Australia's Immigration Policy

Detentions Center Crisis Splits Parties

Weeks of hunger strikes, riots, and a storm of media controversy over the condition of asylum seeking refugees in Australia's Woomera Detention Center have opened up rifts in both the country's Labor and Liberal (read "conservative") parties. Although opinion polls have consistently showed overwhelming (as high as 80 percent in some cases) support for the nation's policy of detaining asylum seekers from nations like Afghanistan for processing before releasing them into the community, bad publicity after a spate of incidents has caused rebels within both major parties to question the government's methods.

This is not the first time immigration and the status of refugees has grabbed the nation's headlines; indeed, the controversy has long, and sometimes ugly, roots that continue to color the debate today. Until 1973, the country maintained a "White Australia" policy in one form or another that kept out immigrants of non-European backgrounds. As a result, opponents of the detention centers policy are quick to jump on this history, suggesting that more sinister racist motives lie behind the detention of refugees. A closer look suggests that this is not necessarily the case; indeed, average Australians tend to view immigration as a net positive for the country, no matter the source, so long as new citizens can contribute to society; under a recently imposed skills-based regime for deciding who is granted citizenship, Indians have become Australia's most common new immigrants. Yet since the demise of race-based immigration policies, Australia has been on the defensive when proving itself an open and tolerant nation. And last year's asylum-seekers crisis, and the highly publicized disturbances at the Woomera detention center in South Australia haven't helped.

The oft-repeated charge is that the Liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard is not giving would-be newcomers a "fair go" at living in what locals like to call "the lucky country." Meanwhile, the retirement from politics of Pauline Hanson—former head of the populist One Nation party—this past January got people talking about her legacy. As leader of Australia's One Nation party, Hanson managed to garner considerable—though mostly negative—attention for her outspoken anti-immigration views. But despite the attention, she garnered few votes.

On the other side of the debate, not everyone who wants to see immigration increased and foreigners let into the country is a member of the much-derided "cultural elite;" in Australia, population is an issue that makes for strange bedfellows. The business community, always looking for "human capital" in the form of workers and customers, has been sounding the drumbeat lately for greater immigration, especially since Australia's fertility rate is a measly—and ultimately unsustainable—1.7 children per couple. "International companies see little reason to invest in Australia," wrote Tony Berg, former member of the Business Council of Australia, in Sydney's centrist Herald. "Higher immigration is … vital to help sustain more rapidly growing incomes and wealth. It is well known that immigration can bring skills, innovation and entrepreneurship. It creates a larger market for Australian-based businesses and adds to demand. In turn, this encourages investment."

That's all very well and good, but currently politicians are looking for a way to end the drumbeat of headlines about refugees—even if, so far, they haven't swayed any voters. In mid-January, John Howard met with Indonesia's president, and stopping the flow of refugees making their way through that island nation (generally with the help of expensive "people smugglers") was high on their agenda for discussion. And this week politicians on both sides of the aisle began demanding that the government figure out ways to speed up the processing of asylum claims.

Curiously, the ultimate solution may ultimately come not from the capital in Canberra but from across the Tasman Sea, in the form of New Zealand and the economics of illegal migration. "New Zealand 'next smuggling target'" reads the headline in a recent edition of Sydney's centrist Australian, which, noting New Zealand's high acceptance rate for refugees turned away from Australia, reports that "people-smugglers are looking at setting up more expensive operations, such as trying to smuggle people into New Zealand by air using false passports, or buying bigger vessels to make the longer journey."

If that prediction pans out, it will only be a matter of time before an editorialist in Auckland claims that the sheep need more elbow room.