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How temporary migration is changing Australia – and the world

The thrust of contemporary migration policy is not towards settlement but temporariness, not towards belonging but contingency. AAP

How temporary migration is changing Australia – and the world

More than 1 million temporary migrants are now living in Australia at any time. They include international students, skilled migrants on 457 visas, working holidaymakers, New Zealanders and refugees on temporary protection visas.

This is a marked change from the permanent settler model that characterised Australian migration in the 20th century. It throws up challenges for Australia’s claim to be a democracy committed to a system of citizenship-based multiculturalism.

In his time as opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison made the following observation:

When we arrive in this country, we become part of it – and it becomes a part of us – it becomes what [Sir Henry] Parkes described as “the land of our adoption”. It changes us – and in doing so it provides the basis for our connection with one another.

Yet the thrust of contemporary migration policy – not just in Australia, but globally – is in the opposite direction: not towards settlement but temporariness, not towards belonging but contingency.

What does it mean for an avowedly liberal, multicultural society like Australia if a significant proportion of the population is “unsettled” – if they are “wanted” for their temporary labour power or university fees, but not “welcome” as engaged and active members of society?

What does it mean for our democracy if a growing proportion of the population are paying taxes, abiding by laws, but having no say in the affairs of the nation and denied essential support in times of need?

If government treats migration as a purely contractual arrangement, then we will encourage migrants to treat their relationship to Australia in exactly the same way: to ask “what is in it for me, what can I get out of this country?” rather than “what is my connection to this country and what are my obligations?”

As prime minister, Malcolm Fraser made a similar point in a landmark speech on multiculturalism in 1981:

I am talking here about basic human rights, not benevolence which the giver bestows or withdraws at will. No society can long retain the commitment and involvement of groups that are denied these rights.

To focus on borders rather than belonging is to stab at the heart of the idea of the nation as an inclusive political community.

We must ask at this point whether temporary migration can ever be reconciled with liberal democracy. Is there a way of organising temporary migration that is compatible with the idea of an inclusive, pluralist society that upholds basic rights and fosters engagement and commitment?

Or, as political theorist Michael Walzer argues, does temporary migration inevitable require such significant ethical compromises that we should oppose it altogether?

Political theorists Joseph Carens, Michael Walzer and Martin Ruhs all agree that it is ethically unacceptable to render migrants indefinitely temporary. This is because that risks creating a group of “second-class residents” excluded from the political community of the nation and the benefits and rights of citizenship. Yet this is what can happen in Australia today.

Many New Zealanders and recently arrived refugees face the prospect of living permanently in Australia on temporary visas. Migrant workers can potentially have their temporary 457 visas repeatedly renewed. And, after they graduate, international students can end up hopping precariously across temporary-visa categories for a long time.

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Consequently, the starting point for a consistent liberal response to temporary migration must be a pathway to permanent residence that is, after a certain period of time, unconditional – not one that depends on an employer’s endorsement, or a particular qualification, or the ability to achieve a certain score on an English-language test, or a person’s health status, or whether they arrived by plane with a visa rather than by boat and without one.

So, we must set a threshold after which migrants are offered membership. What should this time limit on temporariness be? There is no mathematical formula to help us out here.

As Carens says, the argument that time has moral force – that the longer a migrant stays in a country, the stronger their claim to membership – does not provide clear demarcation points.

Yet opting for a particular number of years must be a reasoned decision rather than an arbitrary one. It will take into account political considerations and established norms and standards.

We have already set time thresholds in relation to a raft of other migration questions in Australia.

A permanent resident, for example, must wait two years to become eligible for most social-security payments.

In order to apply for citizenship, a migrant must have been living in Australia on a valid visa for four years, including the last 12 months as a permanent resident. A child born in Australia to parents who are not citizens or permanent residents gains an independent right to citizenship after living here for ten years.

If I apply gut feeling to the question, ten years seems too long a qualification period. Carens notes a European Union directive that recommends:

Third-country nationals [people from outside the EU] be granted a right of permanent residence if they have been legally residing in a single EU state for five years.

In Canada, a temporary migration scheme for live-in care-givers leads to permanent residency after two years of full-time employment.

The point of such examples is not to suggest there is an objectively identifiable or average time period at which temporary migration should transition to permanent residence. Rather, it is to agree with Carens that:

Some threshold must be established beyond which the right to stay is indefeasible.

Migrants who live in Australia for a significant time, who contribute to the economic life of the nation through their labour and their taxes, who possibly pay fees to study, are people who, for all intents and purposes, make Australia their home.


This is an edited extract of Not Quite Australian: How Temporary Migration Is Changing The Nation, by Peter Mares, published by Text.

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