MIGRATION INSTITUTE OF AUSTRALIA
HOTEL REALM, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 30 OCTOBER 2014
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Good morning ladies and gentlemen.
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and paying my respects to their elders, both past and present.
It gives me great pleasure to speak at this year’s conference and say a few words about the significance of immigration to our nation.
This conference’s theme of ‘Valuing Australian Immigration and Citizenship’ is one which encapsulates my abiding interest as a public office holder at the Local and Federal level; as a life-long resident in one of the most diverse regions of Australia, namely Western Sydney; as an active member of a political party for over 20 years, who views diversity in its membership and representation as compulsory rather than merely desirable; and whose life experiences reinforce on a daily basis the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity.
In my electorate of Greenway, 41.5 per cent of residents were born overseas and 40 per cent of residents speak a language other than English at home. My hometown of Blacktown, which falls within both the electorates of Greenway and Chifley, is home to more than 30 different ethnic communities making it a wonderfully diverse and vibrant part of Australia.
The most common surname in the Blacktown Local Government Area is not Smith or Jones, but rather the Punjabi, or Sikh name, Singh.
In 1901, one in four of us were born overseas and today that figure remains the same, but the nations we come from are very different.
We proudly define ourselves as a nation of immigrants – a nation that welcomes and encourages all those who wish to embrace our national values and add their culture. That’s why millions of people, ancestors to most of us, took the decision to leave old ties and familiar surroundings, to depart from families and kinships and venture into the unknown – so they could be free to work, worship and live their lives in peace.
This flow of immigrants has helped make this country stronger and more prosperous. We can point to the pioneering genius of Dr Victor Chang, the business prowess of Frank Lowy and the sporting talent of Hazem El Masri to name a few.
And then there are the quiet acts of countless migrants, which may not have resulted in fame, but were no less consequential in forging our nation.
That’s the promise of our nation – that anyone can write the next chapter of our story. It doesn’t matter where you come from; what matters is that you believe in the ideals on which we were founded. In embracing Australia, you can become Australian. And that enriches all of us.
At times, there has been fear and resentment directed toward newcomers, particularly in periods of economic hardship.
And because these issues touch on deeply held convictions – about who we are as a people, about what it means to be an Australian – these debates often elicit strong emotions.
But the recent Scanlon Foundation Survey found a surprising and refreshing change in the correlation between unemployment and views on our immigration intake. In 2014 there have been heightened economic concerns off the back of increased unemployment and high profile job losses, and with this would be an expectation that immigration intake is too high.
But according to the survey, the reverse occurred with just 35 per cent of respondents agreeing that the intake is ‘too high’ and 58 per cent considering it ‘about right’ or ‘too low’.
Our challenge therefore is multifaceted. We need to make it possible for people to live safe and productive lives in their own countries so that migration can be a choice, not a necessity. And we must make sure that those who are on the move because of repression and violence can reach safety and find the protection to which they are entitled.
At the same time, we need to work to ensure that economic migration benefits both sending and receiving countries. Managed properly, migration can benefit everyone but with global growth slowing and unemployment rising, we need to be even more focussed in our objectives.
We must also do our utmost to promote social harmony and keep tensions surrounding immigration from turning into discrimination. Already, the political discourse has become discouragingly negative in many places, but the recent Scanlon Foundation Research points to overall positive sentiments towards our multiculturalism.
One year ago I gave my first public speech on Labor’s approach to multicultural policy. The general themes have not changed, but my appreciation of the issues facing ethnic communities has grown. As we now move into the drafting phase of our policies to take to the Australian people at the next election, we must inform ourselves from the ground-up; to listen to those who work in the myriad of institutions and services in their respective fields; to digest the research of individuals and look for ways in which the substantive findings of important reports can be implemented.
The integration of successive waves of immigrants into our society and workforce with relatively minor social friction is a remarkable achievement. The reality of everyday life in a multicultural Australia is that we all have family members, friends, colleagues and neighbours who have come from widely diverse origins. And although most of us — including immigrants — want to be accepted as Australians and have a firm commitment to the institutional framework of our political and legal system, there is a growing recognition that this does not preclude us from maintaining those aspects of our cultural heritage which give meaning to our lives. Indeed it is the vigour of our diversity, and the degree of interaction between different cultures, that contributes so much to the uniqueness of the Australian identity today.
We must, however, ensure that our immigration program facilitates the processes of continuing adjustment in the future. Australia’s population will continue to change and we need to create an environment that can accommodate those changes — so that the rights of the individual are recognised and the interests of the community advanced.
Labor’s policies seek to maximise the contribution — the experience, job skills and entrepreneurial talents — of all Australians to the economic life of the community. They seek to make better use of the qualifications of Australians born and trained overseas, and to remove the barriers of language, culture, gender, race or religion which many people from non-English speaking backgrounds face.
By seeking to improve the management and use of our human resources, and thereby actively contributing to a sustained improvement in our standard of living, settlement policies serve the interests of us all.
The path to this, however, involves a considerable political shift. It means confidently embracing immigration and moving away from the misguided notion that the Australian public won't support or accept an increase in migration levels.
Multiculturalism does not entail a rejection of Australian values, customs and beliefs. When you say you’re pro-immigration, this does not negate the values in Australia of equity, fairness and individual initiative.
There remains a need for even more targeted measures in order to ensure that all members of the community regardless of background are able to make their maximum contribution to Australia’s development. I see too many constituents, many of whom are from Sub-Continent or African backgrounds, who are under-employed. I have had too many conversations with PhD holders and IT professionals who are driving taxis around our major cities.
An additional problem that is likely to present itself soon and affect the course of the next ten to forty years is Australia’s aging population. It is estimated that by 2050, almost a quarter of the population will be aged over 65, compared to the 14% recorded at the 2011 census.
The large number of baby boomers is set to cause a great drop in workforce participation rates as their imminent retirement looms, and this age group is further expected to increase demands in both health and aged care services.
The evidence, including the findings of the latest Scanlon Report, supports the view that immigration is a sensible economic decision that allows us to maintain our standard of living and care for our ageing population.
We must all recognise the deeply important role immigration has played in helping determine who we are as a nation and as a people.
We must all acknowledge that migration is an essential economic asset, which needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the economic climate whilst also take into account factors such as skills gaps and an ageing population.
Labor is committed to having a real and constructive economic debate around immigration that will inform the size, composition and framework of the future program which, in turn, will shape our nation.
A skilled migration program - temporary and permanent - will be critical to ensuring the continued success and prosperity of the Australian economy.
We need to only look at our past for evidence of this.
Australia’s post-war immigration policy was one of the greatest strategic decisions this country has made.
It was the Chifley Labor Government who opened the doors of Australia to a great wave of migration.
It was a decision that allowed old cultures to flourish again in a new land, enriching and diversifying Australian society.
It was also a decision that provided a great new engine of manpower, a mass of workers whose energy, experience, and expertise helped build Australia's post-war prosperity to new levels.
The changes stemming from this decision are permanent and, whilst we may have seen a consequent period of general uncertainty and unease, they are, in my view, almost universally for the better.
And it is incumbent that governments set the example for the rest of the nation.
The fact is that it is the responsibility of governments to protect the national interest against the tide of prejudice.
Labor has welcomed the Abbott Government’s announcement that Australia will take 4,400 refugees from Iraq and Syria. However, given the unfolding humanitarian crisis, we believe that intake should be new places in addition to the existing 13,750 places in the Abbott Government’s scaled back humanitarian refugee program.
Australia is only one of about twenty countries worldwide that participates formally in the UNHCR’s refugee resettlement program by accepting quotas of offshore, UNHCR-referred, humanitarian entrants each year.
For decades Australia has offered a generous resettlement program - the highest in the world on a per capita basis - even though, of course, the Convention imposes no requirement for us to do so.
Under the former Gillard Labor Government, Australia’s humanitarian program increased the number of places from 13,750 to 20,000 in line with the recommendation of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.
We did this not because we had to but rather because Labor fundamentally believes we are a humanitarian nation.
We also believe the refugee resettlement program is the best policy approach, both for Australia and for asylum seekers, providing, as it does, a clear deterrence to people getting on precarious boats and risking their lives.
This increase showed that people can pursue regular options and be safely referred to resettlement countries such as Australia as part of an orderly humanitarian program.
By reversing this decision, the Abbott Government has flagged that asylum is simply an issue to be exploited for political gain, regardless of the broader consequences.
While the generosity of Australia’s annual humanitarian intakes is widely acknowledged, the magnitude of the issues arising from the growing number of people seeking protection globally poses huge challenges to all destination countries, including Australia.
One of the biggest challenges for the government of any destination country is to develop asylum policy that focuses on international concerns, not merely domestic political advantage, and offers sustainable long-term solutions.
For Australia, it involves genuine engagement with the key transit countries in our region such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
It involves collaborating with the UNHCR and other international organisations.
And it involves creating and expanding those safer pathways to migration from persecution and danger to safety.
Labor continues to stand for compassion in doing all that is necessary to bring an end to the loss of life at sea. Labor continues to stand for fairness by working with bodies such as the UNHCR to determine where best to deploy our humanitarian program for greatest benefit. And Labor continues to stand for generosity by advocating an increase in the size of our humanitarian program.
There is, however, nothing humanitarian about this Government’s decision to reduce the scope of a program which helps people who are genuinely in need.
There is also nothing humanitarian about the Government axing the Non-contributory Parent visa and Other Family visa category earlier this year.
This is a visa which, at very low cost, gives hardworking migrants the hope and opportunity for their parents to one day join them in Australia.
Without this visa category the only other option for migrants' parents to come to Australia is through the contributory visa category. The contributory parent visa category can reportedly cost up to $120,000.
Given that such a figure is simply unaffordable for most of us, the Abbott Government slammed the door on thousands of families ever being reunited.
Not only was this an unfair act, the Minister for Immigration, snuck this move through by legislative instrument without any consultation with the community.
Labor has always recognised how important these visas are to families on low and middle-incomes.
And that is why Labor moved in the House of Representatives and supported the successful disallowance of the Abbott Government’s callous abolition of the non-contributory visa and other family visa categories in the Senate.
This government seriously underestimates how important these visa categories have been for Australians. For people to have the right to bring their relatives, especially their elderly parents out to see out the last years of their lives with their families in Australia.
And these people contribute vastly to Australian society. They perform a variety of functions. They spend money in our communities, they use local services and they assist with childcare and homemaking. So the notion that they are a drain on society is absolutely wrong. They are tremendous contributors to our Australian community and our economy.
I close by urging everyone here to use this conference to focus on the real questions which will define our future - what kind of Australia do we want to live in and pass on to our children? And in what ways can an immigration program help us build that kind of Australia?
Having posed these questions let me give you my vision.
I want to see an Australia with a modern growing economy; an Australia that is confidently embedded in the global economy and embracing the dynamism of our own region.
And an Australia renowned for its quality of life which vibrantly reflects our tenets and belief that all people are entitled to equal opportunity irrespective of race, colour or creed.
With these aims, there is no doubt in my mind of the positive and enriching contribution to be made by a continuing immigration program, harnessing the skills of the people of the world to build a stronger Australian economy and drawing on the strength of their cultural traditions to build a confident, dynamic and wonderfully diverse Australia.