2020 ANNUAL JOHN CURTIN LECTURE - MELBOURNE

30 January 2020

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to elders, past and emerging.
 
When discussing migration it is fundamental to remember this always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
 
I recently watched a news report about a man from Vietnam.
 
He got in contact with a people smuggling syndicate around 2015 – and then waited three years in Malaysia. He waited as part of a group of 37 people making their way to Australia – not by boat, but by plane.
 
He paid $50,000 to that syndicate – being promised the dream of working in Australia.
 
The news report showed the people smugglers telling the man and the group that they would be chaperoned on their flight to Australia, arriving through our border as tourists.
 
They couldn’t pull out of the trip because they wouldn’t get their money back. They did not have the freedom to return to Vietnam whenever they wanted; they had already opted in.
 
We have seen an explosion in this type of people smuggling in the last six years. Some 100,000 people claiming asylum after arriving in Australia on an airplane.
 
If 100,000 asylum seekers sounds like a lot – it is. It is more than double the number of boat arrivals that came under the previous Labor Government. It represents a growing number, year on year since 2014.
 
It is, quite frankly, an explosion of asylum claims under Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton’s watch.
 
Let me be clear – there is nothing wrong with claiming asylum – it is an important right. However, 90% of these asylum claims from airplane arrivals have been found to be without merit.  
 
So, if these people aren’t refugees, why are they coming to Australia and claiming refugee status?
 
Because the people smugglers have updated their business model. To put it bluntly – the criminal people smuggling syndicates are now running a work scam. 
 
They’re still trafficking to Australia in false hope. Still preying on desperate people. Still undermining the rules and norms that our humanitarian system is built on.
 
But instead of unsafe boats on dangerous seas, they’ve found a new way in by airplane – and a new product to sell – a job in Australia.
 
Here’s how the scam works – for a fee, organised criminal syndicates promise people a flight to Australia and a job when they arrive.
 
They use online tourist visa systems, now available to Malaysia and China, where most of these airplane arrivals come from. 
 
Once the trafficked worker is here, the smugglers instruct them to apply for asylum,
knowing the worker will be put on a bridging visa for at least three years before their application is determined. 
 
Meanwhile, the smugglers send the workers out to dodgy labour hire companies and that’s when the real exploitation begins: pay as low as $4 an hour; physical or sexual assault;extortionate costs for food and accommodation; and curtailed movement as their passports are withheld.  
 
It’s no better than indentured servitude. In a lot of cases, it’s worse.
 
And I’m sorry to say that, under this Government, the people exploitation business is booming.
 
It’s booming because the people trapped by this arrangement dare not complain and don’t know who would listen if they did.
 
It’s booming because there are dodgy labour hire companies and unscrupulous employers who see exploitation as a cost-cutting tool.
 
And it’s booming because Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton care more about the rhetoric of strong borders than they do about the reality of a temporary visa system in crisis.
 
Since I took on the Home Affairs portfolio, I’ve met with farmers’ federations, growers, trade unions, migration agents and academics to understand the scale of this problem. 
 
While many of you might have a sense that temporary migrants are being used to meet labour demands in horticulture, namely picking fruit, the problem doesn’t begin and end there.
 
The crisis in the work visa system isn’t quarantined to horticulture. We are not talking about a handful of workers on a couple of farms. We’re talking about tens of thousands of people in hospitality, cleaning, security, beauty, food manufacturing, transport, and sex work.
 
An underpaid, under-class – being used to undercut wages and conditions across the country.
 
And, friends, that’s the point – it’s not just these temporary workers who lose out from this scam.
 
It’s a truth as old as the labour movement – an attack on the rights of one worker, affects every worker. This kind of exploitation undermines standards and erodes the foundations of workplace fairness. 
 
And don’t forget the good employers, the vast majority of companies and bosses who do the right thing, who pay a fair wage and provide good conditions.
 
Suddenly, they’re at a competitive disadvantage for upholding the law and treating people with decency. And it’s not as if the Liberals don’t know about this.
 
In 2019 when the now-Assistant Minister Jason Wood was chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Migration, he said that:
 
“Organised crime and illegitimate labour hire companies are using this loophole to bring out illegal workers who are often vulnerable and open to exploitation. This represents and orchestrated scam that enables these criminal elements to exploit foreign workers in Australia until their claims are finalised.”
 
The Liberal Assistant Minister talks about a “loophole” – but it’s not an error in drafting; it’s not a flaw in the statute or the regulations. 
 
It’s a loophole created by his Government’s incompetence and their broadened neglect – including a massive blow-out in application processing times within the Department of Home Affairs.
 
This isn’t the first-time people smugglers have tried this scam. In previous decades the Immigration Department has caught it after just a few dozen applications.
 
This is, however, the first time the people smugglers have had such stunning success with over 100,000 airplane arrivals in a handful of years. Even the US State Department criticised Australia last year for its failure to curb the exploitation of trafficked workers.
 
However, Minister Dutton and the Secretary for Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, have used the media and Senate Estimates to deny, deflect and dodge this crisis of their own making.  
 
No problem, nothing to see here, move along.
 
Peter Dutton has even described the issue as a “red herring”.
 
After all, they say, “nobody dies on a plane”. 
 
It’s as if rampant exploitation and abuse, a form of modern slavery, really, in Australian workplaces is of no consequence. 
 
To be sure, this Liberal Government – now in its seventh year – does not want to admit to a problem that would contradict its self-proclaimed competency in managing the borders.   
 
After all, we have a Prime Minister who boasts a plaque of a boat in his office with the words “I Stopped These”. He’s hardly going to want to admit that his Government oversaw an explosion of asylum seeker arrivals by airplane.  
 
But I think there is another reason this third term Liberal Government does not want anyone to look too closely at the growing number of airplane arrivals.
 
Because if the Australian people learn how easy it is for the people smugglers to traffic workers into our labour market, then they might start asking questions about the broader consequences for our economy, for our communities, for the fair, egalitarian Australia we believe ourselves to be.
 
Australians are enthusiastic supporters of migration – and we give new citizens a warm welcome.
 
I know this because I myself was welcomed to Australia as a permanent migrant – thanks to a quirk in citizenship law I am both a seventh generation Australian and a first-generation migrant.
 
We know our nation benefits when people sign up, join in and make a contribution.
 
According to the Scanlon Foundation’s 2019 Mapping Social Cohesion Report:
        • 85% of us agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia.
        • 80% welcome resettlement in Australia of refugees assessed abroad.
        • 79% oppose selecting immigrants by race.
        • 73% believe Australia is a land of economic opportunity where, in the long run, hard work brings a better life.
 
Interestingly, the same survey found that immigration had slipped down the list of the most important problems facing Australia, to come 4th. Only 6% of Australians nominated it as the most important issue.  
 
In comparison, climate change surged to the 2nd spot behind the economy, with a whopping 19% of us saying climate change was the most important problem – and this survey was completed before this summer’s bushfire crisis.
 
I see these trends about migration as good news. Proof that Australians are not being affected – or agitated – in the same way as our northern cousins when it comes to immigration. 
 
Europeans regularly nominate immigration as the most important problem facing their countries. 
 
We seem to be holding onto our national identity as a nation of migrants – a country that has welcomed people from every corner of the globe and that has grown stronger because migrants have moved here, settled, raised families, started businesses, and enriched our culture and our economy. 
 
This is the national story we tell ourselves. 
 
A story where the dismantling of the White Australia policy transformed our country from an insular, colonial outpost to a modern multicultural society.
 
We celebrate the generations of migrants who made that international leap of faith. Italians and Greeks who left the rubble and ruin of post-war Europe to start small businesses, the corner stores and the cafes, the Vietnamese refugees who fled death and devastation, and the Chinese, especially after Tiananmen Square, who changed how we saw ourselves and our place in the world.
 
At the heart of this tale, the moral of this story, is the idea that Australia has offered a new, permanent home. A second chance, a fresh start, a place to begin and build again.
 
This powerful sense of who we are and how we got here – a successful nation built by permanent migrants – was brought home to me as I met with apple growers in Shepparton, Victoria. 
 
I kept hearing about their frustrations that they could only rely on an increasingly undocumented, trafficked, temporary and exploited workforce from dodgy labour hire companies.
 
I kept asking “what could a government do to fix the problem?” 
 
The answer I kept getting? 
 
“Albanians.  Can’t we go back to the Albanian solution?”
 
I confess I had no idea what they were talking about. 
 
Turns out, the Fraser Government agreed that Shepparton orchards could help meet a labour shortage by bringing Albanians out to Australia. I never quite got to the bottom of why it was Albanians, though I gathered it had something to do with a local family that had a connection and some issues going on in Albania at the time. 
 
The proposition was that the Albanians could learn the skills of orchard management and go back to their home country, or they could choose to stay. And stay, many of them did. 
 
All I kept hearing from growers in Shepparton was the glowing reports of why the Albanian solution worked. 
 
“They came here. They built homes. They sent their kids to local schools. They put down roots. They brought others here. They were great workers and they built up our community. They became Australians. Can’t we just do that again?”
 
That is what Australia and the Scanlon survey reflects – that we are proud of the Australian way of life, that we see multiculturalism as good for our country, as making us a better, stronger place. 
 
We understand Australia as a nation that benefits when we invite people here to become permanently part of us, to be part of the most successful multicultural nation on earth.
 
That’s the story we tell ourselves. It’s the sentiment that shines through so many citizenship ceremonies and multicultural festivals.

But – if we’re not careful – this powerful, unifying, uplifting national idea will soon be nostalgia rather than reality.
 
Because under this Liberal National Government we are changing from a nation built by permanent migrants, to an economy built on temporary migrants. That will change us. Profoundly. For the worse.
 
And it is happening without most of us even realising it. 
 
We are beginning to see what our future will become because we are already living in a society that is breaking from the best traditions of our past.
 
It started under John Howard.
 
Despite his avowed commitment to permanent migration, it was John Howard who doubled the migration intake, and started the massive shift from permanent to temporary migration.
 
While many of us remember the famous campaign line, “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” the true story was far more complicated.
 
Howard’s wink and nod in the Tampa election of 2001 suggested to Australians that that there were only two types of people we had to think about when it came to migration: 
        1. Boat people (bad, they jump queues, take up services and spots that Australians or other more deserving migrants can’t access, and they cause traffic congestion); and
        2. Permanent migrants (good, we choose them, we can limit their numbers if we want, they will come here and raise their families and build their businesses and become good Australians like the post-war migrants and the people who built the Snowy Hydro).  
 
It was a crude, convenient way of ignoring all other types of migrants – especially temporary migrants – including how many and what the impact of an increasing temporary population might mean for Australia.
 
Howard – cunning political tactician that he was – could project a policy of “strong borders” to the public while delivering a high migration intake for big business.
 
Howard’s wink and nod also set up the false impression that the two groups he spoke about – boat arrivals and permanent migrants – were roughly proportionate in number and impact. 
 
This is what you still hear from Liberal Ministers, MPs and candidates who conflate boat people with traffic on the freeway, welfare blow-outs and overcrowded schools.
 
But even if you take the peak year for people who arrived by boat – 25,173 in 2012-13 – in that same year, 818,863 people arrived in Australia on a variety of long-stay temporary and permanent visas.  
 
I wonder which of those two groups was more likely to increase traffic congestion – the 25,000 or the 818,000?
 
None of this is to say people smuggling by boat wasn’t a problem. The boats had to be stopped and they cannot be allowed to re-start. People cannot be drowning at sea. Borders must be managed.  
 
Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a plan to stop the boats and the Abbott Government implemented it. 
 
And, not long after that, the old Howard wink and nod trick started to wear thin. 
 
Australians started to question the Government’s management of our migration program, and particularly how it impacted overcrowding in our cities. 
 
By 2019, Australians started to really be concerned that a growing population and higher migration would lead to higher housing prices, more congestion, and fewer jobs. And if asylum seekers coming by boat couldn’t be blamed for traffic jams – the Liberals had to find a new scapegoat.
 
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had heard "loud and clear" that city roads were clogged, "the buses and trains are full". 
 
And rather than fund or fast-track vital infrastructure, rather than invest in public transport or more affordable housing, Scotty from Marketing announced he was capping permanent migration at 160,000.  
 
He told everyone that his Government was sending new permanent migrants to the regions through his new Regional Skilled Migration Visa – where the whole country apart from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane is considered a region.  
 
But desperate as he was for the appearance of cutting and capping the migrant intake, the Prime Minister couldn’t risk disappointing the business community, which always wants increased migration to support economic growth. Nor could he risk his razor-thin Budget surplus, which relies on certain levels of population growth and underspending of vital public services such as the NDIS. 
 
So he did what every Liberal Prime Minister since Howard has done – he ramped up temporary migration.
 
According to the OECD, Australia is now home to the second largest temporary migrant population in the developed world, right behind the United States of America.
 
Measured as a share of the working population, the international student cohort in Australia is the largest in the world. Australia is home to the second largest proportion of working holiday makers in the OECD.
 
All up, the OECD estimates that Australia’s temporary workers accounts for the equivalent of 200,350 full-time jobs or 1.6% of our total workforce.
 
The number of migrants – including New Zealanders – on temporary visas has jumped from 1.8 million to 2.2 million in the past 4 years.
 
Nobody is suggesting that our New Zealand brothers and sisters shouldn’t have work rights in Australia. We have a long history of Australians and New Zealanders working in each other’s countries. Both our countries have benefited extraordinarily from this kinship, and that should never change.
 
So, if we remove New Zealanders from our calculations, the number of temporary migrants has doubled since 2007 to 1 million people, or 4% of the population and this trend is going to continue.  
 
According to the 2019-20 Morrison Budget, Net Overseas Migration will remain high, with an annual average of 268,600 new arrivals over the forward estimates. That’s much higher than just a year earlier, when the Budget predicted Net Overseas Migration to run at an annual average of 228,700 over four years.
 
Unlike permanent migration, temporary migration categories – such as student visas, skilled migrants, working holiday makers and bridging visas – are largely uncapped, demand-driven programs.
 
This means that numbers fluctuate each year according to the number of people wishing to come to Australia and the number of overseas workers needed by Australian business to fill local labour market gaps.
 
So this is the Morrison wink and nod – tell Australians that you are capping permanent migration, make Australians feel like the government is doing something to address their concerns about congested roads and crowded cities. 
 
But, in fact, this is just another ad man’s trick from the ultimate ad man, Scott Morrison.
 
What the PM will never admit is his cap on permanent migration cap sits alongside a significant surge in uncapped, temporary migration. 
 
Despite what Morrison suggests, Australia’s population is going to continue to grow and grow strongly. There are going to be more people but the big difference is, these people won’t be here permanently.  
 
We are not inviting them to stay. That will change who we are as a nation and not for the better.
 
This is the big, corrosive change occurring underneath under the surface of this Government’s immigration policies.
 
Changing Australia from a nation built by permanent migrants to an economy dependent on temporary migrants. 
 
Imagine how fundamentally different our nation will become if 3 million people who live here – 12% of the current population – have no stake and no say in the future of our country.
 
For example, take the bushfire crisis. The Government’s own natural disaster risk reduction plan says that every level of government – as well as individuals – will need to make decisions to minimise risk from a changing climate.
 
For individuals, this means things like where they choose to live, how they maintain their property, whether they have a bushfire survival plan, and whether they choose to get involved in volunteering and other forms of community support.  
 
That’s great if you are a permanent resident of Australia, in which you might have more control over all those decisions. But what if you are a temporary migrant? 
 
How much harder is it going to be for all levels of government to inform, educate, engage and prepare the Australian population to manage bushfire risks when 12% are legally prevented from being permanently part of the Australian community?
 
How will the government of the day be able to assist, or even plan for, these people in the aftermath of a disaster if they are not eligible for government support or relief payments? 
 
In the name of lower wages and cheap labour, this Government is risking a new and damaging form of social and economic exclusion.
 
A new instrument of division. A new sense of who is in and who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t.
 
It will diminish our sense of unity – and community. It will create a two-tiered labour market; it will undercut wages and conditions. And I fear it will give new weight and new prominence to anti-immigrant sentiment, resentment, racism and xenophobia. 
 
Many people believe the Australian migration system is highly skilled and has nothing to do with the underemployment or minimum wages. 

In the past this was true, but it is changing – and changing quickly all because of the reliance on temporary migration this Government is exacerbating.
 
New migrants to Australia are mainly young, 18-40 years old, and are lower skilled than previously. Estimates suggest that temporary migrants make up a whopping 10% of the younger-aged workforce.
 
If all student and working holiday maker visa holders were working in Australia – 4% of Australia’s 13 million strong work force would be made up of lower-skilled temporary migrants.
 
We know that the Liberal Government has cut apprenticeships and traineeships by 150,000 since 2013, but that at the same time, over 500,000 temporary work visas have been issued to overseas workers to fill skills shortages, including in trades.  
 
We hear from unions that – across the economy from aged care to long-haul truck drivers, from technicians installing the NBN or new solar farms to retail workers, from ambulance drivers to food delivery drivers the reliance on temporary migrants is growing.
 
As economist Stephen Koukoulas points out: 
 
“This is bad economics. Consider the fact that there are 725,000 unemployed & 1,150,000 underemployed Australians that, with the right training, would love to have these roles. It explains why wages growth is dead; too many temporary work visas for this stage of the economic cycle.”
 
Koukoulas is simply pointing out the facts. He isn’t being nativist or xenophobic, but it would be easy for his observations to be used by One Nation and others on the far right to fuel racist and anti-immigrant responses.  
 
And this leads me to one of the biggest challenges to our sense of Australian identity, to our sense of self as a nation built by permanent migration – the very real risk that temporary migrants will become the next whipping dog, the next migration bogeyman, for the frustrations of the wider population, especially if wages don’t rise, underemployment stays high, prices stay high and the economy doesn’t grow.  
 
For all these reasons, last month, Labor successfully moved in the Senate to set up a Select Committee on Temporary Migration to inquire into the impact temporary migration has on the Australian economy, wages and jobs, social cohesion, and workplace rights and conditions. 
 
Chaired by Labor Senator for Victoria Raff Ciccone, the inquiry will have at least 12 months to consider a wide range of issues and visa classes, including airplane arrivals as well as other asylum seekers, working holiday makers, the Pacific Labour Scheme, student visas, the contradictions in the different ways New Zealand citizens are treated in Australia based on when they arrived, the role that temporary migration can and should play in the economy, and the increasing promises of temporary work visas in free trade agreements. 
 
The inquiry can consider a wide range of industries, and it can also put important questions about social cohesion into the spotlight.
 
Because this isn’t an arcane question of visa regulation we are talking about. This is about asking our fellow Australians if we want to create – and profit from – an economic underclass. 
 
This is about whether we want to stop people working in Australia from putting down roots, raising a family, starting a business, creating ties with their neighbours through sport, volunteering, church or community?  
 
Our civil society infrastructure or the legal and regulatory frameworks do not have the ability to support a large and growing working temporary population.
 
What are we going to do when a growing group living among us are unable to access services and rights that others in the community enjoy?  
 
We understand the benefits of a well-regulated migration program – particularly for skilled workers – but do we, as Australians, as the people of the fair go, really want to create society in which a growing proportion are permanently locked out of getting a go?
 
Friends – these are big questions, and this will be a tough fight.
 
Dutton and Morrison will throw every rock they can find at us – they will use old jibes or accounting tricks at every turn.
 
But I leave you with three things all of us can do.
 
One. We must demand and tell the truth about our migration system. 
 
For 25 years Australians have endured the winks and the nods, the dog whistles, the con jobs and the marketing messages, the overt and covert appeals to prejudice and fear.
 
But through it all, our faith in multiculturalism and our belief in the positive value of permanent migration has never gone away.
 
As Australians, as patriots, we should question this Liberal Government’s claims and expose their policies that will change our country forever from a settler migrant nation to a temporary migrant nation.
 
Two. We must remember that – just like temporary migrants – Australians are experiencing wage theft on a wide scale.
 
Woolworths, the Commonwealth Bank, and even counter-terrorism officers at the Australian Federal Police for heaven’s sake. Australians are facing a labour market that is short-term, gig based, and unpredictable.  
 
Apprenticeships are drying up. The award system is effectively broken. Labour hire companies pay lower wages and undercut employers who can no longer afford to hire directly. The ability for unions to organise, collectively bargain and assert workers’ rights has been significantly curtailed. Australians haven’t had a decent wage rise in some time.
 
It’s our enduring Labor mission to speak out against this exploitation, to expose it and organise against it – and to remember that migrants aren’t making any of this happen. 
 
The people who make the rules are this Liberal Government who are in their seventh year. The Liberals are the party of low wages and insecure work.
 
And they are not just overseeing the exploitation of temporary migrants – they are allowing the exploitation of workers in Australia, full stop.
 
And finally, three. This is not – and never will be – a matter of “migrants vs the rest”. In fact, this is about preventing that kind of damaging division.  
 
The Australian Labor Party believes in a nation made great by permanent migration. And we’re asking Australians who share that belief to stand up and defend it.
 
We have great pride and affection for the journey we have taken, the transformation we have made, for the success story of our modern multicultural nation.
 
And we look to it now not because of comfort derived from nostalgia but because we see the proof around us that it worked.
 
This is not a matter of making Australia great again – it’s about holding on to what makes us great.
 
The chance to join our national project, to share in our collective endeavour, to make a contribution and be an equal part of a community of equals.
 
That’s the greatness of Australia.
 
And while we may face a hard fight, all of this is worth fighting for.
 
Thank you.
 
ENDS
 
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