Un­easy sense of semi-be­long­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

any of us who speak and write about im­mi­gra­tion — say, through the prism of cul­ture, na­tional se­cu­rity, pol­i­tics or eco­nomics — are trapped in out­dated ways of think­ing.

No doubt the past re­fuses to ease its grip on some: the sepia im­age of set­tlers, cho­sen by an Aus­tralian of­fi­cial abroad, with ex­pec­tant eyes cast on their new home as they ar­rive by air or sea. This is my fam­ily’s post­war mi­gra­tion story; my par­ents were refugees from Croa­tia, my wife’s economic as­pi­rants from Italy.

To­day, we glimpse on our per­sonal screens a wild world awash in peo­ple; globalisation means the free flow of goods, cap­i­tal, dig­i­tal ma­nias, foul viruses and, of course, labour. We look, but not too hard, at our messy globe, with per­haps 50 mil­lion dis­placed peo­ple, and still find so­lace in the echo of John Howard’s 2001 dec­la­ra­tion: “We will de­cide who comes to this coun­try and the cir­cum­stances in which they come.”

The col­lec­tive us holds fast to the ef­fi­ciency of bor­der con­trol, a mi­grant in­take that we turn on and off like a tap and a queue of pa­tient, de­serv­ing refugees wait­ing for a rich coun­try like our own to give them the nod. We think of our home­land as an open, fair coun­try, wel­com­ing those we have cho­sen to join us.

Over­whelm­ingly, it is, but chang­ing be­fore our eyes.

When you or­der a wood-fired pizza in in­ner Syd­ney or Mel­bourne, for in­stance, you trig­ger an Ital­ian emi­gre sup­ply chain: a wait­ress from Rome, a dough and oven man from Naples, a barista trained in Bari and a cashier from the Veneto. Your break­fast straw­ber­ries and blue­ber­ries are picked by a Ger­man hol­i­day­maker and her Swedish boyfriend, your chicken pro­cessed by a Tai­wanese sub­con­tracted ‘‘back­packer’’. Per­haps half the stu­dents in the pic­ture is your daugh­ter’s for­eign­ers.

There seem to be Ki­wis ev­ery­where when you hit the Gold Coast’s theme parks and shop­ping strips. How come all the IT guys on that re­newal project are In­di­ans on 457 visas?

The way we now ‘‘do’’ mi­gra­tion has changed. As Mike Pez­zullo, sec­re­tary of the De­part­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, the son of Ital­ian mi­grants, tells it, “as with all rev­o­lu­tions in par­a­digms of thought and prac­tice, a new re­al­ity has been steadily emerg­ing, in the shad­ows of that which we used to do, and which is fixed in col­lec­tive mem­ory”.

The task at the bor­der, Pez­zullo told his of­fi­cials last year on Aus­tralia Day, was akin to gate­keep­ing, to “act as the open con­duits of Aus­tralia’s en­gage­ment with the world around us”. As jour­nal­ist Peter Mares de­tails in Not Quite Aus­tralian, our na­tion has made a per­ma­nent shift to tem­po­rary mi­gra­tion and it is trans­form­ing us in fun­da­men­tal and, of­ten, per­verse and wor­ry­ing ways.

“Of course, per­ma­nent set­tle­ment con­tin­ues,” he writes, “but it is now part of a hy­brid sys­tem, in­tri­cately and in­ti­mately en­twined with a much larger pro­gram of tem­po­rary en­try, which serves as the pri­mary gate­way to es­tab­lish­ing a life in Aus­tralia.

“What is more, we have moved from a per­ma­nent mi­gra­tion in­take that was cen­trally planned and tightly con­trolled by govern­ment, to a tem­po­rary-mi­gra­tion regime that is flex­i­ble and re­spon­sive. Rather than set­ting tar­gets, govern­ment man­ages flows: mi­gra­tion num­bers are largely driven by em­ploy­ers’ de­mand for skilled work­ers, by the de­sires of back­pack­ers to travel and work here, and by the ca­pac­ity of Aus­tralian ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions to at­tract in­ter­na­tional en­rol­ments.”

Mares es­ti­mates there are more than one mil­lion long-term but tem­po­rary mi­grants. A decade ago there may have been only 250,000. Most ‘‘new’’ set­tlers are ac­tu­ally ‘‘old’’ tem­po­rary mi­grants.

This hy­brid mi­gra­tion model — try be­fore you buy — may be more ef­fi­cient than the mass mi­gra­tion model for the em­ploy­ment needs of the econ­omy. As labour econ­o­mist Bob Grego- Ac­count­ing lec­ture are ry has shown, the em­ploy­ment out­comes for re­cent two-step per­ma­nent mi­grants have been phe­nom­e­nal.

In one case, Mares re­ports a Greek tourist learns English, pays for a TAFE course in aged care and is spon­sored for a 457 tem­po­rary work visa by a nurs­ing home provider. “I call it payas-you-go mi­gra­tion,” says the woman’s boss. Flex­i­ble, skills-driven, ef­fi­cient, re­spon­sive, busi­ness and con­sumer friendly, what’s not to love about the Aussie hy­brid model? Yet, as Mares ex­plains, our ap­proach to mi­gra­tion has evolved so rapidly — a fu­sion of al­lied labour, tourism and ed­u­ca­tion poli­cies — we barely un­der­stand how the sys­tem func­tions, the ef­fect it is hav­ing on in­sti­tu­tions and the dam­age it is do­ing to the peo­ple we want, who live visa to visa like couch surfers, but are not wel­come as full par­tic­i­pants in our so­ci­ety.

Mares fo­cuses on those who don’t take the sec­ond step and are in­def­i­nitely or per­ma­nently tem­po­rary: dis­pos­able work­ers locked for­ever in the sta­tus of ‘‘not quite Aus­tralian’’. They are vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ploita­tion and sink­ing into bu­reau­cratic abysses:

AN EX­QUIS­ITE BAL­ANCE BE­TWEEN THE HUMANE AND TOUGH-MIND­ED­NESS

They live here, con­trib­ute to the economic and cul­tural life of the na­tion, pay its taxes and obey its laws, but lack ac­cess to a range of govern­ment ser­vices and ben­e­fits, and are de­nied the right to vote.

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