The Coalition Government is once more in its element screaming at Australians that only they can save us from hordes of maritime asylum seekers. But look at the record!
The truth is that, after nearly 6 years in office, the Abbott/ Turnbull/Morrison Coalition has delivered an immigration shambles – a policy vacuum, a degraded administration and huge processing backlogs.
When the coalition came into office in 2013 its clear strategy was to make a political winner over Labor out of border security. Everything else was subordinated to that end.
The starting point was to create the Department of Immigration and Border Protection by an amalgamation of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. The centrepiece of a new tough look was the Australian Border Force – a uniformed, sworn and armed, service, tasked with “manning the ramparts” against border threats. Operation Sovereign Borders, headed by a Lieutenant-General, completed the sea of uniforms needed to protect us. Just in case anyone didn’t get the point, the new Department erected a huge live sign in the foyer reminding its staff of security threat levels around Australia and the world.
Important Department of Immigration and Citizenship functions not seen as part of the new look were shunted off – the Adult Migrant English Program to the Department of Education and Settlement Programs and Multicultural Affairs functions to the Department of Social Services.
In 2017, when immigration functions were later subsumed into the new security-focused Home Affairs portfolio, the word immigration disappeared from the name of any Commonwealth Minister or organisation for the first time since 1945.
But things didn’t entirely go to plan. The Australian Border Force trashed its own brand in its first few months of existence with its ill-considered foray into the Melbourne CBD ostensibly to randomly check for illegal migrants. Its Head was subsequently dismissed for misconduct after a long investigation. Reports of workplace bullying and harassment persist.
Signs that the government had gone way too far have recently emerged. The discarded multicultural affairs functions were pulled back into the Department of Home Affairs and reunited with immigration functions. Under the Morrison government a new, distinct, Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs reappeared in the Home Affairs portfolio.
In terms of broader immigration, integration and citizenship policy, the Coalition government has sent ambiguous and confused messages.
Coalition Ministers have sounded lukewarm at best on the permanent migration program. At the time of creation of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, its head heavily downplayed the significance of permanent migration to Australia’s future. Ministers have been slow to explain what current policy really is or to advocate for it.
And yet, throughout its term in office, the government has kept permanent migration planning levels at the highest, in terms of absolute numbers, in Australia’s history – over 200,000 migration and humanitarian program visas. No doubt they have been constantly pressured by business and the Treasury to do so because of the huge benefits accruing to the Australian economy, labour force and federal budget.
The government has continued every year to set the annual permanent migration program at the level of 190,000 permanent visas – a number first set by the Labor government as far back as 2008-09. However, at the first sign of internal party rumblings, Peter Dutton proclaimed that this number was no longer a firm target, but only a ceiling. In 2017-18, the government then undershot the declared figure by 30,000 visas, implausibly blaming unspecified extra scrutiny of applications.
Establishment of the border-focused Department of Immigration and Border Protection resulted in a mass exodus of talented senior policy staff and with it corporate memory. This has been reflected in confused and uncoordinated policy since that time.
We saw reform of the subclass 457 Visa introducing many unsustainable elements which were quickly wound back. In response to rural concerns about farm labour, we had the on-again off-again Agricultural Visa initiative until it was dropped in favour of tweaking of existing Working Holiday Maker and Pacific Seasonal Worker arrangements.
To deal with the Sydney overcrowding concerns, the knee-jerk response “send them to the regions or out there somewhere” masqueraded as policy. At the same time, the government was putting disproportionate effort into deporting an asylum seeker family from Biloela in rural Queensland whose community strongly supported their stay. And of course, there is a large processing backlog of migrant applicants who actually want to go to the regions. At the 11th hour, the not-so-original ideas of information flow to States and Territory Governments and population planning were rediscovered.
Most disturbing of all has been the government’s assault on time honoured concepts of Australian citizenship.
It started with an obsessive desire to use revocation of citizenship as a weapon against Australian citizens who in any way became involved in terrorism and who also hold another citizenship. Citizenship revocation has proved to be a very weak weapon against terrorism, with little deterrent, preventative or punishment value. The bungled Neil Prakash case is an illustration of how ineffectual this approach is. However, continued pursuit of citizenship revocation has undermined the strength and certainty of Australian citizenship – reducing its worth to not much more than a visa.
This was followed by legislative plans (as yet unfulfilled) to massively increase the hurdles in the way of permanent resident migrants wanting to become citizens. These included much longer residential qualification periods, university level English language tests, a more difficult formal citizenship test, additional suitability tests and of course, controls on the expected epidemic of migrant cheating. No evidence was produced that any of this was necessary or would make anyone a better citizen. Nor were we told what the implications would be, not least for national security, of building up a population over time of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of disenfranchised permanent residents who could never become Australian citizens and would not be entitled to vote or gain public sector employment.
It’s hard not to conclude that the Coalition government has no commitment to the idea of Australia as a nation of Australian citizens. Its instinct has been to cut back visas for permanent residents who will make a long-term contribution to Australian society rather than visas for temporary residents (who also occupy accommodation, roads and public transport) in response to infrastructure concerns. Perhaps they feel comfortable with an Australian society in which growing numbers of people will spend their life here but will never be able to be full participants in Australian society. It’s hard to know because there has never been any coherent policy articulated.
At the nitty-gritty level, a healthy immigration system depends on speedy processing applications both to get positive results for Australia and also to keep integrity in the system.
The Coalition fails again here. My former colleague, Abul Rizvi, has drawn attention in “Pearls and Irritations” to the development of huge application processing backlogs in employer-sponsored migration, regional sponsored migration, protection visas and Australian citizenship. This is accompanied by massive growth in the number of people simply hanging round in Australia on Bridging Visas awaiting a decision on their application.
The government’s proposal for massive outsourcing of Australian visa processing and decision-making exposes Australia to further risks and threatens to eliminate the government’s in-house capacity to understand how immigration really works.
But surely, we shouldn’t be too hard on the Coalition Government because, after all, “they stopped the boats didn’t they?” One could be forgiven for thinking this when reading and listening to mainstream media commentary, but the Coalition record is not as “good” as it might seem.
The Labor Government in 2007 abolished the Howard era Pacific Solution in the context of public disquiet with the policy (including within Coalition ranks) and more benign global conditions at the time. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was initially slow to act when a flow of new arrivals resumed and started to build up. When Labor did take decisive action in the form of the Arrangement with Malaysia which would have brought arrivals to a halt, the Coalition’s worst fear was that it was going to work. It blocked legislation which would have enabled its implementation. Some 30,000 more maritime asylum seekers arrived after the Coalition took this action. Even Tony Abbott has since admitted this might have been a mistake.
In its last year in office, Labor instituted a number measures that dramatically reduced the flow of asylum seekers to about 14% of their previous levels by the time of the 2013 election. When the coalition took office, there weren’t many boats left to stop. The legacy of the Coalition’s blocking of the Malaysia Arrangement is that we are now left with the dead end solution of using Manus and Nauru and the extended cruelty involved. It is still haunting us and it didn’t need to happen.
In the meantime, onshore applications for asylum (from people who arrived in Australia on temporary visas) have grown to the unprecedented level of 27,000 a year with a huge backlog of unprocessed applications. This will only encourage more people to use onshore asylum applications as a way of getting around the normal visa requirements and extending their stay.
The bottom line is that many previous Coalition governments have an excellent record in terms of immigration policy and administration. The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government will probably go down as the worst. There is a big cleanup job to be done. Don’t hold your breath – all we will hear about from the government before the election is boats scares, citizenship revocation cases and criminal deportations.
Shortly, in Part 2, I will outline what an incoming Labor government could do to get immigration policy and administration in order.
Peter Hughes 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.