Silence on immigration raises fears

Silence on immigration raises fears

03 Sep 2009

gwenda-tavan-thumb Dr Gwenda Taven

Originally published in The Age on 3 September, 2009

The announcement that Australia’s immigration intake more than doubled to 219,098 in the past 10 years, is news indeed. As various commentators have pointed out, the increase has enormous implications for Australian society. Yet it has occurred with very limited public discussion.

This has the potential to backfire badly. Immigration is a sensitive issue that requires careful management by political leaders, both in terms ofpolicy planning and public discourse. Without good leadership of the immigration portfolio, there is a risk that poor decisions will be made, which will have detrimental effects on human lives and society as awhole, creating injustices and deep political rifts that can take decades to heal.

But what exactly is good leadership on immigration and how is it achieved? Some say it is about protecting the public good, however that is defined.

Some say it is about doing what "the people" want. Others use a moral framework, saying it is about inspiring the Australian people to imagine a better world for themselves, one in which universalist values of openness, tolerance and justice prevail over more materialistic, selfinterested concerns. All these considerations have a part to play. Governments must have a clearheaded view of the common good in all its dimensions, including social, political, economic, environmental, strategic and cultural terms.

In a liberal democracy like ours, governments have to account for the will of the people. But the responsibility of representation must be tempered by the willingness to teach. This means sometimes following public opinion and sometimes leading. It means balancing the material concerns of Australians with more abstract principles, for example, human rights and international obligations.

History provides many examples of the importance of leadership in managing the politics of immigration. In 1945 the Chifley Labor government implemented a massive immigration program that eventually brought millions of people to Australia. The planning for that program was extensive. Acutely aware of the political sen- ~ sitivities involved, public officials introduced a campaign to keep the Australian people onside.

Planning groups constituted of various political interests including business and trade unions evaluated the potential economic and social impact of large immigration intakes, and planned accordingly. A large propaganda campaign was implemented, which sought to reassure Australians that newcomers were helping to build the nation and the economy.

Contemporary critics rightly baulk at aspects of that program: the hardships caused by the imposition of work contracts on European immigrants; the dogmatic, unrealistic defence of the White Australia Policy, the ad hoc nature of many policy decisions despite the emphasis on planning. Publicity campaigns were often crude, paternalistic, unrealistic and sometimes bordered on racism (such as the orchestrated arrival of the "Beautiful Balts" in 1947 nearly all of them young, single and blonde). But for all its faults, the Chifley government provided good leadership in terms of vision, planning and a willingness to engage the Austrahan people. People might not have liked the program, but they did understand its rationale. A higher, unintended, good was achieved by giving Australians the opportunity to revise earlier, parochial attitudes towards "outsiders".

Contrast this with the behaviour of governments in recent years, the Howard government in particular. Howard and successive immigration ministers consistently staked their leadership credentials on their handling of immigration. They implemented a hardline approach to unauthorised asylum seekers on the grounds they were protecting the country’s sovereignty and national security. Multicultural policies and values were undermined on the grounds of respecting mainstream opinion. The paradox of this approach was that it occurred at the same time that government policy was actively directed at increasing immigration (and in this respect ~This means sometimes following public opinion and sometimes leading.~ intensifying Australia’s ethnic diversity), and in some areas, such as temporary immigration, radically reorienting policy. All this suggests that the Howard government’s approach might have been clever politics but it was not good leadership. The former government failed to inspire in people a sense of a better world for themselves and others and to provide the knowledge they needed to make informed decisions about immigration. Important liberal and democratic principles, including respect for human rights, were undermined, in deference to political concerns.

Rudd Labor needs to consider how it is managing the politics of immigration. True, it has displayed some positive examples of leadership. These include the decision to reform the ridiculous cultural values and symbols-based citizenship test introduced by Howard and the changes to immigration detention policies. But there is plenty of scope for improvement.

The Government needs to openly declare its vision for Australia’s immigration program, explain what interests immigration serves and what impact it has. It needs to maintain a dialogue with the public, and openly address people’s anxieties. We don’t need a return of "Beautiful Balts"-type campaigning, but more information is well overdue.




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