PETER HUGHES. Who is running the show?

A new narrative. Why Australian immigration policy needs a positive approach

With Pauline Hanson taking a hard-line on immigration in the Senate, it’s time for the government to change its tune or risk relinquishing the debate.

It’s time the Australian government put together a positive narrative for Australian immigration policy.

On 30 August the country saw an overtly anti-immigration party re-enter the Parliament for first time in 18 years. Among a grab bag of anti-globalisation policies, Pauline Hanson and One Nation advocate zero net immigration, the cessation of Muslim immigration (including entry of Muslim refugees) and the abolition of multiculturalism.

This is happening at a time of global ferment on migration issues and the rise of anti-immigration parties in Europe in response to the influx of Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers and migrants.

Governments are struggling to deal with these pressures. The European Union has been overwhelmed and is finding it very difficult to reach a united approach internally and a workable compact with its neighbours in order to deal with the unprecedented movements of people.

The increasing urgency for governments to do better is reflected in the convening in mid-September of the United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees led by President Obama.

These global and domestic developments pose an interesting problem for the Australian government.

The Australian permanent migration program is running at record levels, in absolute numbers, of about 200,000 visas a year. In addition, permanent humanitarian visas are being progressively ramped up from 13,750 a year to 18,750 a year, supplemented by a one-off allocation of 12,000 permanent visas for Syrian refugees. Temporary entry programs are operating at near record levels. There are over 1.2 million people temporarily in Australia with some form of work rights (including working holidaymakers, students and temporary skilled workers).

The Migration Council of Australia has highlighted the major benefits of current immigration policy settings to nation-building and the economy noting that by 2050 immigration will have boosted our population to 38 million, added 15.7 per cent to our workforce participation rate and delivered 5.9 per cent in GDP per capita growth.

But for the last 15 years the national political focus has been on maritime asylum seekers and boats.

The problem for the government is that it has traded heavily on a negative narrative around immigration. Since coming to power in 2013, the Coalition has re-positioned migration from an “opportunity” to a “threat”, dismantled the Department of Immigration (removing settlement, adult migrant English and multicultural affairs programs to other portfolios) and rebuilt it as the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, incorporating the uniformed Australian Border Force.

Ironically, the government now faces a political force that implies there is a “threat” more broadly based than maritime asylum seekers. Pauline Hanson and her Senate colleagues may well feed off the government’s negative narrative.

A recent Scanlon Foundation report indicates that migrants in Australia have generally positive experiences, but it includes some worryingly high figures on the discrimination felt by some migrant groups.

Without a coherent, positive, government-led narrative on immigration, public attitudes will go backwards.

Coalition governments in the past have built a positive approach towards immigration quite effectively.

Under the Howard government, the sometimes controversial Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, went to extensive lengths to promote the positive aspects of permanent and temporary immigration, particularly the economic benefits and integrity of the immigration framework. He travelled tirelessly around the country and held community consultations in capital cities and regional areas to personally explain the benefits of immigration policies and how they worked. The size of the permanent immigration program nearly doubled and temporary entry programs burgeoned. The Howard government also produced an updated multicultural policy and renewed the emphasis on Australian citizenship, including by opening up the opportunity for Australian-born citizens to become dual nationals.

As one writer on Policy Forum has noted, the Howard government made some concessions to fears generated by Pauline Hanson and her party, particularly in its tough approach to maritime asylum seekers, but it ultimately took a positive stand on the benefits of immigration. The Hanson phenomenon faded away, at least for some years.

It’s definitely time for the Turnbull government to move away from the “threat approach” to immigration policy and give the community a positive narrative on all aspects of immigration programs and how they fit together to make Australia a better place.

If it doesn’t do this, it may find that someone else is running the debate.

Peter Hughes was formerly Deputy Secretary in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This article was first published last week in the ANU Crawford School Policy Forum.

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