21 May 2010

On migrants and bean counters

The following is a direct quote from a Ministerial press release of 17 May 2010: "Australia's migration program cannot be determined by the courses studied by international students".

Think about that. According to the Minister, it was the choices of overseas students to study courses like cooking and hairdressing that was keeping those occupations on the Skilled Occupations List (SOL).

Once again, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the government chooses to blame to victims of this fiasco. First they pretend that they never encouraged anyone to think that there was a pathway from student visa to permanent residence (see earlier posting), now they say it was all the students' fault anyway for wanting to study those courses.

The Minister was of course announcing the belated arrival of the new SOL. As everyone expected, hairdressers and cooks are off the list. Curiously, though, that other much-maligned occupation -- accountants -- remains. And despite the Minister's oft-quoted lament that "Harvard-educated environmental scientists" wouldn't get in under the old program, they aren't on the new list either.

The new list will apply to all visa applications lodged on or after 1 July 2010, unless the applicant held or had applied for a subclass 485 visa on 8 February 2010, in which case the old SOL will continue in effect for onshore applications until 31 December 2012. The old SOL will also continue to apply to subclass 485 visa applications lodged up to 31 December 2012 if the applicant held a subclass 572, 573 or 574 visa on 8 February 2010. Subclass 485 visas are only valid for 18 months, so the holders will have no longer than that to find an employer to sponsor them to stay either temporarily or permanently.

The intention of the changes, we are told, is to "attract skilled migrants of the highest calibre and deliver people with real skills to meet real need in our economy". This is exactly what we have been told for the past 20 years. It is the metaphor of immigration as economic irrigation -- turn it on, turn it off, direct the flow where it is needed. The bean counters love it because they can measure it, or think they can. Come to think of it, weren't they the ones who kept saying cooks and hairdressers were in short supply?

For a country in which immigration is so fundamental to our national identity, you would think we could come up with a better justification than "real skills to meet real need in our economy". Are skills all the economy needs? and is the economy all that matters?

Reducing the immigrant to his or her "skills" (for which read "qualifications", since they are easier to measure) is the triumph of short-term accounting over long-term social development. It justifies any unfairness, such as cancelling 20,000 applications waiting in the queue, discriminating against tax-paying migrants who can't bring their parents to live with them here, and with the latest program changes, dumping thousands of overseas students whose only crime was to believe previous government promises into a dead-end visa category that will give them 18 months to desperately try to find a job in their "chosen" occupation or else be sent packing.