Government’s brazen disregard for non-discriminatory migration program

Nov 9, 2021
Qantas plane Sydney
(Image: Flickr/maxim75)

By fast-tracking migration for Hong Kong passport holders, the government is abandoning its long-time non-discrimination principle.

Australia’s permanent migration program has operated on a non-discriminatory basis since at least the Whitlam government.

But recent changes specifically targeting Hong Kong passport holders for fast-track permanent migration via the skill stream suggest that principle may have been abandoned without any public debate.

While the design of Australia’s temporary entry visas and humanitarian program have always discriminated between people of different nations based on measures of immigration risk or risk of persecution, successive governments have steadfastly maintained that our permanent migration program must operate on a strictly non-discriminatory basis.

The trend towards non-discrimination started when Harold Holt began to dismantle the White Australia Policy in 1966 and was locked-in by the Whitlam government’s passage of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke were determined supporters of the non-discrimination principle.

In 1988, however, John Howard argued “I do think it’s legitimate for any government to worry about the capacity of the community to absorb change and there is some concern about the pace of change involved in the present level of Asian migration”.

As prime minister, Hawke thundered against the suggestion.

He proposed and had passed in the House of Representatives on May 25, 1989, the following motion:

That this House:

(a) acknowledges the important contribution which immigration has made to the economic, social and cultural development of Australia;

(b) recognises that bipartisan support for the dismantlement of the White Australia Policy and the adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy have been to the overwhelming national and international benefit of Australia;

(c) welcomes the support now publicly expressed by the newly-elected Leader of the Opposition (Andrew Peacock) on 9 May 1989 for a non-discriminatory and bipartisan immigration policy; and

(d) reaffirms its unambiguous and unqualified commitment to the principle that, whatever criteria are applied by Australian governments in exercising their sovereign right to determine the composition of the immigration intake, race or ethnic origin shall never, explicitly or implicitly, be among them.

Former shadow opposition spokesperson for immigration Phillip Ruddock along with former immigration minister Ian Macphee, crossed the floor to vote with the government in support of the motion — much to Howard’s displeasure.

Despite this history, and Howard’s reluctance to sanction Pauline Hanson on her demands to reduce the level of Asian migration, at no stage did Howard seek to introduce criteria into permanent migration visas that discriminated on the basis of race or nationality.

The first permanent visa stream to do so was under former immigration minister Peter Dutton who introduced a fast-track process for long-standing New Zealand citizens to secure permanent migration through the skilled independent category.

Dutton also ensured these visas would be counted as part of the formal migration program and as a result achieving an effective cut to the migration program. Previously, New Zealand citizens securing a permanent visa were not counted as part of the migration program.

Given New Zealand citizens have a right to remain in Australia permanently without securing a permanent resident visa, the change introduced by Dutton could be argued as not being a significant breach of the non-discriminatory principle.

But the new permanent visa pathways for certain Hong Kong passport holders leaves absolutely no doubt the Morrison government has abandoned the non-discriminatory principle Hawke tried to lock in place.

The department states that “two new pathways to permanent residence for eligible Hong Kong and British national overseas (BNO) passport holders will open for applications on March 5, 2022, through two new visa streams:

  • Subclass 191 — the Hong Kong (regional) stream — for primary visa holders who were usually resident in Australia for a continuous period of at least three years immediately before applying and who lived, worked and studied exclusively in a designated regional area for that period, while holding the qualifying visa.
  • Subclass 189 — the Hong Kong stream — for primary visa holders who were usually resident in Australia for a continuous period of at least four years immediately before applying, and who held the qualifying visa during that period.”

To actually name the new visa streams as being explicitly for Hong Kong citizens reflects an extraordinary and brazen disregard for the non-discriminatory principle.

Current Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, being a young man with probably little knowledge of Australia’s immigration history, could perhaps be excused.

He may think little of the non-discriminatory principle his namesake tried to lock-in.

But why would Home Affairs Department secretary Michael Pezzullo and his department not advise him that Australia’s permanent migration program operates on a strictly non-discriminatory basis?

Perhaps they too do not care?

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