The decision to bring in temporary migrant workers for the huge mining projects in the north of Australia represents yet another major mistake by a seriously incompetent federal government. However much the decision is hedged by administrative caveats, it represents a public relations disaster from the perspective of Australian’s unemployed in a climate of employment turbulence in Australia and across the world.
As Irish, Greek and other European workers queue up at Australian overseas missions to apply for permanent migration, one must wonder at the quality of advice the Immigration Minister is receiving from his department. But more than that, whilst the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues may console themselves with the proposal’s caveats as they defend the indefensible, the decision is underpinned by two serious failures.
The lessons of migration history
The first is a serious misreading of the lessons of Australia’s migration history. Since World War II Australian migration policy has been based firmly and squarely on family migration. This has been its strength. And this together with the equal wages policy has been the cornerstone of Australia’s success in integrating millions of immigrants and refugees in a peaceful and cohesive manner with very few hiccups. Australia is now recognised worldwide as a global lighthouse for multicultural and interfaith harmony.
This success has been buttressed by a national and local commitment by immigrants to Australia; the centrepiece of Australia’s social and economic multicultural policy first articulated and bipartisanly endorsed in Parliament in 1989. Transient workers are fundamentally uncommitted to community, whether they are brought in from overseas or from other parts of Australia in the case of FIFO workers.
Transients represent examples of temporary commuter migration. Two examples from Australian history suffice to underline the seriousness of the point. During the Gold Rush, the Chinese were essentially male commuter migrants who left their wives and families at home as they pursued their El Dorado. Of course, the White Australia hostility also meant they were deeply unwelcomed but they in turn were not committed to family migration because of Chinese Confucian cultural patterns that dictated that families, particularly the womenfolk, should remain attached to their lineage homes and ancestral graves.
In contrast to fly in/fly out mainly male transient workers, family migration, appropriately supported by enlightened government programs, provides the social glue in the formation of cohesive and sustainable communities. Young and not-so-young single male workers do not over the long term provide the necessary sustainability even though they may be the ground-breaking pioneers who open up new areas and new industries.
The second example is more instructive. Beginning in 1863 up until the very early years of Federation, Pacific Island male workers without families were brought in for Queensland’s sugar plantations. They were not permitted to move more than thirty miles form the coastline. It was the closest Australia ever got to a formal apartheid system. Lobbying from the plantation owners drove the colonial government but fortunately the more liberal forces within Queensland’s right wing party eventually stopped this exploitative system. It was also partially driven by the White Australia policy introduced as the third parliamentary act of federal legislation. But it was greedy and crass commercialism that drove the policy for four decades.
Developing a sustainable future for the north
The second and more fundamental mistake is the failure on both sides of politics to develop an imaginative vision for Australia’s north. Since 1788, Australia’s development has taken place mainly along Australia’s eastern, south-eastern and south-western coastal regions and their immediate hinterlands. Their climate conditions better suited our European ancestors.
The current flurry of activity in the mining areas of Australia’s north in Queensland across to Western Australia represents a special and unique opportunity to develop and further populate the northern regions.
As Australia interfaces more and more with the Asian world, it has become even more important to develop and populate our northern regions where water is generally plentiful if properly harvested, except in the more remote regions. It is Australia’s task for the whole of the 21st century to undertake this monumental task. Authentic development of the area with sustainable communities cannot happen except by families migrating not just from other parts of Australia but from across the world with affordable housing and sophisticated civic infrastructure
As Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest, and the other mining magnates quarry their way to huge fortunes, these fortunes should be utilised and inspired by a vision to develop the north in a sustainable way. If they do not want history to remember them as grasping and selfish entrepreneurs, surely they can be co-opted into using their resources for sustainable community development. It is the task of Australian leaders to design and proclaim a realistic but visionary plan for Australia’s north.
There are significant strategic, security and development factors as to why the nation needs to move now. The nettle of these issues must be grasped now as it is unlikely another more splendid opportunity will evolve over the next one hundred years.
The question must therefore be asked: which Australian leader will have the imagination and vision to convince the electorate of the way forward? Public discussion about the proposed migrant labour scheme in all its scintillating awfulness may be the necessary trigger to design a concrete strategy for Australia’s northern regions. The answer lies with families, not single transient workers. And with better-informed and more visionary leadership.
Des Cahill is a Professor of Intercultural Studies in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. He is a world leading researcher and teacher in the areas of immigrant, cross-cultural and international studies for more than three decades.
This article also appears on On Line Opinion.