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Immigration and Nation Building in Australia: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Michael Pezzullo Secretary
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
Australian National University Public Lecture
Crawford School of Public Policy
Sir Roland Wilson Foundation

21 April 2015

I am greatly honoured to be able to deliver this public lecture at the Australian National University (at the Crawford School of Public Policy), under the auspices of the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation. Sir Roland Wilson (1904-96) was a long-serving and distinguished Australian public servant. He served as the Statistician of the Commonwealth, Secretary of the Department of Labour and National Service, and Secretary to The Treasury (from 1951 to 1966), for which he is most remembered today.

While we should always avoid looking back with rose-coloured glasses, in this case to the Age of the Mandarins of the 1950s and 1960s, I think that on any fair assessment it can be agreed that Sir Roland was one of the group of formidable secretaries who, having risen to prominence during the Second World War and in the post-war reconstruction period, made singularly significant contributions to the development of the nation.

Sir Roland and his colleagues were not simply present during this era. Working for both sides of politics, they helped to shape the era and, thereby, shape Australia as we know it today. Their story is proof that what government does matters; and government can change the very shape and structure of a nation, as occurred during the post-war reconstruction and nation-building era. The legendary secretaries of this era spoke their mind, possessed and wielded fierce intellects, generated actionable ideas, formulated compelling policy options, and implemented programmes of national significance. They served with discretion, dependability and – above all - impact. For those of us who are their successors, we would do well today to be guided by their legacy.

Given the venue of this lecture, and the office that I hold, I should like to draw out one particular strand of this period of history. During the Second World War, and in its aftermath, the Commonwealth began to seriously invest in policy and research capability, arguably for the first time. It did so to underpin its approach to national planning. In the 1940s and 1950s, across government, new methods of statistical analysis, and social and economic research, were brought to bear on the public policy problems of the day. Plans were drawn up for national infrastructure, for the development of new industries, and as we know for expanding our population, and building the means to better educate that population.

It is no coincidence that my Department and the Australian National University were established within a year of each other, in 1945 and 1946, respectively. As a former Vice- Chancellor, Professor Ian Chubb AC, reminded us in a splendid address convened by my Department in March 2010, the bonds between the Department and this University go back to this period and have spanned the seven decades since, across many disciplines, including demography, economics, statistics, law and sociology. From the beginning ANU scholars were at the forefront of research into population, immigration and social cohesion.

We in the Department are today also committed to building policy and research capability, and ensuring that we can provide government with first class strategic policy advice and options. To that end, I have established a strategic policy and planning division in the Department, and have also decided to revitalise and reinvigorate the department’s Research Programme. This will be so across my Department’s increased remit, from 1st July 2015, of immigration, citizenship, trade and customs, and maritime security. We will work closely with other government agencies, especially The Treasury, and other departments such as Social Services, Employment, Education and Training, and Industry and Science, as well as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, along with academia, think tanks and the private sector.

I particularly intend to actively pursue more research opportunities under the Department’s existing Memorandum of Understanding with the ANU concerning collaborative research, into areas such as the links between migration and productivity. I am pleased to be able to say at this evening’s event that the Department has a PhD candidate studying under the prestigious Sir Roland Wilson Scholarship: Ms Marie McAuliffe, who has been given long- term leave of absence and support to conduct doctoral research into irregular migration, particularly from South Asia.

The Australian national story is fundamentally and predominately one of the settlement of peoples, from its distant indigenous origins, then by way of the British foundations of our modern nation which were laid in 1788, and then again by way of wave after wave of migrant arrivals thereafter. The oldest, continuing civilisation, that of Australia's indigenous peoples, settled here so long ago that we do not definitively know when or how they came to inhabit the land, but much valuable research has been undertaken over the years to better discern these origins, and I am sure that this mighty powerhouse of learning will continue to do its part in this quest. But inhabit the land indigenous people did, even if we thought for too long that the land had been devoid of organised human presence prior to European settlement.

Then came a fleet from the other side of the world, which established a colony that over the ensuing two centuries would evolve into one of the most prosperous, free and fair societies on earth. But in 1788 that was far into the future, and probably in the realm of fantasy. Those who landed here were focussed on surviving as much as anything else. They had no clear conception of the land, or its original inhabitants, and they did not yet have a coherent cartographical view of Australia. They did not even know if the east coast was a separate landmass from the lands that they knew to exist (from old maps) further west. Explorers were to spend decades circumnavigating the island continent and mapping its interior.

The early colonial story is a remarkable story of historical achievement and human development. If the early colony was to prosper, the stock of its population would have to possess the strength and skills to master the harsh Australian landscape. From earliest beginnings, the colony was an exercise in governmental population control and design, as convicts and then free settlers (some supported by way of assisted passage schemes, funded through taxes on land sales) were selected to serve the functional needs of the colony in order to achieve a sustainable and enduring society. Within a century, Australia would become one of the richest nations on earth in terms of income per head, and a mature society which was able to achieve nationhood by way of the federation of the colonies in 1901, without war, strife or commotion.

The European settlement of Australia was part and parcel of the global expansion of the British Empire, which was then ascending to its heights. With every passing year, we move further away from the vestiges of these colonial origins that came about as a consequence of the imperatives and decisions of an expanding Empire. But we must never forget that legacy. If you doubt this, ask yourself this question: what did these men of Empire (including natural-born Australians, who still saw themselves as men of Empire) ever do for us?

What, other than giving us parliamentary democracy; representative government, including self-government from the 1850s; the rule of the common law and an independent judiciary; the architecture of our executive government; the freedom of speech, belief, faith and ideas; the settlement and farming of the land, and the building of our cities; and the foundation of our modes of cultural expression? What indeed did the Empire ever do for us?

And yet, for all of these accomplishments, which we should treasure, we would never have become a more complete commonwealth had we clung to the original conception of Australia as being 'Britain beyond the seas'. For nearly two centuries, Australians saw themselves as either 'British' or as members of the global family of 'the white race'. Indeed, as we know, one of the first acts of the new Commonwealth Parliament in 1901 was an act to restrict immigration. In its application this law underpinned the 'White Australia' policy, which ensured that as a federated nation we continued to source the people that we needed for population and labour purposes, by sifting out the people that we did not want to have living amongst us. Through these means, along with industry protection and restrictive labour arrangements, we built defensive walls around a sheltered land to insulate ourselves from the outside world, and especially Asia.

Imagine what would be the state of our nation, and our standing in the world, if still we sought to preserve those walls? If my Department was still required to oversee a racially- based immigration programme to ensure that Australia remained 'White'? Today we recognise that for all of the beneficial inheritance that is ours as a result of the act of European settlement, we would never have become the Australia that we are without the dismantling of ‘White Australia’, the reversal of racially-based immigration, and the opening of the sheltered land that we had built.  Specifically, I contend tonight that we would never have become the Australia that we are today if we had not undertaken the remarkable programme of managed mass migration and settlement after the Second World War.

The Chifley Government of 1945-49 was determined to build the population base,  for national defence and industrialisation purposes. It was the Menzies Governments which followed that implemented the major portion of the post-war immigration programme. The first Minister for Immigration, the Hon Arthur Calwell MP, might well be remembered for popularising the three-word slogan ‘Populate or Perish’ - but it was a widespread contemporary inclination and policy, and a bipartisan one at that.

The story is too well known to be retold here in detail. It is, nonetheless a story worthy of recognition and celebration. I am pleased to announce that my Department is working closely with the National Archives of Australia to provide it with significant support for its forthcoming travelling national exhibition, A Ticket to Paradise?, which explores through a variety of documentary and interactive means the social, cultural and economic experiences of our post-war migrants.

As the mass migration programme rolled out in the 1950s, it became apparent that Britain could not supply all of the migrants that we needed, as it underwent its own post-war reconstruction. Looking beyond the traditional headwaters of the mighty river of British migration, Australia actively sought migrants from another mighty human tide altogether - the displaced people of continental Europe. And so it came to pass that we offered a new life to those uprooted by the war, including those who were unwilling or unable to return to areas under Soviet overlordship in Central and Eastern Europe. These migrants toiled to build our infrastructure, such as roads, railways, ports and dams, and laboured in newly developing industries, such as our automotive, mining and steel industries.

After the war, and over the next two decades or so, from Italy came 233,000 settler migrants, including my mother and my father; from Greece, 128,000; the Netherlands, 100,000; Germany, 95,000; the Baltic states, 36,000; and the former Yugoslavia, 33,000. By 1971, the post-war migration programme had supplied 3.3 million people to our overall population growth, which over the period amounted to 5.6 million in total. The post-war programme reached  a  high  of  185,000  new  permanent  migrants  in  1969,  and  declined  thereafter, dipping to a low of 53,000 in 1976. By 1971, one in three Australians was a post-war migrant or the child of one, including me. This was a revolution in our approach to national development, which changed the shape and structure of our nation, and arguably as significantly as any earlier wave of settlement in our history.

This revolution was followed by a second, more recent, revolution. By the 1980s, we were starting to move away from a focus on building the population base of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and the family units which would produce future Australian-born citizens. The modern immigration points system was established in 1985, which emphasised skills, educational qualifications, English language ability, and a shift away from the weight placed on existing family ties in Australia. We started to consciously focus on the formation of migrant human capital through the act of immigration itself, rather than the formation of families which would take a generation to yield their economic contribution. In this way we came to view the migration programme as a means to boost over shorter time intervals the stock of skills and talent possessed by the nation, for the purpose of more immediately enhancing our national competitiveness and productivity.

As late as twenty years ago, the intake of skilled migrants represented only around 30 per cent of the annual permanent migration programme. Over the course of the next decade, this figure more than doubled to 70 per cent by 2006. In 2013-14, the skilled stream continued to deliver almost 70 per cent of the programme, with almost 129,000 permanent skills-related visas granted in that year. This shift represented the second revolution in our management of the immigration function.

Let us pause the story at this point and take a step back to survey what has been accomplished in the seven decades since the establishment of my Department, and the inauguration of the post-war managed migration programme. In 1945, Australia had a population of fewer than 7.5 million, predominantly of Anglo-Celtic heritage. In June 2015, after seventy years of focused effort and toil by my Department and others, Australia will have a population of around 24 million – over three times as many people as in 1945. More than 7 million people have migrated permanently to Australia since 1945. The original mission of 1945 – to build the population base – has been long accomplished, by way of the two revolutions of which I have spoken already. On some estimates, absent this nation- building programme over seven decades, our population today would be less than 13 million, rather than around 24 million who will soon be living in Australia.

Today, there are around 6.6 million Australians who were born overseas (at 30 June 2014), out of a total population of almost 24 million. This is equivalent to a migrant-to-population share of almost 28 per cent. Between June 1996 and June 2014, Australia’s overseas-born population grew by over 55 per cent. And the composition of that population is changing in ways that the proponents of ‘White Australia’ could never have imaged. Over the past two decades, the number of Chinese-born Australians has more than tripled (to almost 450,000), and the number of those born in India more than four-fold (almost 400,000). China and India are now the third and fourth largest contributors respectively to Australia’s overseas born population, after the United Kingdom (over 1.2 million) and New Zealand (over 600,000).

The two revolutions have boosted our population in absolute terms, provided us with more skilled workers than we could have generated through natural means and, in relative terms when compared to other advanced economies, turbo-charged population growth in Australia. If we examine the additional growth in population that is generated by immigration, using a measure called Net Overseas Migration (NOM), the compilation of which is a joint exercise between the Department and the Australian Bureau of Statistics, this becomes evident.

First, a brief technical explanation is required. The calculation of NOM takes arrivals and departures to and from Australia, and counts people in the population who have stayed in Australia for a period of 12 months out of 16 months. If these people subsequently leave, they are then subtracted from the population. Thus NOM is able to take into account the permanent visas that we issue each year, plus the thousands of temporary visa holders who stay in Australia on a prolonged basis, and the thousands of Australians who emigrate each year.

Over the course of the 20th century, natural increase through domestic births contributed more to population growth than migration.   Until recently, it was uncommon for NOM to exceed natural population increases. This changed from September 2005, when NOM became the main component of population growth, exceeding natural increase. It peaked at 69 per cent of population growth in 2008-9 (just prior to the Global Financial Crisis). In 2013- 14, the contribution of NOM to population growth stood at around 60 per cent.

The 2015 Intergenerational Report projects a population estimate of almost 40 million in 40 years (by 2054-55), using an average annual rate of growth in population of 1.3 per cent, which is only slightly slower than the average annual rate of growth of 1.4 per cent over the past 40 years. This will not occur in the absence of sustained immigration, and the most recent Intergenerational Report contains an assumption for long-term average annual NOM of 215,000 people over this forward period. This is the highest level of NOM assumed in any of the Intergenerational Reports, of which the most recent was the fourth (the others having been released in 2002, 2007 and 2010).

I should of course note, as does the Intergenerational Report, that population projections are particularly sensitive to assumptions about the rate of  net overseas migration, and the permanent intake is determined by government policy and subject to annual review through the budget process. To illustrate the point, were NOM to average 140,000 per annum over the next 40 years, instead of 215,000 per annum, our population would be held to just under 36 million by 2054-55, which is of course the difference between whether or not we will have to build  the equivalent of a major metropolis of four million people over  the next four decades.

In terms of the economic dimensions of immigration, the evidence from many years of experience and research is clear: if a nation’s immigration programme is well crafted and targeted, and migrants enjoy high levels of economic participation, as distinct from high levels of social exclusion and welfare-dependency, immigration has beneficial impacts in terms of growth in the demand for goods and services; increases in national income (in terms of GDP levels), and living standards (measured by GDP per capita); improved labour participation; expansion of the economy’s productive capacity (especially in terms of workforce skills, training and education); and growth in household consumption and public revenues.

Thus far, I have spoken only of permanent migration. The story does not end there. We are now seeing the third revolution, which is the migration of skilled workers living abroad on a temporary basis, and not seeking necessarily to settle at all. These are mobile global citizens, who work in connection with the flows of global trade and investment.  The traditional model of permanent migration simply can not respond quickly enough to changes in demand for skilled labour, and training of domestic labour in specialist skills takes time, and often falls short of the needs of industry in rapidly changing circumstances. Managed well, temporary work visas can be a very efficient and responsive mechanism to support the domestic labour market, and enable it to respond to changing economic circumstances, with appropriate safeguards protecting both migrants from exploitation, and crucially preserving domestic workers’ access to employment.

Australia has had the Temporary Work (Skilled) visa in place for almost two decades. It allows approved Australian businesses to sponsor skilled workers for up to four years, where they cannot source an appropriately skilled citizen or permanent resident. The Government has recently agreed to make changes to the scheme to further improve training opportunities for Australian workers, and strengthen my Department’s monitoring and enforcement capacity. Additionally, while principally developed on the basis of cultural exchange, or for creating economic opportunity within our region, working holiday programmes and the seasonal worker scheme for Pacific Island nations now provide an important source of labour for the hospitality, horticultural and other industries in regional Australia.

Increasingly, Governments will look to the managed migration programme to tap into the global pool of human talent for a variety of purposes, of which permanent settlement is but one outcome, amongst others. Today, around 230 million people have crossed borders for temporary or permanent migration purposes. That is around 3% of the world’s population, and more than the population of Brazil. In the world of globalised travel, investment and labour mobility, the art of tapping into the resource of international human capital no longer consists of the slow and steady build up of the population base. It requires a strategy for attracting those in the ready-made global pool of skilled workers, as well as travellers, students, and business-people, the latter with money to invest.

If we layer these revolutions together, we can see clearly that Australia has been fundamentally transformed by a permanent migration programme that has become increasingly focussed on sourcing skilled migrants, and a temporary work programme, which is designed to support our labour market. Australia has also over the course of the past two decades thrown its doors open to visitors, who come here for holidays, tourism, recreation, or to see family and friends. We have also welcomed students, to study in our tertiary and vocational centres of learning.

When all of this is put together, it is clear to see why Australia will soon be on the verge of issuing more than five million visas annually for visitor, temporary residency and migration purposes. What this will mean for the foreseeable future, is that at any one time the total number of non-citizens in Australia on a temporary basis will amount to around 1.9 million, and growing – which is ten times the current annual permanent migration planning level. Compared with the Department that was established in 1945, we no longer predominately run a permanent migration programme, but rather a border entry and control programme. In my role, I have to ensure that we are organised to shape these trends, and deliver these outcomes, something to which I will turn in a moment.

In taking our cue from what has been described as ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’, we would do well to mark the shift in paradigm that has occurred in recent years in thinking about immigration policy and programme management. For many of us, the paradigmatic case for thinking about immigration is still probably best captured in the black-and-white photographs of European migrants arriving on ships and gazing expectedly on the new land that would be their future home. This is often the collective memory, imagery and organising frame for thinking about immigration. Even today, as one walks the halls of my Department, the visual images and cues of this paradigm are everywhere. And yet, as with all revolutions in paradigms of thought and practice, a new reality has been steadily emerging, in the shadows of that which we used to do, and which is fixed in collective memory.

It is, of course, always going to be the case that we were, and therefore will always be, a 'settler nation'. Our ancient indigenous heritage, the British foundation of our social and political order, and the multicultural diversity of our immigrant society will always co-exist in our society, polity and culture. But when it comes to thinking about immigration, we should increasingly reframe our national self-understanding and speak not only of what we did to settle the land, but of how we are engaging more openly with the world than we ever have done before. The vestiges of insularity have long passed away, and we should more explicitly look back on our settlement era to see it for what it truly represents – the bedrock of modern Australia, the underpinning of our national culture and character, and a story to be told and celebrated through the ages - but never the complete definition of that unfolding story.

I am not suggesting for a moment that ‘settlement’ is no longer part of our future story. Australia will of course maintain a permanent migration programme, which is so crucial for our long-term economic prosperity and our demographic health. Engagement in the world at large and especially in the region around us will be increasingly what defines our national story. Globalisation is of course driving this engagement – it creates the pressure to engage, and the platforms from which to engage. But it is the Australian character, forged in the settlement era, which enables us to fully embrace these platforms and opportunities of engagement. We stride comfortably and confidently in this globalised world. We travel, work, invest and study overseas, we engage in partnership with companies and individuals around the world, through every imaginable technological device and system, and we trade with anyone and everyone who will buy our goods or  sell us theirs. Equally,  we now welcome all to our shores, subject only to each and every non-citizen being qualified to enter under our laws, my Department being confident about their identity, health and intentions, and their subsequent observance of our laws, including with regarding to leaving when their relevant period of welcome expires.

Accordingly, we need to reframe how we think about ‘immigration’ and ‘border protection’ – which are often seen as dichotomous and opposed concepts. Today, there is a remorseless tendency towards ever greater trade and cross-border investment flows; globalised networks of production, distribution and consumption; and the ever more voluminous and  rapid mobility of people for travel, work and migration purposes. Borders are core business for a department such as mine, which is concerned with immigration and  border protection. Borders and sovereignty are, of course, very much linked. The latter of necessity entails the capacity and ability to determine who and what can enter and leave the territory of the state, and the conditions under which this can occur. Seen through the logic of globalisation, however, with its emphasis on global interdependence and mobility, borders are often seen as a cost and time imposition.
I prefer to see borders in a very different way. I see them as mediating between the imperatives of the global order, with its bias towards ‘flows’, and the inherent territoriality and capacity for exclusion which comes with state sovereignty. Rather than anticipating or, indeed, desiring the emergence of a ‘borderless world’ - which makes no sense in the global order of sovereign states - we should see borders as a network of global connection points. In other words, global travel and trade, labour mobility, and the migration and movement of peoples are best mediated and managed by connected borders. I have spoken about this at length in another address (to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in December 2014), and will not this evening trace over that ground again.

I will finish on a practical note, and link all of these developments to the organisational changes that we are making in the portfolio over the months and years ahead. On 1st July 2015, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service will come together in a single department of state, which will include the new Australian Border Force, a uniformed law enforcement body which will enforce our immigration, customs and offshore maritime laws. The Department of Immigration of our collective memory and imagination will be no more, after 70 long years of service.

Recognising the three revolutions of which I have spoken this evening, the new department will have a very different mission and mandate. Our role will be to manage a system of border processes by which we will oversee the flow of people, and goods, to and from our nation. In a connected global environment, we will need to more actively  encourage seamless cross-border movement, based on rigorous assessments of risk. A new ‘flow’ model of the border is in fact already emerging, based on ever improving capabilities for real-time data fusion and analytics, intelligence-based profiling and targeting of high-risk border movements, and rapid response border enforcement and interdiction. Such capabilities will increasingly allow us to minimise our interventions in relation to low-risk border movements, and concentrate our firepower where it can make the most difference.

These changes will be imperative – we will not be able to cope with millions of visa applications otherwise. We will also have to develop means to ensure rigorous scrutiny of those applications in very short turn-around times, and at high volume. This will place a premium on new systems and processes, and commensurate training for our staff. We will need to be prepared to operate more like banks and other large-scale, high-volume enterprises, dealing with masses of data, processing transactions rapidly and using advanced techniques, technologies and tradecraft to discover and deal with risk. We will need to become more agile and adept in dealing with national security, law enforcement and community protection risks, in near-real time.

For this reason, earlier this year I asked one of our most senior and experienced officers, Deputy Secretary Peter Vardos, to lead a major internal review of how we might best improve our decision-making processes, and to examine what we need to do to provide our staff with the tools, powers and capabilities that they will need to facilitate the flow of visitors and migrants, while at the same time better protecting our community. To the latter end, our staff will, where necessary, be expected to say ‘no’ more often than they do now, where circumstances warrant and within the law, as a result of the better use that they will make of new intelligence systems and other capabilities, as well as improved relationships with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and better training and support to make defensible adverse decisions. This is not to say that the shutters are coming down – far from it. The overall flow of visitors and migrants will only continue to increase, as I have explained in this evening’s address. What we will focus on in the months and years ahead is the quality of our decisions in favour of the rights of the community, while still delivering the economic and social benefits of immigration. The Australian community right expects us to deliver those benefits, and to keep the public safe. This is not a choice. It has to be done simultaneously and seamlessly.

How different a world we inhabit from that of 1945, when the Department was established, with its original mandate and mission. Governments have to lead. They have the levers, the powers and the responsibility to act. Each epoch will bring forth its own challenges and imperatives. New approaches and strategies will always have to be fashioned in response. We face no less a set of challenges than our predecessors did in the aftermath of the Second World War,  when  Sir  Roland  and  his  colleagues  set  about  working  with  their ministers on the task of reconstructing the country and in doing so, fashioning a new nation built on the foundations of the old – the essential meaning of ‘nation building’.

Our task today is very different in content, but we will always do well to look to what our predecessors did, and how they thought, for clues at least as to how we might go about our task. Ultimately, the test of public service is the platform that is left for the next generation, and the others that follow. Do we have today the courage, wit and presence of mind to think about the platform that we will leave for those who might address this University in seven decades time, when most of us will long be gone, or in our twilight years? I can assure you that in my Department we are very committed to thinking and acting in those terms, and building something that will prove to be of enduring value. If I could live to see it, I should like to think that I might proudly look on in the 2080s, as our successors look back on how we shaped and managed the immigration function, which is still today doing so much to transform our nation, and will continue to do so over those decades ahead.​​​​​​​​​​