Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Policy Agendas and Immigration in Australia 1996-2012

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Policy Agendas and Immigration in Australia 1996-2012

Article excerpt

Introduction

Immigration is a highly salient policy issue in Australia, particularly since 2009 when Australia began to witness a significant increase in boat arrivals carrying asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In 2012 alone, up to 17,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat. While the number of boat arrivals in Australia is comparatively small compared to countries in Southern Europe and Southeast Asia, the issue attracts a great deal of media and political attention (Goot & Watson 2011; Pietsch 2013). In this article, we examine the relationship between public and government attention on immigration policy and legislation at different points in time. While immigration policy covers a range of major programs including skilled and family migration as well as humanitarian migration programs, we focus particularly on three different areas including: asylum migration, skilled migration and student migration. Even though each migration stream involves different policy and media responses, they all share in common the capacity to generate spikes in public interest and political attention.

We note here that policy attention and policy content are two different things (Dowding et al. 2013). The fact that an issue is discussed in the public, or in parliament, or is subject to legislation increasing policy attention, does not mean that much changes in the content of policy. Conversely an issue that does not receive much attention might, with a simple piece of legislation, or even a change in the rules implementing legislation or through a judicial decision, lead to wide-ranging changes in the content of the policy. John and Bevan (2012) show that punctuations in the legislative agenda in the British parliament do not always correspond to what historians recognise as major changes in policy content. Some major changes in policy content on immigration in Australia are reflected neither in legislation nor in media coverage but through High Court activity. We are not concerned with that aspect of immigration policy, important though it is. Rather we examine the relationship of media and legislative attention showing that change in the attention in one does not always track that in the other.

A wealth of material demonstrates that public and government attention to policy issues can vary significantly. This has been demonstrated in the comparative Policy Agendas Project (PAP). The policy agendas project has shown that the policy agenda--what the media talk about, what government talks about and legislates for--may remain relatively stable for long periods, but at times is punctuated with much greater focus on certain issues (Baumgartner & Jones 1993; Jones & Baumgartner 2005; Baumgartner et al. 2009). PAP has shown that graphing changes in policy attention produces a high degree of kurtosis. (1) Jones and Baumgartner (2005) suggest the leptokurtic distribution of changes in policy attention can be explained by a number of factors, including the boundedly rational nature of human decision making, friction in the policy process, the framing of issues and exogenous shocks.

First, people can only process so much information at one time, so that even though government and the public might be aware that problems are emerging in a given issue-area, they do not engage with those problems until they hit some critical moment. Second, institutional processes also play a part. Even after an issue receives public attention or is discussed in parliament there are various institutional hurdles that need to be cleared in order for such notice to result in legislation. Formally, veto players are agents that can stop policy change and among the veto players are political parties, the bicameral nature of most legislatures, the public service to some extent, as well as those influential pressure groups or social elites that have access to the top echelons of the parties or can sway public opinion for or against action. …

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