On May 3 Kristina Keneally, the federal opposition Immigration and Home Affairs spokesperson, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that ‘As a result of COVID-19, Australia will soon have an opportunity to do something we have never done before: restart a migration program’. Kenneally has a point. The COVID 19 crisis presents challenges commensurate with those experienced after World War II, including the need to rebuild social and economic systems. At that time, the Australian government looked to immigration and population growth to resolve various challenges including Australia’s defence capacities, post-war economic development, and international efforts to resettle millions of refugees displaced across Europe. In doing so, it had to overcome longstanding popular prejudices against migrants and asylum seekers amongst sections of the population. In 2020, as Australia faces very similar concerns, might immigration and a re-energised Department of Immigration help the country rebuild?
The Chifley government’s establishment of the Immigration Department and the mass immigration program in 1945 were highly successful nation-building enterprises. The scale and complexity of the program – which included everything from migrant selection and transportation to migrant integration – could not have been managed without the expertise and commitment of immigration bureaucrats. The Immigration Department retained this nation-building role until well into the 1990s, after which time its functions moved increasingly towards a control and compliance model. The last nail in the coffin for the old nation-building Department was its merger into Home Affairs in 2017, the central focus of which is now border control and national security.
The COVID 19 crisis has revealed that despite an often-proud history, Australia does not always get it right on immigrants. The vilification of specific groups as the transmitters of the virus; the failure to assist temporary migrants impacted by job losses and unable to return to their home countries; crude sloganeering by the Morrison government that international students who could not support themselves should ‘just go home’ – all in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement – suggest continuing tensions inherent in a multicultural society built on the foundations of Indigenous dispossession. In the past the Department of Immigration was at the forefront of efforts to foster harmonious relations between the host society and new settlers as the task of nation-building progressed. While clumsy in its execution at times, the establishment of groups such as the Good Neighbour Councils and Australian Citizenship Conventions spoke to a belief held by the Department that the Australian government had a responsibility to curtail negative community attitudes towards migrants and involve citizens in the process of settling newcomers in the host society.
From the start of the coronavirus pandemic in January people from Asian backgrounds in Australia reported a rise in racist incidents, including verbal and physical assault, refused service, death threats and property damage. Such attacks need to be contextualised within the development from the 1990s of political rhetoric which presented immigration as a matter mainly of border protection and migrants as a security risk. In the current crisis almost three decades of such rhetoric has made it easier to position migrants, not as potential fellow citizens, but as threatening outsiders. It was not until May that the Acting Minister for Immigration, Alan Tudge, addressed the rise of these racist attacks. Even then, the response was not, as the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia called for, an ‘anti-racism campaign targeted at the entire country’. It was only advertised in the multicultural media, thus placing the onus on migrants to report any incidents.
In July Senator Pauline Hanson accused migrants living in public housing towers in Melbourne’s west of contributing to a COVID-19 spike, saying ‘The pandemic has revealed that the failure to assimilate into Australian culture and learn English can indirectly be deadly’. Hanson characterised the migrant inhabitants of the towers as alcoholics, drug users and bludgers. However, her racist rant highlights the lack of government action regarding migrant welfare and public health: it was up to residents in the towers to translate an information sheet about COVID-19 into 10 different languages. Governmental initiative was missing.
Many migrants who have reported experiencing racial vilification are in Australia as temporary migrants, on international student, skills shortage, and temporary graduate visas. The government’s limited response speaks to a growing tendency to treat certain migrants as lesser members of the body politic. In the post-war period, citizenship was understood as the foundation for migrant integration. Its implementation was far from perfect – it would take until 1973 for the residence requirement to be standardised to three years for both Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth citizens – but it did assert a view of migrants as ‘potential citizens … not just workers, “leaners” or consumers’. The message from Prime Minister Scott Morrison on April 3 to temporary migrants to ‘go home’ if they were unable to support themselves made it clear that the government does not see these people as members of the Australian community but as expendable economic units.
What then might a nation-building Department contribute post-COVID 19? The above responses suggest a need for a fundamental change in how Australians discuss and treat migrants and asylum seekers, away from a neoliberal framework which views them almost solely in terms of a cost-benefit analysis to the nation, or alternatively, a security model which treats them as a potential threat that needs to be strenuously controlled.
In the immediate post-war period, governments and policymakers learned the limits of a monocultural model of the nation. Migrant resistance to assimilation meant that the desire to preserve the ‘British-white’ identity was untenable. The resonance of the Black Lives Matter protests in Australia points to a change in attitudes to historical and current injustices. It suggests that we may be in a transitional stage similar to the one the post-war Department of Immigration faced after 1945. At that time, a collective political will worked to overcome several hurdles, including entrenched public resistance, and used an international refugee crisis for national gain. Is there something we can learn from this for a post-COVID 19 environment in which economic and social reconstruction will be sorely needed?