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My novel idea: let asylum-seekers come to Australia to work

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

8 December 2012

9:00 AM

Australians — sophisticated Australians, that is — have always yearned for their country to be more like Europe. From the cultural cringe to broadsheet columnists retailing their European houseguests’ shock at our primitive culture, the bien pensant have always wanted us to be more Continental. Well, I got news for you. Australia’s looking plenty European these days, and not just in the pleasant let’s-all-drink-more-wine sort of ways.

Between the ethnic riots at soccer — er, futbol — matches, violent demonstrations in major cities caused by supposed offences to the memory of Mohammed, and a foreign policy driven in no small part by the need to appease key constituencies who are less than sympathetic to Australia’s traditional support for Israel, we’re looking more European all the time.

And much of this can be sheeted home to immigration policies that have been by turns cynical and shambolic. Immigration is a great thing (I’m a stranger here myself, having moved to Sydney from New York in 2001 and taken the pledge in 2007) and John Howard managed to preside over the biggest intake of permanent migrants since the second world war.

But something funny happens when the ALP takes the reins: Labor hardheads love the idea of ready-made constituencies that can be bought off with benefits, community centres and the like — concerns about intergenerational poverty, wider cultural cohesion or Australia’s core values be damned. It was Paul Keating who let Sheik Taj el-Dine ‘cat meat’ Hilaly into the country to placate his western Sydney base. Fast-forward 20 or so years and the sole issue on which the Labor caucus is willing to stand up to Julia Gillard (who, to her credit, wanted to vote ‘no’) is giving Palestine a guernsey at the UN.

Meanwhile their green-left cousins, whose intellects have been well-marinated in Marxist-Leninist academic theory via the unholy trinity of Gramsci, Fanon and Freire, look at immigration as a way to break down the Anglo-Saxon male patriarchal hegemony and lead us from our white bread suburban purgatory to a paradise of multiculturalism, tolerance and lots of cute ethnic restaurants just down the road.

It is these same academic-greenie impulses, incidentally, which drive the present government’s desire to knobble press freedom: the majority of people are stupid and easily led and must be shaken out of their false consciousness by restricting the various ways in which the tabloid media can talk about such issues. But is anyone holding their breath for SBS to be rapped on the knuckles for reporting, as they did recently, that economic migrants willing to put $5 million or more into approved projects can gain residency, thus jumping the ‘queue’? Wasn’t the whole point of SBS shows like Go Back To Where You Came From to hammer home the idea that there isn’t a queue?

Again, though, none of this is to knock immigration. Societies that can refresh themselves with new blood, new bodies and new brains can prevent, or at least stave off, the otherwise chronic demographic collapse facing industrialised nations. Japan is a wonderful place but their attitudes towards immigration make Pauline Hanson look like a citizen of the world: there is no way to become Japanese as there is to become Australian or American. As a result, last month it was reported that Japan’s citizens are now buying more adult nappies than baby ones. Beyond babies, immigrants also bring a competitive dynamism to a society when the temptation is to slide into the torpid comforts of late-stage capitalism. In my kids’ primary school, the children of immigrants are among the hardest workers and are in no small way the benchmark against which academic performance is set.

But for immigration to work immigrants have to, well, work. While some of the stories about the generous benefits paid to refugees are admittedly beat-ups (getting a couple of hundred bucks a week and a unit at the end of a train line is hardly being handed the keys to a Range Rover and a harbourside pad), the overall narrative is correct. And why shouldn’t it be? The most controversial part of Australia’s immigration policy, how it handles refugees, is engineered to keep people from working.

This was confirmed by a story in the Daily Telegraph, whose enterprising reporters found would-be asylum-seekers camped in Indonesia heaping praise on Julia Gillard: ‘Mr Abbott is not good for refugees and asylum-seekers, he does not like us, he is not really a nice man,’ one told the Telegraph. ‘If I can get this free money and house when I come to Australia this will make life very easy for me,’ said another. Tony Abbott was on the right track recently when he suggested that asylum-seekers be forced into work for the dole-type schemes. But such programs invariably tie people closer to the state and have a nasty whiff of indentured servitude about them.

Instead, why not offer any would-be asylum-seeker who wants off Nauru and onto the mainland a visa on the condition that he or she has to work and has no recourse to welfare, NewStart, rent assistance or any other dole program short of Medicare. Those who take up the offer and make a go of it would prove themselves exactly the sort of enterprising migrants Australia was built on and wants, and should be allowed to climb the rungs through temporary and permanent residency on through, eventually, citizenship. Provided they stay out of trouble and file the occasional tax return.

No doubt this would provoke no end of ‘they took our jobs!’ hand-wringing, largely from the more protectionist sections of the right and the unions, but unemployment is low, and anyway, are we really afraid of a little competition? Rather, the real objections would come from the cultural green-left fringes, who would howl through their disproportionate megaphones that it’s one thing to bring people into the country to let them become wards of the state. But those who want to come, work, maybe start a business and even vote Liberal? Why, they’re simply not our kind!

James Morrow blogs about food, culture and politics at

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