Human rights

Review — 'Not Quite Australian: How temporary migration is changing the nation'

By | | comments |
Not Quite Australian: How temporary migration is changing the nation by, Peter Mares

Kevin Bain reviews Peter Mares new book'Not Quite Australian: How temporary migration is changing the nation', in which Australia's shifting policies towards "citizenship for insiders" are explored.

"Metics" in Australia — how restrictions on citizenship affects us all

THE "METICS" of ancient Athens were resident foreigners who had limited political and welfare rights (as did their families and descendants) but could work as merchants, artists, or workers and perhaps prosper.

Peter Mares sees them as a metaphor in the recent drift in Australian policy away from permanent towards temporary immigration.

Behind closed doors in Canberra, citizenship restrictions are now being discussed, as we see in the recently leaked Government papers, which "reframe temporary, provisional and permanent migration and citizenship" and suggestions these changes are on the road to becoming official. The national security committee has apparently cleared the proposals to go to cabinet in early 2017, including a mandatory “provisional migrant” stage before permanent residency, with lesser access to government services.

More than most, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (with a media staff of 80) emphasises issue management not greater transparency in their communications, with extensive involvement in social media. Perhaps that is to be expected with “hot button” issues of immigration and refugees, where governments have a long tradition of saying one thing and quietly doing another. The above issues have therefore been below the public’s radar until recently, but a discussion is needed for the participation and human rights issues being posed. Mares maps the history and thinking which shows where policy is heading while the public is kept in the dark.

Mares is a distinguished Australian journalist and author in the immigration and refugee field. His 2001 book, Borderline, was a wide-ranging review – in the wake of the “MV Tampa” fiasco – of the collision between Australia’s high opinion of its multiculturalism and the brutal realities of its practice. (Malcolm Turnbull’s recent focus at the UN of the footballer Aliir Aliir as the poster boy for Australian multiculturaIism must seem odd to other countries who don’t think black footballers are such a novel thing.) Borderline won many awards and Mares has continued with other articles for Swinburne University’s Inside Story, drawing on case studies, statistics and policy analysis to clarify the big picture. He knows the terrain as well as anyone and can communicate with a broad audience.

Writing before the recent revelations, Peter Mares says that “causation in democracy” is in danger of being reversed, with government licensing citizenship rather than citizens licensing government, and the danger of government-imposed conformity. Setting language, health and skills hurdles (he could have added security, with all its potential for arbitrariness and prejudice) will be defended under the guise of social harmony or national needs, but there is a wider interest here.

He will surprise many by saying in this book that Australian citizenship is becoming less available. Permanent migration is capped but temporary migration is not, resulting in a significant number of temporary immigrants who have limited legal rights to participate fully in Australian life. It is not the application of a “try before you buy” approach — those who live and work within Australian boundaries for a significant period do not gain any entitlement to the expansion of their rights arising from citizenship. Visa renewals and transfers can make “temporary” a long time: the reputable '2016 Mapping Social Cohesion Report' (page 12) reports residents on long stay visas as being 7.9% of the estimated population and close to 10% of the workforce.

Previously, “the passage of time carried a moral force that cannot be ignored” — immigrants were expected to take their commitment as far as citizenship, with the immigrant group securing the protection of citizenship in return. No doubt this was reassuring to some: Jewish migration to Australia at the end of World War II was supported by only 17% of Australians, with 58% of those surveyed being against Australia, providing a sanctuary for dispossessed Jews. Up until 1966, non-European migrants needed 15 years residency to claim citizenship, which was reduced by Whitlam in 1973 to three years, when the White Australia policy finally ended.

Mares dates the mid-1990s as the start of the new course — the 457 class of work visas, more international students in tertiary and some senior secondary education, the expanded working-holiday-maker scheme and changes to the status of New Zealanders living here. Yet up until recently, the notion of “guest workers” was rejected by John Howard (2005), Peter Costello (2006) and Chris Bowen (2011). We have over one million people who are long-term (five years or more) temporary migrants with work rights, but no guarantee of permanent residency or citizenship.

All this raises the issue of democratic structures and principles. Is it desirable that law-abiding, taxpaying migrants who are part of their local communities – raising children, paying education fees, and contributing to cultural and social life – should be excluded from a full presence and commitment by denial of voting and restricted access to services? In some European jurisdictions, voting rights are provided to non-citizens on the basis that they are affected by government decisions and therefore have an entitlement to a say. Mares reviews political philosophers who have discussed the basis and models for such inclusion, but surprisingly omits Professor Alastair Davidson, who has written about this in the Australian context.

The notion that the appropriate role for those who seek permanent or temporary migration is primarily a functional one with limited participation outside the workplace – an “economic man” construct – seems dominant in the bureaucratic framework. While the initial immigrant decision may be mercenary or contractual in origin, we would hope that many experience attachment and engagement with Australia and its culture, and develop connections and interdependencies.

What future do we envision and what obligations and loyalties can be expected if a large minority of people are denied the rights to influence decision making in the society where they live, through standing for office, or choosing their leaders? Heath Pickering argues that citizenship is the main, but not the only, category of membership of society and calls for permanent residents to get the vote, as a start. In these times of discordant religious, national and ethnic identities, we don’t need policies which move us away from welcoming those who are becoming part of our communities.

The threshold issue is put on the table by Mares: do we want migrants to become full members of our society; in other words do we want a relationship or a contract? Relationship implies respect and protection, contract implies detachment, formality and “use and discard”. We’ve already seen much serial worker and backpacker exploitation in Australia, which reflects their precarious human rights. Refugees are an additional group, in a more precarious situation due to their lack of status in their country of origin — and many are stateless (not accepted as citizens of another country either). We’ve seen the degree of their alienation and the disturbing effect on our national psyche, as we realise we can’t wriggle out of the responsibility of being their nominal gaolers.

Despite the Canberra default position of “never you mind”, the leaked cabinet papers on sweeping changes to the visa system, reveal there is a debate going on within the bureaucracy about the risks of unequal rights, its impact on terrorist influence and on social cohesion.

The rest of us better sit up and get interested too — a citizenship for insiders, which excludes a role for metics re-orders our relationship with the visitors as well as theirs with us and goes against the dynamic of greater democracy. 

Kevin Bain is an economic analyst and teacher. He is active in housing and refugee advocacy and a member of the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Monthly Donation


Single Donation


Monthly Donation


Single Donation

Be well-readSubscribe to IA for just $5.

Recent articles by Kevin Bain
A new brand of populism?

David McKnight, the Australian journalist and historian, believes in rescuing ...  
What's wrong with Australia's democracy?

Kevin Bain reviews three publications offering diverse perspectives of what is ...  
Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians

Kevin Bain shares his thoughts on Jayne Persian's book on post WW2 immigration and ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate