange on Australian Agenda last Sunday between Peter Van Onselen and Scott Morrison:

Van Onselen: Can I ask you one final question on this, the issue of the number of people who are seeking to get here having declined down to the 10,000 number in Indonesia and so forth. Do we fundamentally know where most of them go or do we care? Because my point is just that they don’t vanish into the ether so are they making hazardous journeys elsewhere? Are they non-genuine refugees that go back to their original homeland or are they potentially genuine refugees who are just stranded in non-signatory nations but obviously because we have clamped can’t get here.

Minister Morrison: There are 10.4 million refugees around the world Peter and Australia is not the UNHCR nor is our mandate to provide that service of support all around the world. It is our job to ensure that those who have come through the proper process we can provide support for them. One of the things I am most pleased about is when Labor in their final year the special humanitarian programme fell to just 500 places. This year it will be 5000 places, now that is a dramatic increase that we have been able to effect. Over the entire programme we have put 4,400 places this year for those affected by Iraq and Syria. Many of those, I would assume the vast majority of those would be Christian communities affected by that slaughter that we are seeing. Now you made the point before that it is predominantly sectarian within the Islamic community, well I think that in the broad is true but in terms of the persecution of Christian communities in the Middle East we know, we read today of women being sold into marriages. All of the most medieval barbaric craziness that makes us all sick to the stomach.

Van Onselen deserves credit for these insightful questions. They are rarely asked but get to the heart of any asylum policy based exclusively on deterrence.

Does Australian policy shift people from seeking asylum in one destination to another? Or does the policy stop people who are not strictly asylum seekers and seeking a better life?

These questions should be asked more often. Morrison’s answer is inadequate on a number of levels.

It is true Australia cannot resettle over 10 million refugees. However if the goal is to provide as much support as possible to refugees, as inferred by the Minister’s comparison of Liberal and ALP numbers under the Special Humanitarian Programme, then the Minister is blurring the truth.

The number of refugees granted visas in 2012-13 was about 20,000. The number under the Coalition is scheduled to be 13,750.

Minister Morrison boasting about how his actions have enabled more places under the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) is politics. He is relying on a poor public understanding of the intricacies of Australia’s asylum and humanitarian program.

The total number of people assisted and resettled in Australia as refugees is significantly lower under the Coalition government than the ALP. This decision was made by the Coalition because of the costs of resettling an additional 6,250 people every year (approximately $2bn over four years). For the Immigration Minister to pretend it was anything else is regrettable.

A much harder question is how to reconcile offering assistance specifically to Iraqis and Syrians. There are two issues with this.

As the Minister pointed out, there are over 10 million refugees in the world at the moment. By highlighting the Iraqi and Syrian caseloads, other caseloads are ignored. This is inevitable with any decision in a limited humanitarian program. But it is hard to gel with Coalition rhetoric about queues and the automatic reference to African refugee camps whenever the question of boat arrivals is raised. If we accept the concept of a queue, should the Iraqis and Syrians wait their turn? This nonsense argument shows we should not accept the concept of a queue.

Even more difficult is the different treatment Iraqi and Syrian citizens will receive if they travel by boat to Australia. These people, including presumably “persecuted Christians” where “women being sold into marriages” amongst other “medieval barbaric craziness”, are not offered a safe haven but an alternative. Compared to the 4,400 people resettled under the SHP, their lives will be significantly worse off in terms of health, education and economic outcomes.

I support a regional process which includes some third country settlement. But the Minister’s rhetoric shows how difficult it is to piece together a coherent asylum and humanitarian policy. Explaining the nuance behind why and how the same group of persecuted people are owed different outcomes has not been attempted. This should belie the Minister’s confidence as it is misplaced. Instead we get sound bites and talking points.

This brings us back to the original questions from Peter Van Onselen. Is Australian policy deterring Iraqi citizens fleeing violence and forcing them into equally dangerous journeys elsewhere? Or is it stopping Iraqi citizens who want a different life but do not face the threat of persecution?

The answer is probably both but with the continuation of violence, the former is likely to account for an increasing share.

Some Coalition statements on immigration

Despite my disagreement with many of his actions and policies, I believe John Howard – in the main – acted on his beliefs to make Australia a better country.

I’m having a harder time coming to this position with Prime Minister Abbott. As someone who believes politicians improve society and the lives of people within it, this is disappointing.

What does ‘Team Australia‘ actually mean? If it means “you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team”, what does that mean? Determining a neat set of social norms and formal rules for the “team” is not apparent in reality. Inequality, unemployment, intolerance. These are tangible matters heavily affecting how people view their position in society.

Presumably, these slogans and statements are intended to bring together. Yet they also have the ability to blur the lines between an Australian society accepting of difference and a country more homogeneous in nature. Promoting unity is important for a sense of community. But this requires care and nuance and context. None of this is evident in the Prime Minister’s words.

In a society where our differences are like shadows, flickering in uncertain light, we are all poorer for it. I think the way this has occurred and the inability to put a political argument against it (who is against ‘Team Australia’?) is a bad outcome. I’m glad Tim Soutphommasane is asking the right questions.

In another Coalition statement, Scott Morrison said:

“It was extremely disappointing that up to 4,000 applicants waiting in the queue missed out on places in this program (the Special Humanitarian Program), and that their places were being taken up by those who had arrived illegally by boat. This practice has ended under the Abbott Government.”

Morrison was talking about 4,400 protection visas (under the Special Humanitarian Program) which have been allocated for Syrians and Iraqis who are fleeing violence.

In the SMH article linked to, the journalist does an admirable job of reminding the reader that under the last government, there were 20,000 people provided with protection visas in 2012-13. This number has been reduced by the Abbott government to 13,750. For those counting at home, that’s 6,250 less.

Further, Minister Morrison did not elaborate on what the difference is between a Syrian or Iraqi fleeing violence by entering an officially-designated UNHCR camp and by boat via Malaysia and Indonesia. This is not an irrelevant question to the policy at hand. These are the opportunities to make the case for Australia’s asylum policy framework but they are ignored in favour of rhetoric.

Refugee advocates rightly call out this behaviour. However there is something even more odious which went unsaid.

The violence in Syria and Iraq is being used as the context to make this decision. This violence is highly regrettable. This policy decision is perhaps the right thing to do (a utilitarian would argue otherwise)

However when Scott Morrison uses this situation to make an explicit political point about previous government policy, he concedes the benefit of the doubt on whether he is acting because it is the right thing to do. He is playing politics born of violence.

There is little Australia can realistically do to help the situations in Syria and Iraq. Taking more refugees is one small way to assist. Making political hay out of this is highly regrettable and highlights the depth of our malaise on asylum policy in Australia.

The Case for Work

Sometimes an outcome occurs in which nobody believes. Asylum seekers living in the community without the right to work is such an outcome.

Many people who have sought asylum in Australia cannot work. We don’t know the exact number at any one time except that it is high (above 19,000 in February 2014).

This arose in August 2012 as the Gillard government introduced a number of policy changes intended to slow the arrival of asylum seekers via boat. The idea is that the right to work is an attraction to people seeking asylum.This policy – removing the right to work – has been maintained by the Abbott government. Devoid of context, perhaps this belief can be sustained particularly for those at the margins. Yet this claim is completely unsupported by evidence (much like mandatory detention and unlike offshore processing).

To date, much of the campaign to reinstate the right to work for asylum seekers has centred around the negative impact this decision has on individual asylum seekers. Most calls for a change stem from traditional advocacy organisations. A good example is this brochure (.pdf) by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre which adopts a human rights approach. People are harmed by this policy. A more nuanced portrait is painted by Peter Mares in a recent edition of the Griffith Review yet the case remains the driving force of his argument is empathy with the individual asylum seeker.

While I believe in the fundamentals of this human rights approach, the campaign is unlikely to force change. Despite this, I will offer a short contribution. The nature of this campaign appears to lack an important coda. The mantra of “Work” has become the centrepiece of this government, from reintroducing ‘work for the dole’ to removing unemployment support for people under 30. Yet when we look to a most vulnerable group living in our society, this philosophy does not apply. This powerful contradiction embedded in Coalition policy across the two most visible portfolios has yet to fully resonate. The restriction on the right to work is deeply illiberal in an age of government where liberty is paramount.

Source: Star Network

Instead of this style of argument, two very specific charges should be levelled more forcefully at the status quo.

The first is the fiscal impact of denying work rights to asylum seekers. This includes the direct cost of welfare payments to support asylum seekers. Mares touches on this with a ‘rough estimate of over $100m per year’. Perhaps more importantly, indirect costs such as healthcare and the opportunity cost of current government expenditure, are likely a source of long-term fiscal drain. These fiscal costs are not insignificant in an era where fiscal surplus is fettishised. In any other policy area, this “quick win” would be offered up in the name balancing the budget.

Establishing the fiscal burden of this policy choice is critical for the second charge, being restricting the right to work does not deter people from seeking asylum. As we have seen, the Abbott government appears unconcerned about the short-term fiscal costs of its asylum policy in the name of deterrence. Yet their own policy logic supports the right to work. The attempted introduction of temporary protection visas was primarily justified as a deterrent but an important secondary consideration was the reintroduction of work rights. If the Coalition saw the right to work as a deterrent, Scott Morrison would not be seeking to introduce such a policy. In Australia, giving asylum seekers the right to work does not induce asylum claims (it may in other jurisdictions, particularly Europe).

These two rebuttals to current policy – combined – are likely more effective in changing the status quo. You will not find a single prominent business or industry group who support restricting the right to work for asylum seekers. Building an argument centred on fiscal concern allows a more direct engagement from industry on what is a social policy question. This occurred with the recent public debate on raising the dole by $50 per week. While ultimately unsuccessful, the Business Council of Australia brings a more effective voice for advocacy with a Coalition government than another salvo from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. A costed figure to the budget on removing the restriction on work and an emerging public debate on the policy places more pressure on the government to change this policy given they likely do not believe in it anyway. Much like Barack Obama has mostly stayed out of the U.S. immigration reform debate to provide space for more conservative supporters, there are important considerations for those who want to see an opportunity for asylum seekers to work in Australia.

By creating a false dichotomy of work rights and temporary visas, the government has failed to deliver basic support to those under its jurisdiction while increasing the fiscal burden on taxpayers. Parliament has considered, and rejected, temporary protection visas. Scott Morrison needs to find a different way forward. This need not be radical. The ALP will likely support anything outside of temporary visas.

Nobody supports the status quo and it is incumbent on governments to find solutions to policy problems.