Repost: Nation building or border policing? Guest blogger: Peter Hughes

Jan 10, 2014

 This was posted on November 15, 2013. 

Increasingly refugee policy is portrayed in terms of border protection and stopping the boats. We are losing sight of the enormous nation-building benefits that we have received from immigrants and refugees.  John Menadue

The repositioning of the Immigration and Citizenship portfolio as “Immigration and Border Protection” was a clear indication by the incoming government of its political priority – stop the arrival of maritime asylum seekers!

In the process of shuffling programs around to accommodate this, Australia lost something.

The settlement programs that provide initial support to migrants and refugees after arrival in Australia were moved from the Immigration portfolio to the Social Services portfolio. The Adult Migrant English Program was moved to the Industry portfolio (after inexplicably spending two weeks in transit in the Employment portfolio).

Through these programs last year, some 15,000 refugees were assisted with specialised humanitarian services and around 60,000 adult migrants received English language training. 216 grants were made to organisations assisting migrants with their initial transition into Australian society. Many other services, including translating and interpreting, were also delivered.

It has been hard to find an articulated rationale for the portfolio changes. Apart from one commentator on this blog, public commentary has been muted.

The Immigration portfolio and the Department, since its inception in 1945, has been primarily about nation building. This has continued under successive governments, with a short break in continuity in the early 1970s.

One of the great strengths of Australian national administration of immigration over that period has been that the Department has had a strong connection with migrant communities through its management of the initial settlement process. This has given it an important insight into the experiences of migrants and refugees when they get to Australia. It has enabled nimble adjustments to programs to deal with the particular circumstances of constantly changing national groups coming into the country. It has also enabled preparation for Australian Citizenship to be built in at an early stage.

Australia’s immigration program is regarded as one of the most successful in the world. The fact that last year saw the largest immigration program in the nation’s history absorbed into our society, with almost no controversy, is a testament to that. Our “one-stop shop” has been one of the secrets of our success. Why discard it?

One other equally unheralded shift of policy responsibility also took place. Responsibility for national multicultural policy also shifted from the Immigration portfolio to the Social Services portfolio. Interestingly, the community debate about its location after it moved from the Prime Minister’s portfolio to the Immigration portfolio in 1996 has been whether or not it should once again come under the Prime Minister’s wing. The idea that multicultural policy is just another social service is a novel one.

The previous Coalition government updated multicultural policy in the late 1990s with a strong and effective policy under the banner of “Australian Multiculturalism”. It then let the policy wither on the vine in 2007. The challenge is now for the responsible Parliamentary Secretary, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, to keep multicultural policy (reinstated by the Labor government in 2011) alive and kicking.

The problem of maritime arrivals, although seemingly intractable, is likely to prove transitory. In the meantime, we must neither lose focus on the enduring, longer term, goal of nation building through immigration nor weaken our capability to deliver it.

Peter Hughes is Visitor at the Regulatory Institutions Network, ANU, and formerly Deputy Secretary, Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

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