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Australian immigration in the Trump era

The Trump Administration presents the best opportunity we will ever have to present Australia as a place of welcome and innovation.

Australian immigration in the Trump era

Earlier this week Malcolm Turnbull said it wasn’t his job as Prime Minister of Australia 'to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries' after President Trump signed an executive order banning travellers from seven majority Muslim countries.

There are many reasons to question this statement. First and foremost is the importance of non-discriminatory immigration norms with regard to race and religion. This is closely followed by how the ban will harm US and Australian interests in the fight against extremism. Many other world leaders have chosen to condemn Trump’s new immigration policies for these reasons. But if you dig a little deeper, Turnbull’s statement also reveals a set of assumptions about immigration policy that is holding Australia back in a time of opportunity.

Immigration is not a domestic policy in any traditional sense. When a person moves from one country to another, social, economic and strategic changes occur in both the emigration and immigration country. Australian politicians and other government officials should - and generally do - closely monitor and, when appropriate, challenge other countries on immigration policies that affect Australian citizens. The latest example of this occurred just last week when the Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom warned concessions for Australian business people would be part of the price of any Free Trade Agreement. Past treaty obligations - such as the E3 visa in the provisions of the Australian-US Free Trade Agreement - can act as protection if future politicians move to curtail existing access, as seems likely in the case of the Trump Administration.

To date, Prime Minister Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton have shown no willingness to explore the opportunities provided by a changing international environment for immigration. The Brexit vote and the Trump Administration’s approach to immigration will upend established processes and trends while formalising new norms. There is no reason these trends and norms should be dictated to us.

Australia is well placed to consider alternatives - as opposed to simply following the crowd on anti-migrant sentiment - because there is strong public support for our immigration framework. The following table from the Gallup World Poll shows Australia is the only developed, western country to have a net positive position on the question of whether immigration should be increased or decreased:

The most up to date domestic research – such as the Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey [pdf] from 2016 and the Australian Election Study results – support this finding. This public support provides a platform for political leadership on immigration with regard to our national interest.

Step one would be to capitalise on highly skilled and talented people in the US and the UK who either want to move or will be forced to do so due to visa restrictions. Researchers and scientists, business leaders and entrepreneurs; you name them, we want them. The Australian IT industry is constantly grumbling about how difficult it is to compete with Silicon Valley. The Trump Administration presents the best opportunity we will ever see to present Australia as a place of welcome and innovation, a place where your visa won't be torn up if you have the 'wrong' passport. Couple this with the massive uncertainty faced by EU migrants arising from Brexit and there are two enormous sources of skilled workers yearning for certainty and a different environment. Actively promoting a set of immigration incentives to attract these people will help Australia continue to lay the foundation for an economy based on what we know instead of what we make.

Step two is more indirect. We need to use immigration policy more strategically to improve bilateral and multilateral links in the Asia-Pacific given the possible vacuum of political power if the United States withdraws from active engagement in the region, as signalled by the Trump Administration exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Immigration policies alone cannot compensate for this, but they can play a role in improving regional relations.

Pacific island governments have long agitated for better access to Australia’s labour market so their citizens can earn higher incomes. The Seasonal Worker Program taps into this, targeting parts of the labour market like horticulture where few Australians want to work. Finding additional opportunities to complement future labour demand, such as aged care, will be critical as long as a zero tolerance approach is taken to employers who undercut wages and conditions. This labour market access represents a unique part of our strategic toolkit given China will not allow this type of immigration. It is also the single best income generating mechanism for isolated Pacific island countries, potentially worth $10 billion by 2040, thus helping regional stability.

Building on the success of South-East Asian international student migration to Australia is another opportunity. While there were more than 12,000 Indonesian students studying in Australian higher education institutions during June 2016, there were also six times more Irish temporary skilled workers in Australia than Indonesian. This is despite Indonesia having a population 50 times larger than Ireland and Jakarta to Sydney being less than one third of the distance from Dublin to Sydney. Working out how to enmesh Australia with stronger people to people links in business and industry through immigration will pay long-term dividends in the region.

Of course, Australia’s ability to be an international leader on immigration will be heavily constrained as long as Manus and Nauru continue to hold so many asylum seekers. Even with the successful conclusion of the United States refugee agreement, which will be the subject of internal Trump Administration contention and appears highly uncertain, there are unanswered questions about what will happen to those refused refugee visas. But, given 28% of Australians are migrants, there is surprisingly little understanding of broader immigration policy. This holds us back and hides the opportunities. While domestic political implications must be recognised, the high base of existing public support means governments can be more adventurous. 2017 is the perfect time to start taking immigration policy more seriously.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Roozbeh Rokni

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