Author: Editorial Board, ANU
Australia proclaims itself the most successful multicultural society in the world. Almost 29 per cent of Australians were born overseas; half the population has a parent born outside Australia. ‘We are one, but we are many’, the feel-good hymn to national cohesion and unity, rings this achievement out.
Australia’s response to COVID-19 could see all that change.
Australia’s migration success is not just success in social harmony and cohesion. Migration’s been a major factor both in navigating the burden of the rich-country disease of the drop in national fertility and economic stagnation. Migration has pushed the ageing problem further out (less than 15 per cent of Australia’s population is over 65), and boosts national economic growth and productivity.
Under-appreciated, the ‘temporary’ component is a crucial element in Australia’s migration model. The roughly 2 million temporary migrants in Australia today — students, people on short-term work visas, young people on working holiday visas, New Zealanders and others — provide a youthful pool that drives Australian permanent settlement. Almost a third of Australia’s large permanent migrant numbers (at peak around 1 per cent of Australia’s population growth) are assimilated through the temporary migration pipeline.
Already the foundations of this construct had been chipped away at by populist assaults upon the safety nets that once protected all Australian residents, citizen or not, alike. The eligibility for welfare support, free education and healthcare has been removed from a larger and larger underclass of tax-paying temporary residents expected to self-insure against social risks and pay for basic services for which the state would normally and properly assume responsibility.
All while large numbers of those very same people are critical foot-soldiers at the front-line of social services like health and aged care or essential work like seasonal harvesting and servicing the once vast tourism industry. That’s not social policy with a good look internationally. Japan, for example, doesn’t deny temporary foreign residents or their children access to free health services or basic education. And the hardships and resentments that it breeds will gnaw away at, and eventually fracture, the social cohesion of the many that is Australia’s boast.
Come COVID-19, enforced travel restrictions and the closure of large swathes of the economy to deal with its mortality consequences, and how does Australia treat temporary migrants at core of its successful migration and economic growth model? With short shrift: ‘go home’, they’ve been told by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Some temporary migrants may retain their jobs and some will be eligible for support under one or other of the major programs the Australian government has introduced to protect the estimated 15 per cent of the workforce thrown out of work by the economic closure. But the vast majority will not and going home is a remote option.
In Singapore, where 37 per cent of the workforce was non-Singaporean at the beginning of this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a broadcast to the nation, sent a very different message to those who’d chosen a temporary home there. ‘We are paying close attention to the welfare of the foreign workers,’ he said. ‘They came to Singapore to work hard for their living and provide for their families back home. They’ve played an important part building our HDB flats, Changi Airport, MRT lines. We’ve worked with employers to make sure they’ll be paid their salaries and can remit money home. We will provide them with the medical care and treatment that they need. If any of their family members watch my video, let me say this to them: We appreciate the work and contributions of your sons, fathers, husbands in Singapore. We feel responsible for their wellbeing. We will do our best to take care of their health, livelihood and welfare here. And to let them go home safe and sound to you. On behalf of all Singaporeans, I wish you well.‘
Australian leaders today, like their counterparts in our region and around the world, are fated to make choices that will shape the nation’s destiny for many decades to come. The decision to guarantee income support for the large part of the workforce displaced by the government’s own health policy decisions to enforce strict social isolation was a natural and immediate corollary to avoid vast social dislocation — although implemented with a costly and unnecessary delay. The decision to exclude non-resident workers from support, with its unstated nativist appeal, casts long shadows and will incur deeper economic and social costs that make Australia’s recovery from the crisis much more difficult.
As Abul Rizvi writes in this week’s lead essay ‘the Australian Government needs a more nuanced approach to temporary entrants than its “go home” message — that only trashes Australia’s reputation for the future, makes the recession deeper and recovery more difficult. Helping temporary entrants to be able to abide by self-isolation requirements, attend the doctor as needed, avoid destitution and contribute services to Australia’s health and aged care needs should be a short-term priority’.
The largely self-inflicted negative slump that can be expected in Australian net migration this year — on a scale not experienced since the Great Depression in the 1930s — will make Australia a less attractive place for anyone in which to invest and suck the energy out of growth for years. On which issue, as Christopher Findlay points out, it also makes no sense to tighten restrictions on foreign direct investment precisely at a time when we need foreign capital to cushion asset loss and fuel investment in recovery. And the damage to human capital formation by casting aside the international students who’ve chosen to study (and in many cases make their homes) here will add to the deep long-term drag on growth and economic potential. The New Zealand example in providing government income support and fee alleviation to international students is the one to follow.
The challenge for Australia and other countries in our region and around the world may be daunting but it’s not impossible.
Dealing with the pandemic requires commitment to unusual social control, probably until effective medications or a vaccine can be deployed, and decent people everywhere have substantially rallied to that call. The maintenance of prosperity for all needs government intervention that effectively shares income with those cast aside and vulnerable to shutting down the economy, alleviating unjustifiable hardship, mollifying social discontent and maintaining social cohesion. Not helping temporary residents to either get home or survive the crisis in a vibrant migrant society such as Australia will incur deep long-term economic, social and national costs.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
This article is part of an on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.