Almost six months ago, the long-serving conservative Howard Government was dumped from office by the Kevin Rudd led Australian Labor Party (ALP). In claiming the prime ministership Rudd said,
I will be a prime minister for all Australians: a prime minister for indigenous Australians; Australians who have been born here and Australians who have come here from afar and have contributed to the great diversity that is our nation, Australia.
At the time of this victory, I questioned whether Rudd would deliver on the wishes of progressive Australia, or continue the policies of the Howard Government. (1) After almost six months of government, Rudd has started to put his own stamp on Australian politics. On entering office he ratified the Kyoto Protocol (leaving the United States as the only major country not to have done so), apologised to the Indigenous Stolen Generation, and held his 2020 Summit, where 1,000 Australians converged on Canberra for a weekend of discussion about the future of the country. Although it could be asked whether this focus on progressive government in Australia will be continued, it does appear that Rudd has made a conscious decision to repair some of the disasters that Howard left him.
However, questions definitely remain over Rudd’s commitment to be prime minister for those ‘Australians who have come from afar.’ Continuing the Howard Government’s despicable treatment of migrants, in particular refugees, Rudd has shown that all the wishes of progressive Australia may not be met.
Looking at two groups of immigrants whose treatment has long been questioned, it can be seen that not much has changed, nor can much be expected to change in the future.
Firstly, refugees were the primary target of much of the Howard Government’s demonisation. They have been called queue-jumpers, terrorists and imprisoned in detention for indefinite periods. Some voices within the ALP, such as Carmen Lawrence, had called for a major overhaul of Australia’s refugee program, and in particular the dismantling of mandatory detention, but it was doubtful that Rudd would ever get rid of the system that was first introduced by the previous Labor Government. This was confirmed in the lead up to the 2007 election, where Rudd called for an ‘orderly’ migration program and noted his intention to ‘turn back the boats on the high seas’ if they are seaworthy. (2)
Nevertheless, it may have been hoped that the new Labor Government would take a more humane view towards the granting of permanent refugee visas. Unfortunately, it appears not. Recent analysis has shown that 97.6 per cent of applications that, after being rejected by the bureaucracy, have gone to the new minister for immigration, have been rejected – the highest rate since 2001. However, news of this has been extremely rare, with the major news outlets apparently disregarding it, with the majority of reporting coming from Crikey, an independent online subscription-based media service. In reporting on this record, Crikey recounts the story of one African woman who had been kidnapped, trafficked to the Middle East and abused by her ‘owners’. Her application was rejected. (3)
After this original report, further stories have emerged, including an attempted suicide by an asylum seeker minutes after hearing that his application had been rejected. Again, the mainstream media does not appear to have regarded any of this as newsworthy.
The second group of migrants whose treatment has been questioned in the past few years are those on so-called 457 visas. These are visas granted to workers who come to Australia to work for a specified company in a identified position. Holders of these visas can stay in Australia for up to four years, and are linked to their sponsoring employer, unless they can gain other employment that also meets the requirements of the 457 visa. Before gaining office, the ALP highlighted a number of the issues regarding 457 visas, believing that the system was being used as a source of cheap labour. However, upon gaining office, the ALP has looked to continue this system.
In fact, the Government has accepted the vast majority of recommendations from a recent report into the system, prepared by an External Review Group, made up of representatives from business groups, in particular in the mining and resources sector. Unsurprising, given the terms of reference of this review and the make up of the group itself, the report mentions very little about the conditions of workers under the system, only recommending that the Government ensure that employers and workers are provided with more information as to their rights and responsibilities under the system. The vast majority of recommendations focus on ensuring that the system is more flexible and responsive to the wishes of business, both big and small. (4)
Considering the vocal opposition of the ALP to the program prior to gaining office and the many reports of exploitation and at times fatal outcomes of workers on 457 visas, it is perhaps surprising that the Government’s first move in the area of temporary labour migration was to establish a review panel made up of representatives of big business, with the obvious result being moves towards deregulating what is already a system established to respond to the needs of the business community. It will be another six months before a review into the integrity and employment conditions of the system will be released.
Although the treatment of refugees (which Australia does not want) and temporary labour migrants (which Australia does want) could be seen as contradictory, what it does show is the focus of the Australian immigration system. As was the case under the Howard Government, the immigration system has been designed with only the interests of Australia in mind. The 457 visa system shows how the Australian Government is happy to allow immigration of those who can form a cheap labour force for business, while refugees are refused entry. It would appear that things are unlikely to change.
(2) Dennis Shanahan, ‘Politically correct will stay in the doghouse’, The Australian, 23 November 2007, p. 16
(3) Margaret Simons, Rudd harder than Howard on asylum seekers, Crikey (7 May 2008 cited 8 May 2008) available from http://www.crikey.com.au/Politics/20080507-Asylum-seekers.html
(4) A copy of the report can be found at http://www.minister.immi.gov.au/media/media-releases/2008/erg-final-report-april-2008.pdf