It is now over six weeks since our country was shocked by the images from Cronulla beach on December 11 - time enough to have a cooler look at some of the wider issues raised by that incident. This is particularly apt for 2006 Australia Day.
The events at Cronulla produced a huge flurry of commentary and public debate which showed there are still significant unresolved community tensions and unease about people from non-white backgrounds and non-Christian religions living in Australia. I believe there is strong obligation on politicians of all persuasions, as well as other community leaders, to address the dichotomy that exists between our nation’s large and strong immigration program and the ambivalent attitudes towards settlement policies.
It may be unpalatable for some and make others uneasy, but whether people like it or not, it is a simple fact that Australia has and will continue to have very high levels of migration. Even if it were desirable and possible to frame laws that could select migrants according to their “affinity” to some ideal of an Anglo-Saxon Christian Australian culture, many of our migration places would be unfilled if we tried to insist on drawing from such a shallow pool.
Regardless of the different views about why it is that many Australians are anxious about a high migration intake, this anxiety is a reality. A few politicians have tried to tap into and exploit this community concern, but most others have just ignored these fears, preferring not to confront them except when absolutely necessary. It is understandable to want to avoid the risk of igniting the underlying racism which exists in our society, as it does to varying degrees in virtually all others. But given the reality that political parties across the spectrum support a high migration intake, there must be a stop to the dog whistling that reinforces the fears of people about different races, religions or cultures. And there must also be action from political and community leaders strongly to promote the major benefits of high migration and the cultural diversity that comes with it.
This financial year there will be around 140,000 permanent residents migrating to Australia. On top of this is around 6,400 refugees and 6,800 humanitarian entrants - not really “migrants” in the literal sense, as they had to flee danger rather than initially choosing to migrate, but the end result of people settling in Australia is the same. Yet even these numbers, very high even by Australian standards, don’t tell the full story. It does not include the often ignored group who have had far bigger increases in numbers, and just as significant an impact economically, socially and to some extent environmentally - those coming here as temporary residents.
According to the annual report of the Department of Immigration, in 2004-05 there were 104,605 working holiday visas issued, 174,789 student visas issued and 93,513 other temporary residents, such as long-stay business and skilled visas. All of this means, in very round figures, that this year (allowing for possible increases across the categories) there could be around 150,000 permanent residents and 400,000 temporary residents coming to Australia, many of whom will later either become permanent, or renew their temporary residency. Note that this does not include the 340,000 short-stay (three-month) business visas or the three million plus other visitor and tourist visas issued each year for people to enter Australia.
The reason I emphasise these figures - in particular the large number of temporary residents who tend to get overlooked in the migration debate - is that Australia’s future is very much a multicultural and multiracial one. While there is plenty of room for debate about the size of various categories of intake and what conditions to attach, no responsible politician will support a dramatic reduction in these numbers, or the introduction of blatantly discriminatory criteria based on ethnicity or religion.
It is no secret that a large amount of the former One Nation vote went to the Coalition, and Pauline Hanson herself said, with a fair degree of accuracy, that the Federal Government had adopted her policies on refugees. However, you can’t send political signals appealing to those who shared Hanson’s widely publicised concern that Australia was “being swamped by Asians” at the same time as massively ramping up our intake of permanent and temporary residents without generating a social problem down the track.
This is not to attack people who hold those fears, but rather to point out that it is a recipe for serious social unrest if hard work is not done by political leaders to take the sharp edge off those fears.
It also takes us back to the harder part of multiculturalism, the part that isn’t feel good phrases and festivals - valuable though these can be. We must put serious resources into settlement services, which are a key factor in ensuring new migrants integrate effectively into our society. There is a credible argument to say that the current well-publicised problems in Sydney involving attitudes of and towards some second generation Australians of Lebanese background stem back to inadequate settlement assistance at the time. Given the very high number of long-term temporary residents now coming to Australia, we should also look at whether more needs to be done to prevent some of them from being seriously alienated or exploited.
This all emphasises why the current overhaul of DIMIA must succeed, and why it needs to include reform to the Migration Act, rather than just some new guidelines. It is in Australia’s interest, and indeed a necessary component of a successful multicultural society, that this Act and its administrators in DIMIA respect due process, fairness and the rule of law. This is currently not the case.