22 July 2010

Telling it like it is

Watching the ABC program The Making of Modern Australia tonight I heard a woman of Vietnamese origin sum up her parents' experience with a powerful metaphor: "a whole generation laid down its body as a bridge for the next to pass over".

I don't think anything more needs to be said.

14 July 2010

East Timor or Nauru? What's the difference?

There are of course lots of differences between East Timor and Nauru. Geography, size, history, language, politics, economy, etc. Then there are two differences which, according to the Government and the Opposition, make all the difference (though for different reasons).

The first is that East Timor is a signatory to the International Convention Relation to the Status of Refugees, and Nauru is not (or not yet). This is what the Government says makes all the difference.

The second is that Nauru has an Australian-built detention centre which it is happy to fill, at a price, with asylum seekers delivered there by the Australian Navy, while East Timor does not and does not appear to want one, either. This is the difference that the Oppostion says is the one that matters.

Exactly what difference it would make if the country where the camp was located was a signatory to the Convention is not entirely clear. Arguably, an inmate of such a camp could call upon the host country to honour its obligations, which include Article 26: "Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence to move freely within its territory, subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances." But that would make it a disadvantage (from Australia's point of view at least) if the camp was in a signatory State, because the detainees could then petition the Court's of the country to release them. The signatory State would, in fact, find itself compelled by its own laws to accept the asylum seekers for resettlement. Hardly an attractive prospect for a poor country struggling to feed and house its own population.

The one big difference between and unwilling East Timor and a more-than-eager Nauru, as far as the Government is concerned at least, is that it is politically unacceptable for them to adopt the exact same policy they were so critical of in Oppostion.

It is not possible to understand whether either of these differences really makes a difference without looking first at what the issue is. Why would Australia want a processing centre for asylum seekers in either country?

To stop them coming here? To stop them being seen on the evening news coming here, more likely, since the Nauru experience showed that most of them ended up here anyway.

To stop them jumping the queue? Please explain just where that queue starts. In fact, even the Minister accepts that there is no queue.

To protect our borders? Against what?

There is however one legitimate argument for trying to stop people getting into overcrowded, unseaworthy boats with insufficient food, water and fuel and no navigational gear -- to stop them drowning on the way as many hundreds have already done.

Did Howard's use of the non-signatory Republic of Nauru stop the boats coming? Almost certainly it did. Sure there may have been some coincidental decrease in the push factors, but there can be no doubt that Howard's policy knocked the wheels off the boat trade out of Indonesia. Why wouldn't it? The prospect of indefinite detention on a pile of dry bird droppings was even less attractive than indefinite abandonment in the squalor of Indonesia's camps and doss houses from where the boats departed. The fact that a large majority of the Nauru detainees eventually made it to Australia may have somewhat spoiled the effect for the next time round, however.

If you think that stopping the boats means the asylum seeker problem is solved, then deterrence is the simple answer. Make it clear that they will either be towed out to sea or sent to a concentration camp somewhere, and before long they will stop coming.

If you think that there is a bit more to it than that, then what about providing genuine, fast, objective processing in Indonesia and then bringing those found to be genuine refugees straight here by plane?

It would probably keep them off the evening news, too.

06 July 2010

The population bugbear returns
Our new Prime Minister has chosen to make one of her first policy announcements on the subject of population, saying she is not in favour of a "Big Australia" and adding the word "sustainable" to the portfolio of the Minister for Population.

When the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a forward projection of around 36 million for the total Australian population in 2050, then Prime Minister Rudd made the (rationally) unremarkable but (politically) suicidal comment that he was in favour of a "Big Australia". Once deposed, the hapless ex-leader's naive remark was made into a "target" by those who deposed him, and having set up this straw man they proceeded to knock it down for political effect. Decrying "political correctness", Gillard has told us that there is nothing intolerant or racist about worrying about who is coming to this country and how, or how many for that matter.

But what is the issue? Should we really have any sort of target number for the country's total population 40 years from now? Could we if we wanted to?

Having a population policy that consists of a target number for a given date is nonsense. For one thing, a country's population isn't just a single number. Malawi has roughly the same total number of people as the Netherlands, for example. What does that tell us about either country? Not much. For these numbers to make sense you need to know things like age and geographic distribution of the population, the country's resources and access to technology, levels of income and education, wealth distribution, and many other things.

Most single-figure arguments are based on the idea that humans are indistinguishable from cattle. A cow can only behave in one way. It eats a certain amount of grass and produces a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Humans are the opposite. There is a virtually inexhaustible number of ways we humans can interact with each other and the environment we live in.

Try thinking back 40 years. Could the McMahon government of 1970, which still considered Taipei to be the capital of China, have had any chance of predicting what the economy, technology and geopolitics of 2010 would be like? All of these things are relevant to population policy.

Of course government policy must have regard to the future, but 40 years is far too long to be a meaningful limit, and as mentioned above putting all the emphasis on a single figure is a gross over-simplification. A more reasonable approach to population policy would be to look at trends in the various factors that go into the makeup of the country's population profile to determine what impact those policies are likely to have on the sort of population we have over time, rather than worrying about an arbitrary number at an arbitrary date.

Hard to fit into a sound bite, though.
Immigration and "sovereign risk"

The ongoing chatter about the Resources Super Profits Tax keeps referring to a term called "sovereign risk". Not being an economist, I had to look this up. Apparently it refers to a calculation made by foreign investors about the likelihood that the government of the country they are investing in will suddenly change the law in such a way that they will lose all or part of their investment. Obviously, a country deemed to have high sovereign risk is one where investors will be wary of putting their money.

For people thinking of investing their lives in Australia the sovereign risk factor has gone through the roof in the past weeks. Back in February the government decided to simply throw out all offshore skilled migration applications lodged before 1 September 2007. Then it changed the criteria for onshore applications so that students who had put all of their family's savings into a well-advertised and government-promoted plan to qualify for permanent residence through study were told they had never been promised any such thing and the best they could hope for was 18 months to try to find a job and an employer willing to sponsor them.

Now we have the Migration Amendment (Visa Capping) Bill 2010. This allows the government to throw out validly made applications based on any characteristic they choose - occupation, age, even nationality. Despite suggestions to the contrary by the Minister in an interview on the ABC, the Racial Discrimination Act does not prevent discriminatory laws based on a person's current nationality, only on their "national origin" -- see Macabenta v Minister for Immigration [1998] FCA 1643.

Applying for migration to Australia is becoming an increasingly risky business.