Australian politics, society & culture

Let them pull their weight

I’ve always found Tony Abbott’s stance on asylum seekers loathsome. He refers to refugees as ‘illegal’ despite knowing it’s entirely legal to seek asylum. He recently announced the Coalition would reduce Australia’s refugee intake, seemingly just to show he is tough. And TPVs are now back on the Coalition agenda.

So it was confronting to hear Abbott proposing a ‘work-for-the-dole’ style scheme for asylum seekers. Because for once I agree with him.

In typical fashion, Abbott framed the scheme as a way to ‘break the something for nothing mentality’. As if people who’ve fled their homes and ended up on leaky boats headed for detention centres are natural-born welfare cheats.

Only Tony Abbott could present a promising policy idea and make it sound like a cynical means of punishment. But this is a good idea. It’s a break-the-political-deadlock good idea.

One thing is irrefutable. Australia will have a lot of asylum seekers to deal with in coming years. So far they have overlooked some pretty severe deterrence measures, so even if the rates of arrival slow, there’ll still be many who end up living in Australia. How do we make the best of this situation?

Some people will continue to advocate that these people should be punished for having the gall to be refugees in the first place; and some will think that it’s inhumane that all refugees are not welcomed with permanent residency and full welfare access immediately upon arrival. The government needs a refugee policy that is acceptable to the bulk of Australians, who sit somewhere in the middle.

At the moment the government proposes that asylum seekers be put on bridging visas (for five years, it is hinted) and given meagre support payments but refused the right to work. This is a flat-out stupid idea. The most likely outcomes will be mental health issues or illegal action among refugees – and pity, anger or resentment among the public.

Five years is a long time to do anything, and it’s an even longer time to do nothing. It sticks in my throat a little to say it, but Tony Abbott was right when he said this is no way to prepare people for Australian citizenship.

The strength of Abbott’s counter-proposal– let’s refer to it as the Snowy Mountain scheme of our time, to sell it – is its potential to change the way we think about refugees. Implemented properly, a mutual obligation scheme could recast prevailing views about refugees in Australia.

All but the unreconstructed racists acknowledge that migration has fundamentally been a force for good in Australia. Migrants have brought culture, skills, business, food, love and ingenuity to Australia. Weirdly the discourse about boat people ignores this history.

Refugees come to Australia looking to live and work free from persecution; they want to be safe and eventually, they hope, support a family. They want to work? Let them work. They want a chance to be a part of Australia? Let them.

A work-for-benefits scheme would be no picnic, and in an ideal world it wouldn’t be necessary. But we’re a long way from an ideal world. Pragmatic, imperfect political solutions are all that are available at the moment, and this one could work for all parties.

Regional councils and businesses have been crying out about labour shortages for years. The general public doesn’t want to see its tax dollars squandered. Companies seeking unskilled labour, national parks, NGOs, charities, the fishing industry and the farming sector would all be ripe for it.

The scheme would help with language and work skills, and include migrants in broader society. They would have a chance to contribute to their new country.

So what are the likely objections?

The government suggested that it might attract even more asylum seekers to Australia. Are we really expected to believe that people around the world would be falling over themselves to come to Australia to work for no more than survival money, for a minimum of five years? Even if this did happen, would a larger semi-permanent workforce, flexible and mobile, be so disastrous?

That it’s like slave labour? Absolutely, if they are forced to work for 60 hours a week or more. But if the scheme is set at 30 hours’ work per week, and asylum seekers receive fair recompense and basic entitlements, it would be reasonable. They’d also have a greater claim (hopefully this would be acknowledged) on permanent settlement. If they’re not willing to participate, refugees wouldn’t be prevented from returning to their home shores, to detention centres, or pursuing refugee claims elsewhere. Their rights would need to be protected by legislation, but really, could they have fewer rights than they currently do?

Undoubtedly there would be objections mounted on socio-economic grounds: That the scheme might drive down Australians’ wages, or maybe that  ‘they would take our jobs’. The scheme would certainly work best if targeted primarily at areas of the economy that are struggling to fill labour shortages; it wouldn’t be big enough to broadly affect labour conditions, but arguably might have a stimulatory economic affect in discrete parts of the economy.

What else: that it’ll be too difficult to keep organising meaningful work programs? It couldn’t possibly be more complicated than dealing with the refugee situation at the moment, or the fallout from having thousands of refugees without the means or rights to live a normal life. And if a government can’t organise work for a labour force such as this, they should sack themselves. Others soon will.

That Tony Abbott suggested it, so it must be bad? This troubled me also, believe me. Now it may still be the case that the Coalition attempts to combine the scheme with TPVs (that is, with the threat to send asylum seekers home afterwards) and that would be inhumane, as would any case where asylum seekers weren’t assured permanent residency from the start if they fulfilled their side of the bargain. But if we want politics to be a battle of ideas rather than teams, we are obliged to consider ideas on their merits. This idea has merit. We can always fight over the details.

The government is likely struggling with the fact that it was Tony Abbott who introduced it, but if political pride is the problem, on this issue the ALP has swallowed enough of it to last a lifetime. And let’s face it, they’ve never been afraid to borrow Coalition immigration policies in the past.
This article was originally published on The Drum (ABC).


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