The Abbott government appears to have signaled that they do not believe in nation building.
They have created a Department of Immigration and Border Protection and moved the vital settlement support services from this portfolio to be lost in a larger welfare-oriented agency. The fact is that migration and settlement are two sides of the same coin and it is this symbiotic relationship that has been fundamental to making sure that Australia’s migration programs have been the envy of the rest of the world.
We now risk losing that competitive edge at a time when most countries recognize that what they need more than anything else is to attract young, skilled migrants.
To some, it may appear that the new arrangements make sense. But we would do well to remember history a little bit. The last time Immigration was split and settlement moved into a social service portfolio was under Gough Whitlam when migration reached historically low levels in Australia. It was not a good move then and it is not a good move now. We again risk jeopardising the very success of our migration programs.
Symbolism matters and what Tony Abbott has done also says to us that migration is no longer about nation building but it is something to fear, which is why we need our borders protected!
From what? Growth? Wealth generation? Because that is what a successful immigration program has delivered to Australia for close to seventy years.
He has also shown how shallow his understanding of migration and its role in Australia’s wealth is. He has been hijacked by his own mantra on boats to ignore the more important part of the portfolio – the migration program.
By the creation of a Department of Immigration and Border Protection he has effectively reversed the underlying philosophy of immigration as a nation building program (remember the old adage populate or perish – it is as true today for different reason as it was immediately after the second world war nearly 70 years ago) into a an essentially militarised border security portfolio.
One of the reasons Australia has been so good at immigration is that we have always recognized that the migration experience does not end with a visa or entry to Australia. Its success has been how we assist in the difficult first months and years of resettlement. Having the space to learn English early and to be assisted in understanding how to negotiate a different and sometimes culturally incomprehensible social services and employment landscape are fundamental to this adjustment.
For the modest amount of outlays allocated to the programs we get a big bang for the buck. These are not welfare services – they are about making the immigration program a success. We have the evidence after thirty years of a structured settlement support program that the earlier new arrivals have settled and the earlier they are able to move into jobs and into education the faster will they and their families be contributing to the Australian community.
Malcolm Fraser over thirty years ago understood this when he commissioned the Galbally report – the foundation for many of the programs now being moved to the new social services portfolio or to education.
He also knew of the hardships of migrants who arrived in the immediate post war years with limited assistance and support struggling to learn English or to adapt to the new society they had come to. His vision was for an integrated Australian society – not ghettoes and that is what we have managed to achieve. It has not been good luck it has been holding the course and making sure that we have had well managed settlement programs. Even John Howard was not so regressive despite the push from the Pauline Hanson’s of this world at the time.
The risk we now face is that we will undo a migration program that creates wealth .In its place we have the cheap politics of boats.
Arja Keski-Nummi was formerly First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. She was responsible for refugee policy and programs.