Asylum Seekers: An Approach You Won’t Hear From Politicians

ASYLUM SEEKERS — the political football of the 21st century, it seems — are a fraught issue when it comes to electoral politics; the Coalition retains the edge in voter sentiment, but no approach to date has been perfect. Maybe it is time to look at another way, and today I outline an idea for just that.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for some time, and I think I’ve come up with — wait for it — a “third way” on asylum seekers, which within strictly delineated parameters and with usage of both the carrot and the stick, might offer a resolution to this dreadful issue.

Of the major parties, it would be easier for the Coalition to adopt than the ALP; after all, Labor policy on this issue changes more or less annually, whereas the Coalition policy essentially remains, at core, the Pacific Solution presided over by the Howard government.

The Coalition could present a version of what I will shortly outline as a logical development of its existing policy — especially as it has consolidated the policy around Nauru and steering resettlement opportunities for refugees toward countries other than Australia, whereas the ALP would attract criticism simply by virtue of even more change to its laws.

But either way, I think this is reasonable, provides incentives and opportunities for asylum seekers, and (rightfully) carries with it a big stick that should be wielded when indicated.

I wonder — with an eye on the “Ten Pound Pom” and European immigration schemes of postwar Australia — whether an opportunity can be integrated into the present policy mix.

Could those asylum seekers arriving by boat, processed on Nauru or Manus Island, and found to be economic migrants rather than refugees, be provided an alternative means of obtaining permanent settlement in Australia in exchange for doing something?

I have in mind, particularly, the policy the Liberal Party has spent the past year devising, refining, costing and polishing ahead of a final formal launch that must be near: to develop vast tracts of semi-arable land in northern Australia into a giant foodbowl and agricultural region.

And the idea came from thinking about the construction of the Snowy Mountains Scheme in the 1950s and 1960s — significantly built by immigrant labour — which has bequeathed this country a huge hydroelectricity and irrigation resource, with associated benefits for tourism, aquaculture and so on.

Before anyone accuses me of heading down the path of advocating slave labour or anything illegal or unethical, I emphasise that I’m doing nothing of the kind.

But I do point out that this may offer a “third way” (again, lovely term) for persons who are not citizens, not residents, and not otherwise welcome in this country to earn the right to stay here by helping to build something that will add to Australia — and benefit those who live here — for generations.

How this might play out is that as per current proposals for dealing with boat arrivals (and let’s face it, since the ascension of Kevin Rudd there are similarities between the Labor and Coalition approaches), persons seeking asylum would be sent to Nauru or Manus Island for processing.

Of course, anyone deemed unfit to live here on grounds of health, criminality, terrorism etc would be permanently denied access to Australia: as they should be (Greens’ voters, challenge that if you dare, but make it good…)

And it goes without saying that any asylum seeker (refugee or otherwise) found to be engaging in the destruction of facilities whilst in detention awaiting processing, rapes, hunger strikes, or any other criminal and/or coercive behaviour in attempting to force their claims should be immediately deported, and barred from ever returning.

Those found to have legitimate claims to refugee status would obviously be offered resettlement in either Australia, or — depending on the policies of the government of the day — in a third-party country.

But the group that would be left after such considerations — in short, economic migrants seeking to bypass orthodox immigration channels to “jump the queue” — could be offered a fixed-term period of designated work in exchange for a restricted class of permanent residency at its conclusion.

Such restrictions, for example, could feature an exclusion period of ten years from eligibility to apply for citizenship or to receive welfare benefits, to balance the attraction such a scheme might offer with a disincentive to so-called “welfare migrants.”

It would have to include a condition prohibiting any form of family reunion visa for family members in their country of origin: an immigration category I would like to see abolished altogether, except for truly exceptional cases evaluated and approved by the Minister for Immigration personally.

But looking back to the concept generally (and I emphasise, it’s just an idea I’m floating for discussion) and the Coalition policy on Northern Australia as an example to benchmark it against, those economic migrants who took up such an offer from the Commonwealth could be housed in low-cost accommodation near one of the many projects that would be built.

The Liberal policy would require dams, roads, railways, ports and so forth to be constructed in an infrastructure-building project that could take decades to realise.

These economic migrants — who would otherwise be ineligible to settle in Australia (or at least, that’s the theory) could be paid at the rate of the minimum wage either by the Commonwealth outright, or in a series of jointly funded individual enterprises undertaken by the Commonwealth in partnership with the private sector.

Persons accepting such an offer could work on these for a compulsory period of, say, three years before they would become eligible for a restricted residency visa of the kind outlined above.

And of course, any criminal conduct during that period would result in immediate deportation, and a bar on ever returning.

Such a program of diverting economic immigrants to a scheme like the Liberals’ foodbowl proposal would avail the program of a ready supply of relatively low-cost labour, which few reasonable voices could oppose — not least as there would be provision for residential accommodation as part of the package.

It could provide the means to realise huge infrastructure gains, and to provide Australia with a resource that would allow it to be a net food exporter to the vast Asian populations to our north; the Coalition shadow minister responsible, Andrew Robb, has previously published estimates that the program could allow Australia to provide food for 90 million people in addition to the 30 million likely to be living here in the medium term.

And it would provide a return on the obscene sums of taxpayer money — now standing at tens of billions of dollars since the MV Tampa appeared on the horizon in 2001 — that Australia spends on the whole question of asylum seekers in the first place.

This idea, if implemented, would have rough edges that would need smoothing off and I acknowledge that; for example, what should be done with, say, a family of mum, dad and two children, where the children obviously can’t work and one parent might be a full-time carer for those children?

And importantly, it would provide little succour to people smugglers, given they would be selling three years of obligatory manual work (plus a period in mandatory detention), with only a very restricted form of residency at the end of it: hardly an attractive product to purchase for non-refugees looking for life in Australia on DEET Street Easy Street.

But the point in raising this is to put the principle on the table first to see if it could fly; refinements and tweaks can always be made at the implementation stage — if it ever got to that point.

What do readers think?

Is it a fair and reasonable idea to offer economic migrants arriving by boat a path to residency they otherwise would not be entitled to, in exchange for building something that can benefit future generations of Australians, and generate Australian wealth?

Or is the inflexible and increasingly hardline approach — that has worked before, and seems to be what voters again seek in dealing with the asylum seeker question — the only way to go?

It goes without saying, of course, that the third of the three options — Communist Party’s Greens’ aim to open to borders to all untrammelled comers, with nary a care in the world — doesn’t rate with this column.

Your thoughts, folks…