27 October 2011

Skilled migration - have we got it the wrong way around?

Reading this opinion piece in the Drum reminded me of an old heretical idea I have had for some time.

It is one of the articles of faith of immigration policy in Australia that what we need is more skilled migrants. That's why my idea might be considered a heresy.

To a classical economist, skilled labour is a commodity, produced at considerable expense and much sought after in the economy.

Imagine if Australian business could import steel for free. All you would have to do would be to go down to the docks and take delivery. That would be fantastic for industries like construction, automobile manufacture, etc. It would put the Australian steel industry out of business, of course, but the net economic benefit would probably be positive.

Free steel is a fantasy, but free skilled labour is not. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to train an engineer, accountant, IT professional, doctor, nurse, etc. But our immigration program delivers planeloads of fully trained (and fully paid for) professionals every day. The benefits to the Australian economy are obvious. Of course, like the steel industry in the earlier example, the production of skilled labour in Australia inevitably comes off the worse for the competition.

The trouble is, economists may be able to see skilled labour simply as a commodity, but the rest of us realise that, unlike steel, skills come with people attached. Not producing skilled labour in Australia translates in real terms into not training Australians. Why spend the money when you can get the product for free?

The OECD Education at a Glance report for 2011 shows that Australia spends well below the average of developed economies on education. We are simply importing it for free.

The old paradigm worked (and worked well, in my heretical view) on the basis that immigrants came in at the bottom of the socio-economic heap and pushed everyone else up. The new paradigm brings the migrants in at or near the top. What effect does that have on everyone below? It may be still too early to tell.

But the economy doesn't just need skilled workers. Engineers don't like to wash dishes, but someone has to. If bringing in the free engineers from overseas means we don't train them here, then I suppose our own kids can take the unskilled jobs. Sounds like a good way to create some social unrest, if you ask me.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of our close neighbours in Indonesia, the Philippines and the Pacific queue up for unskilled or semi-skilled work in other countries, some of it legal, some not. Even when it's legal, conditions are often just as bad as when it's illegal.

It's not hard to imagine that a poor woman in the Philippines with a family to support would rather work as a maid or housekeeper in Australia than in Saudi Arabia. But we couldn't allow that, could we? It would offend our egalitarian sensibilities, wouldn't it? Better to let them live in poverty at home or be sexually abused abroad. I'm sure they understand that we're doing it for their own good.

Right now, legions of foreigners work in Australia illegally. The fact that they are illegal means that they are open to exploitation. If they had visas to work as unskilled or semi-skilled labour in domestic, construction, hospitality and manufacturing jobs their rights could be protected. Their taxes could even help pay for training Aussie kids, including their own, to be the engineers of the future.

25 October 2011

Press dogs attack as government whistles

There are now two groups of foreigners in this country marked as permissible prey for the hounds of the gutter press. Marked by the government, that is.

Asylum seekers, of course, those existential threats to our fair nationhood whose supreme cunning has brought the judiciary into collusion with the Government/Opposition (strike out whichever side you prefer) to force the ever-so-good people of Australia to put them up in luxury hotels and pay them double what our own suffering pensioners must live on. See the Mediawatch exposé.

As I have often pointed out, if you lock up people who are bad or dangerous or both, then asylum seekers must be bad or dangerous or both because we lock them up. Why are they locked up? As a deterrent and, as the recent ABC 4 Corners report strongly emphasises, as a punishment. Deterrence against what? Punishment for what? For coming here, simple as that. Coming here by boat is bad and the people who do it are bad. Government and Opposition blame each other for letting these bad things happen. The hounds are unleashed by both sides.

Now it is the turn of the overseas students whose crime was to buy what we were selling. Education? No, visas. For the better part of a decade the commissioned agents of a new government-backed industry went from town to town all over the Punjab signing up families who wanted a better life for their children. Sorry? What? am I suggesting they were not being offered the chance of training as hairdressers or cooks to return home to ply their trade? Has anyone told the Department of Immigration? Apparently now the good Mr Knight has revealed this dastardly plot that our innocent public servants would never have thought was going on right under their noses. Let's now set the media hounds loose on them, too. The good old Tele will oblige, of course. They will even give us the names and photos of a couple of young kids who have been charged with no crime nor committed any.

If the Tele is right (I guess it's theoretically possible) then the Department has started a "crackdown". That suggests the government is going further than just blaming the victims for its own egregious policy failings; it is intent on punishing them also. Another threat to our aforementioned fair nationhood averted, I suppose. Those Indian kids look like real crims, don't they?

Perhaps while they're in Perth for CHOGM, Manmohan Singh could quietly point out to Julia Gillard that in a couple of decades, when the Chinese have completed the task of replacing coal with renewable energy sources, Australian kids are likely to be begging for jobs in Indian restaurants -- in India. I believe the Indian press can be pretty rabid.

19 October 2011

Another bureaucrat blames students for program failures

Kruno Kukoc is First Assistant Secretary, Migration and Policy Division, Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Last Friday he gave a speech to the Australian International Education Conference in Adelaide.

No doubt Mr Kukoc is a first-rate public servant, but as such he is not speaking his own mind anyway. What he says is the official view. And the official view is simply this: none of this was our fault, it was all down to those sneaky students who had no interest in getting an education for its own sake. They just wanted permanent residence.

Sadly, I suppose, very few people in the real world want an education for its own sake. For most it is a means to an end. It is also not a rare thing for people to choose what to study on the basis of their future prospects. Choosing a course of study on the basis of the long-term advantages it might bring you is neither illegal, fraudulent nor even unreasonable.

For most of this century, Australia has actively sold education to overseas students as a path to permanent residence. Mr Kukoc observes that there was an explosion in the VET sector of colleges offering courses for occupations on the Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL). Were those colleges acting outside the law? Absolutely not, in fact they had to go through a government approval procedure under the Education Services for Overseas Students Act. Was there something illegitimate about the MODL? No, it was set up and controlled by Mr Kukoc's own Department. How did these students go about getting permanent residence after their studies? They applied for visa classes created, by Mr Kukoc's own Department, exclusively for the purpose of allowing overseas students to apply for permanent residence.

The resulting mess had to be cleaned up, I agree. Too many of the VET colleges were visa factories with no real educational foundation whatsoever. The immigration program was being swamped by applicants with inadequate qualifications in areas not really wanted by the economy. So far, I agree with Mr Kukoc.

But where is the blame? Mr Kukoc criticises the MODL, but seems to imply the government he represents had nothing to do with it. He seems surprised that all those thousands of students really wanted to get permanent residence, but doesn't seem to remember that visa subclass 885 was designed, by his Department, exclusively for overseas students to apply for permanent residence within six months of finishing their studies in Australia.

Mr Kukoc probably doesn't get to see them. They come to my office every day. They are mostly around my daughter's age. They, or rather their parents, bought something the Australian government was selling, or at least knowingly allowing to be sold, and now they are being accused of not being "genuine temporary entrants". They never thought they were, they were never required to be, that wasn't the product that was advertised when they bought it. Their lives are in a mess now as they wait to see whether the product their parents really paid for will ever be delivered. Mr Kukoc has a nice job in Canberra.

Who's to blame, really?

16 October 2011

Distraction of boats allows racism to thrive

While our "leaders" in Canberra accuse each other of backing the people smugglers' business model or encouraging the loading of children onto dangerous boats, in Sydney's western suburbs, and presumably elsewhere in the country, it is all about "the enemy".

The article in the Sydney Morning Herald was headlined "fear and distrust". People interviewed in the Federal electorate of Lindsay, whose local Member actively campaigns against asylum seekers arriving by boat, were not apparently concerned about queue jumpers or dangerous sea voyages. Their comments were the stuff of pure xenophobia. The barber saw no difference between persecuted Hazaras from Afghanistan and the Japanese, North Koreans and Viet Cong whom we fought in wars last century. The service station manager, who thought there had been about 100,000 arrivals this year, was worried about the danger to her grandchildren. It did not seem to matter how they got here, just that they were here.

Xenophobia, racism, intolerance, whatever you want to call it, is endemic in human society. After all, that's what the Hazaras are fleeing back home. Meningococcal bacteria and genital warts are also endemic, but are rarely encouraged by politicians. When Vietnamese boat people started arriving in the 1970s there were virulent racist campaigns, but both sides of politics explicitly rejected them. Both the Liberals under Fraser and Labor under Hawke resisted the temptation to ride the wave of racism. They either condemned or ignored it, and went about the business of welcoming the new arrivals into the multicultural mix of Australia.

For the last two decades, rather than welcoming it has been official government policy to lock up asylum seekers arriving by boat. As I have said before, we usually lock up people who are bad or dangerous, or both. No wonder the service station manager in Penrith is worried for her grandchildren, then.

If government policy is to deter them if you can, and lock them up if you can't, then in the minds of many these people must be a threat. Permission is given for the fear and distrust of strangers to manifest itself as hatred and demonisation. That's how a Hazara becomes a samurai.

04 October 2011

Another SNAFU with the paper work

We all make mistakes. Far be it from me to cast the first stone. But when it comes to paper work, a volley of rocks has already been hurled at the Department of Immigration over the years. Just a couple of examples: incorrectly advising people whose visas had been cancelled of how long they had to appeal (the Srey case); automatic cancellation of student visas for breach of a "prescribed condition", but forgetting to prescribe a condition (the Hossain case).

On Friday, a couple of emails lobbed into my inbox which I didn't get to look at until Sunday. They contained links to a couple of new "legislative instruments" guaranteed to make your eyes glaze with their complexity. The explanatory note that was posted with them suggested that, since 1 July 2007, the skills assessments which are the basis of all General Skilled Migration applications may have been unlawfully made because the Department of Immigration failed, forgot, or somehow didn't manage to get the approval of another Minister as required by law. No details given, all very mysterious.

Today I got an email circulated by a colleague, Christopher Levingston, which sheds some further light on the mystery. According to Chris, the assessing authority that was not properly authorised was Trades Recognition Australia (TRA), which is responsible for assessing all trade occupations.

So what does this all mean? Visas wrongly granted? -- unlikely, since the legal requirement is that the Minister is "satisfied" the criteria have been met. Visas wrongly refused? -- that's a bit more complicated, depending on whether the non-existence of an authorised assessing authority means that all applications should have been approved, or none should have. Certainly, as Chris points out, there could be implications for people charged with criminal offences in relation to giving false documents to TRA.

Maybe the lesson to be learned is this: the politicisation of immigration over the past couple of decades has led to micro-management by politicians and politically-driven bureaucrats, with resulting increased complexity in the rules and regulations that is now reaching breaking point. Murphy's law triumphs again. Time to go back to the drawing board?