The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government will go down as the worst Coalition Government in history in its handling of immigration. This is how an incoming Labor government might go about dealing with the shambles it will confront.
If Labor wins the federal election, it will inherit massive immigration problems from the Coalition – a degraded administration, a policy vacuum, unprecedented processing backlogs and unresolved legacies from the last round of maritime asylum seekers. There is a huge repair job to be done.
The Coalition has broadcast the message for six years that immigration, in all its forms, is a threat against which the community needs to be protected. This message has either been condoned or simply passed on unquestioningly by the mainstream media. An expensive new bureaucratic apparatus has been constructed around this narrative. To paraphrase the classic Irish joke – you wouldn’t want to start from here.
The first thing needed to rescue immigration policy is a Cabinet level Minister. He or she needs to be of the highest calibre to deal with the major leadership, communication, policy and service delivery issues ahead. A Minister who cannot get on top of all of these challenges will not last long.
Labor will have to face up to the question of the best administrative arrangements early in the piece. The Home Affairs model has been a disaster for the immigration function. An organisation which prioritises “security” above all else has simply choked it to death. Immigration, as a national program which is about nation building in the long-term and, in the short term, about supporting the economy through a managed flow of permanent and temporary skilled workers, international students, working holiday makers and tourists, simply cannot prosper in such an environment.
A completely separate Department of Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs is needed to revive immigration policy and administration. It should comprise core immigration/refugee policy and program functions, citizenship and multicultural affairs. Migrant and refugee post- arrival settlement programs should be brought back into this Department. It would make sense also to bring elements of the Job Active program (the government’s employment service) under the control of the Department given its poor performance in achieving satisfactory employment results for refugees.
The Australian Border Force should be disentangled from the portfolio and sent to the Attorney General’s portfolio, retaining some of its immigration-related functions as the old Customs Service did. It should be renamed the Australian Customs and Border Agency. The word “Force” should be properly reserved for the Australian Defence Force.
Operationally, the priority task for Labor will be to prevent any resurgence of smuggled maritime asylum seekers. Because this issue has become the defining element in the poisoned well of immigration politics, Labor has no choice but to take a tough approach.
This means boat turnarounds to Indonesia. It also means “hand backs” to Sri Lanka and Vietnam and speedy truncated asylum assessments at sea, if required. Sadly, it also means recourse to offshore processing centres in PNG and Nauru as a backstop.
I would like to say that more humane possibilities were available, but when the hard right and left of Australian politics trashed the UNHCR-sanctioned Malaysia Arrangement it was a watershed moment. It meant that the harshest solutions were the only thing left on the table. Realistically, there is no way back (or forward) to an intelligent regional cooperative solution to maritime asylum seekers in the immediate future.
Nevertheless, more humane regionally based arrangements should remain the long-term goal. The government should invest in cooperation with relevant regional countries, including through multilateral bodies such as the Bali Process as ASEAN. This should be based on genuine reciprocity and not just Australian self-interest. The Centre for Policy Development’s Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration is a model for civil/government cooperation on regional governance of migration.
In parallel, Labor must quickly resolve the legacy refugee caseload in the offshore processing centres and Australia.
It is simply unconscionable that people who are mostly refugees, and have neither been charged nor convicted of any crimes, have been left in unacceptable conditions in Manus and Nauru for six years. The doctors can’t all be wrong about their failing health. Permanent homes must be quickly found. The Australian government should not allow every decision be driven the chatter of people smugglers in Indonesia. If these long-term exiles can now go to the USA without a new flood of boat arrivals, then they can surely go to New Zealand or any other acceptable country that Labor can find without a crisis occurring. As part of any final emptying of the offshore processing centres, some refugees may even have to come to Australia.
Domestically, the large group of refugees on temporary visas will have to be transitioned progressively to permanent visas.
In summary – Keep the boats stopped. Resolve the residual caseload. Move on. Australia has had enough of this 20 year saga being used as a political toy. We have bigger migration issues to deal with.
The next operational challenge is to clear the huge backlogs of unprocessed applications that are corrupting the efficiency and integrity of immigration system. This will be a major task as the Coalition Government has allowed backlogs to develop in many crucial areas, such as employer-sponsored migration, regional sponsored migration, spouse visas, onshore asylum claims and Australian citizenship (as detailed by my former colleague, Abul Rizvi, in “Pearls and Irritations”). This is accompanied by massive growth in the number of people – nearly 200,000 – simply hanging round in Australia on Bridging Visas. Most of all we should stop playing games with Australian citizenship and make sure those people who have met the legal requirements are given decisions rapidly and allowed to become full participants in our society.
More resources will have to be applied to getting the system moving again. Perhaps there should also be a forensic examination of where previously available resources went. The government is going to have to make use of external experts to advise on the remedial work, given the loss of immigration policy and implementation skills within government.
The Coalition’s high risk tender project of outsourcing visa decision-making should be suspended and carefully reviewed.
These matters are vital, but only short-term. There is a mountain of medium and long-term term issues, completely obscured by the politics of maritime asylum seekers, that Australia needs to resolve into the future.
What does Australia’s regional geopolitical environment look like in the next 25 years? What are the domestic environmental challenges that we face? What are our long-term population needs? What kind of population do we need for a critical mass to support our own security, cultural independence and manufacturing base? What part should immigration play in our population future? Do we want to continue to be a nation of Australian citizens? How can citizenship policy best achieve this? What should be the size and composition of our permanent migration program? What should be the size and composition of our humanitarian program? What should be broad future policy settings for international students, temporary skilled workers, working holiday makers and Pacific seasonal workers? What, if any, should be the transitional arrangements for them to become permanent residents? What should we do about growing populations of long-term residents without effective access to citizenship, such as New Zealanders? How do we get the most effective integration outcomes for new migrants and refugees? How do we explain the benefits of immigration policies to the wider community and keep them positively engaged?
The workload for an incoming government is enormous.
Some of the medium-term issues can be handled by the usual internal government processes, such as policy settings in relation to the permanent migration program, humanitarian program, citizenship and settlement for the next few years, but the well is too poisoned for all of them to be handled this way. We need a renewed long-term vision, around which to build a renewed consensus.
One way of handling this would be a full, independent, public enquiry into population policy and Australia’s immigration future, leading to a report to government on possible strategic settings over a 25 year period.
A more extreme possibility would be a Royal Commission, as suggested by Paddy Gourley in “Inside Story”, with a positive and forward-looking role:
“there would be value in establishing a Royal Commission on population policy and Australia’s immigration future, with the usual powers to require the production of documents and take evidence under oath. The commission should take into account regional geopolitical and population trends, including Australia’s labour market needs, and environmental considerations. It should recommend longer-term population policy and propose how immigration could support that policy consistent with broad economic goals.
At times immigration has been lucky enough to be based on genuine bipartisanship rather than the current rough consensus forced by political opportunism. Immigration needs to be renewed around a new consensus based on the public interest. A royal commission could help to do that in ways that seem at the moment to be beyond the will or ability of politicians left to their own devices”
An incoming Labor government must establish a clear and positive migration narrative while at the same time setting firm short, medium and long-term agendas. That is the only way we will ever get the poison out of the well.
Peter Hughes PSM is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He worked in a variety of policy and operational roles in the Australian Department of Immigration from 1979 until 2011. He was Deputy Secretary in charge of policy in the period 2007–2011.