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.

Immigration and polling: an example

The Pew Research Centre published a new poll about Mexican immigration to the U.S.:

“A new survey about preferences and trends in Mexico concludes that one out of every three Mexicans would migrate to the United States if given the opportunity. The survey published Tuesday by the Washington-based Pew Research Center also says that of the 34% of Mexicans who indicated they would like to move to the U.S., 17% “would do so without authorization,” meaning without legal documents.”

(Source: CNN)

There was an increasing number of people who migrated from Mexico to the United States in the 1990s and 2000s and stayed. However, since about 2009-10, the total number of “irregular” Mexicans living in the United States has remained at about 11 million.

34 per cent of the Mexican population is 41 million people. 17 per cent of this number is nearly 7 million people.

The way I read the Pew poll is that there are 7 million people in Mexico who would move to the United States “without authorization”. Yet over the past five years, we have not seen this level of immigration occurring.

While Mexican’s continue to immigrate to the U.S. (offset by some returning both by force and by choice), 7 million is implausibly high. Entering the United States without authorisation is possible now. Further, in the article, a Pew spokesperson says the same poll conducted five years ago showed very similar results. While what people say to pollsters has not changed in five years, their revealed preference (what they actually do) has.

So what then do we learn from this type of polling?

We know these people are not going to arrive in the United States tomorrow, if at all. I think we learn very little about migration from these polls but we do discover how people view opportunities and some level of preference. This is important but not earth-shattering.

This also shows how the nation-state still plays an overwhelming role in controlling the movement of people across borders. Some are keen to discuss the decline of the nation-state yet many people in the world (and apparently 34 per cent of Mexicans) would tend to disagree.

Australian economists on low-skilled migration

Yesterday, Fairfax papers had a front page story about possible immigration fraud. I wrote about it here but the more I think about it, the more uneasy I feel. Compounding this, sneaking into the back of the paper was an op-ed by Bob Birrell, linking unemployment and immigration and calling for a general reduction in the number of migrants who come to Australia. I’ll have a response to this next week sometime.

Today, I want to discuss the contrast between what this coverage typifies – a public fear of more migrants – and how some economists see the impacts of immigration. While we have come to trust economists in most things (the GFC might have set this back a bit), on immigration, this is not the case at all.

In the U.S. a weekly survey run by the Initiative of Global Markets out of the University of Chicago asked a panel of over 45 prominent economists about low-skilled immigration. The general consensus view on low-skilled immigration in the U.S.? More low-skilled immigration would benefit the average worker in the U.S. but harm low-skilled U.S. workers.

Here are the results:

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(Source: IGM Economic Experts Panel)

I thought it’d be neat to replicate this with an Australian perspective. Looking for a decent response, I made a list of economists and emailed about 60 people. Unfortunately, I radically underestimated the amount of emails required for a decent sample and only received a handful of replies.

Instead of doing a statistical analysis as above, I thought I’d highlight the responses I did receive (and update over time if more come in) [note: some editing occurred].

The questions are the same as above except modified for Australia:

Question A) The average Australian citizen would be better off if a large number of low-skilled foreign workers were legally allowed to enter Australia each year.

Question B) Unless they were compensated by others, many low-skilled Australian workers would be substantially worse off if a large number of low-skilled foreign workers were legally allowed to enter Australia each year.

Jane Golley (ANU):

Question A: Agree, 9/10

Question B: Disagree, 6/10

I’m confident about my answer to A, but B is harder to answer – surely it depends on how tight the labour market is at the time, whether new immigrants spend money and create new jobs, how you define ‘low skilled’, how flexible low skilled workers are at moving between jobs, and what you mean by ‘many’ and ‘substantially’, among other things!

Warwick McKibbin (ANU):

Question A: Agree, 7/10

Question B, Uncertain, 5/10

Question A agree but the scale of the effect will depend on whether it is already educated younger workers rather than old unwell workers who enter and whether they are employable.

Joshua Gans (University of Toronto): 

Question A: Agree, 10/10

Question B: Disagree, 8/10

The most confident responder.

Paul Frijters (University of Queensland):

Question A: Disagree, 8/10

Question B: Agree, 8/10

Frijters deliberately made a distinction between the short-run of few decades and the long run of two generations. The response above is for the short-run and his response for the long-run was “no effect” for both statements.

John Quiggin (University of Queensland):

Did not provide numerical response.

on (A)
1. In my view, people now living in Australia would be better off in general if population growth were slower (for congestion, environmental, public capital expenditure reasons); but

2. What is true in aggregate, isn’t true when we consider particular cases. In all family reunion cases, and many others (including many cases of employer-sponsored migration), people already in Australia would like particular people to be allowed to come here  – to me, this concern usually outweighs the diffuse negative effects of more rapid population growth.

on (B)

Presumably if the migration intake is dominated by low-skilled workers, or by workers with some particular set of skills, Australians with the same skills (or lack of skills) will suffer from labor market competition. But I would prefer to focus on the concerns I mention in (A) in determining the intake, and on education, training and macroeconomic policy to deal with labor market impacts.”

(Note: My thanks to the above for their time and thought in responding to my email)

I can hardly lay claim to a consensus view of Australian economists with these five responses. However I think collectively they represent something a little bit different from the U.S. perspective. Whereas in the U.S. we see aggregate agreement on both statements, here we see each of the Australian economists agreeing to one statement and disagreeing to the other (or uncertain in the case of McKibbin).

I don’t want to read too much into this small sample but I found it interesting. There are distinct differences in U.S. and Australian immigration policy as well as other impact factors, such as labour market regulations, welfare design and societal concerns.

Perhaps these are non-trivial in explaining how economists of all stripes see the impacts of immigration (particularly John Quiggin’s response where qualified agreement on the first statement rested on social concerns of family). Within the Australian sample, isolating two responses, Joshua Gans and Paul Frijters, it’s fascinating to see such confident differences of opinion. I would love to be a fly on the wall listening to a discussion between those two on this topic.

Back to my main point being what I see as a disjuncture between economists and the public. Here, Paul Frijters, who is the most pessimistic of the five responses on low-skilled immigration, still doesn’t see any effect over the long-term. Other responses are more positive, at least in part.

However the Fairfax cover piece on visa fraud, the follow up op-ed and the constant public reaction against a larger population symbolise a much more skeptical public. People worry about immigrants – and not just low-skilled. It’s a fact across countries and across time-periods. They worry for economic reasons but also environmental, social and cultural reasons. To ignore this is shortsighted.

Chris Dillow points out here the need for limiting the space between how economists and the public understand issues, specifically highlighting immigration. I agree wholeheartedly but I do wonder how this will occur, if it can occur. Limiting this space should be seen as a public good. Politicians of both stripes in this country tend to agree with the economists which is why we know have a substantial net inflow of immigrants. Yet this situation is a finely balanced act with too much reliance on public disinterest. There has been little overt, sustained work to convince people of the policy fundamentals given the potential electoral backlash. This leaves a vacuum to be filled, particularly when things turn in the labour market.

Australian Electoral Survey opinion trends on immigration

The Australian Electoral Survey is excellent. Ian McAllister and Sarah Cameron have recently authored a report on political opinion trends from 1987 to 2013 using electoral survey data.

Here are a few graphs highlighting public opinion on immigration and asylum matters within that time period. They tell an interesting story of both relative stability and change in opinion.

The first table is ‘which party best represents your view on immigration’ and the others are self-explanatory:

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From the author’s website:

“Interpreting political opinion polls is sometimes difficult. On particular issues or with regard to particular personalities, opinions may change significantly in a short period of time as a result of an event or a changed circumstance. Small changes in question wordings or in sample design may cause what appear to be significant changes in public opinion when such changes are, in fact, an artefact of the survey’s methodology. The most reliable way in which to monitor trends in public opinion is to examine responses over an extended period of time, using questions asked in the same way and included in surveys that use the same methodology.”