Published in: Michael Easson, editor, Australia and Immigration: Able to Grow?, Pluto Press for the Lloyd Ross Forum, Leichhardt, 1990, pp. 1-6.
In 1990 there were many reminders that the post-war consensus about immigration to Australia no longer existed. Some spokespeople from all of the major parties were critical about some aspect of the immigration intake. The government decided to reduce the target of 140,000 – set after the Fitzgerald Committee review of Australia’s immigration policies – down to 125,000 for 1990-91. In part this was due to the economic downturn, but also in some measure this was a reaction to the debate over whether Australia should be so welcoming to large numbers of new settlers.
At the heart of the government’s dilemma is the reality that the justifications for migration have not been well explained in recent decades. This dilemma was recognised in the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies review which observed:
Over time, the need for a strategic rationale for immigration was lost. The immigration program came to be driven by its own momentum and by external stimuli, rather than by planned initiative within defined national objectives. Policies became reactive, tentative, short term and disconnected, both internally and from the mainstream of government policy.1
The economic rationale for immigration became diffuse, unsupported, unresearched, and under some administrations almost unnoticed.
It seems that after the Curtin/Chifley administrations ushered in the objectives of a vast migration program, that everyone associated with that program went to sleep. It is as if people are trying to remember what was and think about what should now be Australia’s rationale for increased population through migration.
Immigration policy and associated issues are matters which the labour movement is concerned with. For much of the post-war period in Australia, the unions were supporters of more immigration, but occasionally in periods of economic slump such as the Korean War period and the early 1960s, unions were amongst those which voiced the argument that migration might need to be curbed.2
It would be fanciful in 1990 to pretend that the Australian labour movement is thoughtfully sifting through the pros and cons of Australian immigration policy. Like the community as a whole, it seems that within the community of unionists there are many views and a good deal of confusion about present policies.
Also there has been a lot of timidity about immigration in recent years. Outbursts by notables such as Michael Hodgman, Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard about the sources of Australia’s migrant intake have had a chilling effect on the debate. At the same time it would appear that most Australians want a cutback in migrant intakes; at least that seems to be the evidence of the opinion polls. But as Murray Goot’s chapter in this volume argues, there are grounds to question the strength of such “polled” opinion.
This book is an attempt to fill a gap and present various views and arguments which are relevant to the contemporary debate. In doing so the Lloyd Ross Forum hopes to enable the labour movement to more thoroughly and sensibly address that debate.
Someone approaching this book might be surprised by the range of contributors, a range not usually embraced in a publication sponsored by the labour movement. There are two replies to such an observation: first, not all the talent lies on the one side; second, the labour movement, sometimes to its discomfit, learns from those outside its ranks.
Hopefully this book is more than a porridge of eclectic opinions. All the contributions represent scenes of conflict and argument about which good people worry. I cannot imagine that Lloyd Ross would have been very pleased with a volume of contributors panting with intense seriousness only about the economic issues at the heart of the matter of Australia’s immigration program. Hence this volume attempts to address itself to issues wider than one discipline. Thus issues of history, culture, demography, the environment and economics are canvassed. Australia and Immigration – Able to Grow? attempts to throw light on a wide range of issues.
The theme of the book is deliberately chosen. The title sums up a dilemma: is Australia able to grow? The question raises various possibilities, including whether ecological and demographic constraints should limit Australia’s population growth, including the immigration intake. Is the economic situation in Australia now so serious that the immigration intake should be substantially cut? Are migrants good for the country? Who are the best migrants? Is Australia ambitious enough to continue to expand its population through migration? Does increasing the population matter much for Australia’s economic prospects? Is Australia becoming an inwardly looking society afraid to increase the numbers of Asian migrants coming here? These are amongst the issues that are shot forward by considerations as to whether the nation’s migration policies might change.
Manning Clark sets out to describe the different motives behind the various settlements of Australia. Sketched in his chapter is a story of the peoples and hopes which have made us what we are. Clark’s contribution is a reminder that economic conquest and the quest to create a better world were twin motivations from the start of white settlement in 1788.
Michael Quinlan and Constance Lever-Tracey, in an analysis focused on union attitudes and actions with respect to Asians, provide a comprehensive review of union attitudes to Australia’s immigration programs including, in the postwar period the gradual shedding, by the community and organised labour, of hostility to Asian.3 Quinlan and Lever-Tracy are clearly the outstanding chroniclers of the labour movement’s shifting views on migration.
Jim Macken also reflects on the origins of exclusionist migration policies dramatised in the Lambing Flats riots. He advocates a tough-minded approach to the settlement of refugees. Refreshingly present in Macken’s chapter is a romantic approach to the virtues of Australian society. Jim Macken knows like few others the importance of myth in the development and sustaining of an optimism of spirit. That optimism shines forth in his assessment of Australia’s future and present obligations.
To observe that some of the contributors put forward particularised personal accounts in their views on immigration is to underestimate the strength of argument, feeling and conviction in all of the contributors’ pieces. Barry Cohen’s article reflects on several decades of involvement in Federal politics and asserts a conclusion that Australia is the most tolerant of all societies. Paolo Totaro’s description of the Naples of 50 years ago and the modern reality – in contrast with the wide open and sometimes green spaces of Australia – raises the spectre of whether Australia should reasonably want to grow and grow in population size. Totaro imaginatively contrasts multiculturalist and environmentalist views and suggests that much is compatible between such approaches.
Several spotlights, searching out aspects of the immigration debate, are employed by Gerard Henderson, Alan Matheson, Senator Peter Walsh, and David Clark.
Henderson overviews the recent immigration debate and remarks on an unusual “unity ticket” between some elements of the left and right with respect to immigration. Observers of Australian politics might say that there is nothing unusual about that. In his chapter Henderson seizes on one lapse by Bob Hawke, when ACTU President, on the boat people. In overviewing the immigration debate in the late 1970s and the 1980s, Henderson is both factual and fair to refer to those comments. However others, including myself, would also add that Hawke’s career in public life is characterised by a strong aversion to racial prejudice. That attitude has been to the fore in Prime Minister Hawke’s handling of immigration issues in the 1980s. Alan Matheson, who was a member of the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies, reflects on the numerous enquiries in the 1970s and 1980s into Australia’s immigration programs. In doing so he pricks the balloon frequently hovering over the debate that no “discussion” is happening in the community or that there is some conspiracy by “ethnic lobbies” or the government of the day to “prevent” a debate. Henry Tsang’s article explores a similar theme. The truth seems to be that despite the plethora of reports and enquiries, governments and opinion leaders have failed to steer the debate much or be very effective in convincingly raising the economic benefits of Australia’s immigration Program. Fred Argy also addresses the economic consequences of immigration and, in a well-argued piece, focuses sharply on the relevance of Australia’s immigration program for the current account performance.
In much of what passes for debate on immigration are many assertions about what the public thinks. Murray Goot continues his psephological interests and has produced a critical overview of what the polls reveal, together with a commentary on some of the flaws in interpretation by some scholars and commentators.
Infrastructure issues are examined in the chapters by Peter Botsman and by Des Storer and Shantha Dharmalingam. Botsman addresses an issue at the core of current debate in the labour movement concerning the role of government in providing infrastructure support. Storer and Darmalingam concentrate on this matter with reference to the Western Australian experience.
One of the architects of the Australian Immigration Act 1989 and the administrative and regulatory regime associated with that legislation, Tony Harris, argues that English language competence ought to be a major criteria in the selection of skilled and family migrants. This argument is likely to be visited again and again in the 1990s.
Fred Gruen, one of Australia’s outstanding post-refugee Australians, writes movingly about the Dunera experiences4 and, in passing, about the contribution by refugees to Australian life. In thinking about the humanitarian aspects of immigration policy – issues tackled by Gruen, Matheson and Macken – I wonder sometimes about the wonderful irony that enables “the scum of the earth” to do so well. In the late 1930s and in the 1940s the Jews were the outcasts of Europe. In some senses the lndo Chinese refugees are today in a similar situation. Yet in the societies which have welcomed them or allowed them to settle, the sons and daughters have done outstandingly well. Their experience shows that it is not so easy to measure how good or worthwhile someone’s contribution to Australia may be. Alf Pollard’s article argues that the best “migrants” are children. Better than any immigration program would be a set of public policies encouraging Australia’s population to increase through natural means. He argues why that is in Australia’s interests.
Nick Lewocki and Rhonda Kassis briefly discuss the industrial issues associated with literacy, immigration and English language programs. My chapter and Ma Wei Pin’s concentrate on the broad themes related to Australia’s opportunities here and now with respect to immigration from Asia. Ma’s arguments are particularly sharp on the economic value of migrants and the cultural and political rights, which are valuable to Australia’s heritage and society, which many potential migrants wish to share.
All in all, this book attempts to comprehensively address both the big themes and micro issues, thereby enabling opinions to be justified, challenged or modified. Perhaps it might be said that this book seeks to answer questions which all too few are bothering to ask in Australian labour and the broader community. Perhaps that is a situation which Dr Ross would have recognised. He sometimes found himself like a deaf man answering questions that were not being asked. But there can hardly be a more important issue than “what sort of society do we want?” One reason why the immigration debate is so disconcerting and so interesting is that that question needs an answer before an intelligent approach to migration issues can be given. This book aims to assist with that task.
1Fitzgerald, Stephen (Chairman), Immigration: A Commitment to Australia, Report of the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, pp. 13-14.
2See the reference to immigration policy for example, in Hagan, J., A History of the ACTU, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1981. The chapter in this volume by Quinlan and Lever-Tracy also exhumes and examines past rhetoric and performance by the union movement with respect to migration policy.
3Incidentally Dr Lloyd Ross was one union leader who throughout his life argued an unpopular line that the White Australia policy was offensive and ought to be changed. See for example, (Report on an address by Ross to the WEA) ‘White Australia Policy Should Be Restated’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 1943; Editorial: ‘Ross Must Be Put in His Place’, Daily Mirror, 30 November 1943; Crowley, F.C., editor, Modem Australia in Documents 1939-1970, p. 97; London, H.I., Non-White Immigration and the “White Australia” Policy, New York University Press, New York, 1970, p. 163.
4By far and away the best account of the Dunera experience can be found in Pearl, Cyril, The Dunera Scandal, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1983 (also reprinted by Mandarin Australia, Melbourne 1990).
This was the introduction to the second of the books published by the Lloyd Ross Forum, sponsored by the Labor Council of NSW. At the time, I thought it important for the unions and the wider labor movement to encourage informed debate about the major issues of the day – industrial relations reform, immigration, industry policy – the broad issues associated with the objectives and priorities of organised labor.
The book was published co-inciding with the emergence of some ugly arguments by some mainstream political figures about the racial complexion of Australia’s intake, together with an emerging skepticism on whether there were worthwhile economic and social benefits from Australia’s immigration intake. These issues were worthy of attention and discussion. Hence the book.