Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Immigration Policy under the Howard Government

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Immigration Policy under the Howard Government

Article excerpt

Labor's Legacy

During the 1980s Australia's immigration policy changed. The old assisted passage scheme was abolished and family-reunion migrants constituted a larger proportion of the intake than before, as did migrants selected on humanitarian grounds. These changes meant that many new migrants were low-skilled and dependent on welfare and that source countries shifted away from Britain and Europe and towards the developing world. They also meant that return migration decreased and that the gap between the gross intake and net migration, a gap which had been quite wide in the 1960s, decreased. (Indeed, as more people arriving on temporary visas stayed on, in some years the net figures exceeded the gross. See Figure 1.)


By the late 1980s three streams were well established in the intake: independent migrants (those selected on the basis of their skills, together with their spouses and dependent children); family reunion migrants; and humanitarian migrants. There was also a fourth de facto stream: New Zealanders, who did not need visas and were free to migrate as they pleased.

As the nature of immigration changed it became more politicised. This did not mean that the overall size of the intake was questioned. Rather it meant that the old growth lobby, based on the housing and construction industries, was augmented by a newer ethnic lobby pressing for family reunion and by groups concerned about refugees. Debate on selection policy and the composition of the intake became rather more public than before. For the most part interest groups argued for more of their kind of migrant, not for fewer migrants in the other streams. But in 1984 and 1988, first Geoffrey Blainey and then John Howard suggested that the proportion coming from Asia was higher than the majority of the public preferred. These comments drew a storm of protest from opinion leaders who saw them as legitimising racism. The reactions of these critics showed that immigration had become a moral issue for many Australians, people who might otherwise have had little interest in the question. They also showed that a close association had developed between the themes of immigration and racism. For many commentators active support for immigration had become a virtue, especially if it meant support for family reunion or refugees, while criticism of immigration seemed suspect, if not sinister (Betts, 1999: 54-191,256-267, 286-299).

The development of this climate of opinion, especially among intellectuals, together with the mobilisation of ethnicity and the growth of family-reunion migration, are the stories of the 1980s. These trends were embraced by the Hawke Government and fitted well with that Government's interest in multiculturalism and cultivating migrant communities. But despite its aura of virtue, aspects of the immigration program were becoming disorderly, the turnover of Ministers was high (five in the seven years between March 1983 and March 1990), and the context in which policy was developed and implemented was becoming more difficult.

In the past, applicants for permanent visas had applied from overseas and the Minister had the discretion to say yes or no. If an applicant was rejected that was the end of the matter. The Migration Act of 1958, which was a lightly revised version of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, was drafted so as to facilitate Ministerial discretion. It did not specify the details of selection criteria and the Government could, and did, change them at will (Birrell, 1992: 25). Until the 1980s this system served the executive well. Policy could be implemented untrammeled by interference from parliament or the courts and thus often without public scrutiny. However, two developments changed this situation: the growth in the number of onshore applicants and the institution of the new administrative law in the 1970s and early 1980s (see Cooney, 1995: 16-17). Now rejected applicants were more likely to be on Australian soil than before, and thus to have to access to courts, while the new administrative law meant that this access was of some use to them. …

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