The announcement of the formation of a Migration Council of Australia and its launch by the Governor General on August 1, confirmed by Department of Immigration and Citizenship official Gary Fleming at the Settlement Council of Australia conference in Adelaide in late June, marks a critical juncture in population and immigration policy.
The Council will operate as a non-government organisation, with its own board, and look more like the Settlement Council of Australia or the Australian Multicultural Foundation, than the government’s own and somewhat tame Australian Multicultural Council. Hopefully it will not be confused with the migration agents’ lobby, the Migration Institute of Australia. While it is independent of the Government, it is likely that the new body will fit snugly with the pro-migration wings of the both the major poltiical parties.
The MCA wants to find a new space to assert the importance of migration and effective settlement, and has brought together some heavy hitters to make this happen. Headed by Peter Scanlon (ex Patricks Chair) – and bringing together Business Council of Australia chair Tony Shepherd, Australia Post head Ahmed Fahour, Ethnic Communities Federation chair Pino Migliorino, Adult Migrant Education Victoria head Catherine Scarth and a number of others – the organisation seeks to build a bridge between those with an economic interest in a big Australia, and those with a social interest in a fair Australia.
Scanlon has been a key figure in building an information base about immigration and settlement through his Foundation’s financial support for the Monash study of social attitudes to immigration, diversity and levels of social cohesion. His leadership support, both political and financial, is seen to be critical for the effectiveness of the MCA. Scanlon has history as a strong advocate for his causes: in the Elders IXL struggle for BHP in the 1980s, with Patricks, and now with the Garvin Institute and the Scanlon Foundation. He is also a major real estate developer and will come under scrutiny for how this new lobby group might create benefits for his commercial interests.
The board has appointed Multicultural Minister Kate Lundy’s former advisor – the well connected and politically astute Carla Wilshire – to the CEO role, a challenging post which confronts the opportunities and pitfalls of the current immigration scene.
Immigration vs small Australia
There is growing community acceptance that a moderately bigger Australia is beneficial for the economy. Nevertheless, hostilities are also evident, and there is enormous distress over refugee and asylum seeker policy.
Meanwhile, the environmental sustainability debate has frozen over since the hysteria of 2010 gave way to the astonishment of 2011, with the immigration curve’s steep rise suddenly levelling out and then coasting down again.
Even so, the small Australia lobby(led by Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his mate Dick Smith) has not let up its push, and the Greens and the environmental lobby are still hammering away at reducing population growth. In the shadows behind them can be seen a collection of anti-immigrant and nativist activists.
Into the mix step Gina Rinehart and her Western Australian mining mates, whose deal with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen over 8,000 new jobs including nearly 2,000 457 visa recruits, hit a stumbling block with the unions. The unions, of course, are worried at the rapid destruction of industrial jobs in the east, and seem to have opted for a tried and true anti-immigration reaction.
The creation of the Council also highlights two key failures of the government:
1. There will clearly not be a statutory migration council, which would place migration and settlement planning at the heart of government, rather than palmed off to a civil society lobby group. The immigration councils of the post-war period did much to cement support for the immigration program among potentially conflicting interests; and
2. There will not be a government migration research institute (the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, abolished by John Howard, played a crucial role in providing research-based information for the policy debates of the 1980s and early 1990s, a major hole in current policy).
The decision to take the issue to the NGO sector provides an insight to the problem within government in handling migration issues.
Minister Bowen has very little purchase with Gillard, and seems unable or unwilling to communicate with her on wider issues, as the foreign workers issue in the mining industry reveals.
At the same time Lundy, who’s from a very different faction, seems to have limited purchase with Bowen. She has been unable to increase the funding of her settlement and multicultural responsibilities, one of the reasons the settlement sector fears the creation of the Migration Council (which is rumoured will be funded from money now allocated to the Settlement Council).
Meanwhile, Department of Immigration and Citizenship head Andrew Metcalfe (currently on leave but also prospectively on the board of the MCA), warned last year that the current immigration mess would produce major social unrest in Australia’s cities in coming years, a key problem for settlement. Governments have demonstrated their incapacity to resolve the many impasses that immigration highlights. At least two state governments, not consulted in the MCA development, remain wary about the potential impact of a new lobby.
On the sidelines, a joint federal parliamentary committee on migration will be reporting in August. It will be faced with reconciling the mass of public submissions (more than 500) that range from Anders Breivik-type White Power mania, to arguments from academics and others that the current policy environment is a logic- and information-free zone that requires major re-vitalisation, and a reassertion of social justice and human rights goals.
Migration Council’s first steps
The MCA has pulled some resources with it, but it will need a great deal of money and a fine feel for building community relations, if it’s not to alienate existing organisations or dry up its sources of meagre government support.
The Council will need to build a cross-party and community consensus on the need for continuing immigration and an expansion of its 457 component. But it needs to be wary that a rise in 457 visas sought by the mining lobby and other pro-growth advocates could increase already well-identified social problems of exploitation and isolation.
When you consider the inept and confused way the federal government has announced new immigration strategies, including the enterprise agreements with Rinehart, it seems that a broadly-based and responsive group concerned with ensuring rational, evidence-based policy, will have a critical role to play.
Even so, the MCA will have its work cut out to navigate the tensions and produce outcomes that work both for its economic and social backers.