Guest Notes

Dis-Con notes

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

Well done, Angus

Six weeks ago I advised the prime minister to undertake a ministerial reshuffle. Three weeks ago I made some excuses for his not doing so, and advanced seven policy reform proposals for him to consider while making up his mind on that advice (‘Some policy reforms, Mr Morrison’, 25/04/20). The ministerial reshuffle should be a lay-down misere; and equally, each of those seven policy reforms stands on its own merits. Their cross-party political popularity (Greens always excepted) would be such that even a cautious politician, as Morrison admittedly is, should just get on with them. (The first one, appointment within Morrison’s own umbrella portfolio of a new ‘Minister for Increasing Self-Reliance’, would mean displacing one present ministerial hanger-on, but not the full-scale reshuffle recommended).

As before, this second batch of reforms either fall within the executive power of government and hence do not require legislation, or, while requiring budgetary appropriations, should meet no difficulty in obtaining them. So here they are, some more important than others but all worthwhile; and to avoid confusion in future reference to them, numbered consecutively after the earlier batch.

My eighth proposal builds on my fifth one, to formally slash both our Settlers Program for permanent immigrants, and the level of temporary entry visas that normally contribute to our huge Net Overseas Migration number. The permanent visa program in fact comprises four component sub-programs: the Refugee sub-program; the Special Humanitarian one; a Skills component targeting migrants who can contribute to our economy through their skills, qualifications and potential years of employment; and a Family Reunion component. Subject to what is said in my ninth and tenth proposals below, I would not argue for any reduction in the number of incoming refugees (defined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as people ‘subject to persecution’ in their home countries). However, the case differs for beneficiaries of the Special Humanitarian program, people who ‘may or may not be refugees and are subject to substantial discrimination amounting to gross violation of human rights in their home countries’. They are selected by the UNHCR on grounds wide open to corruption, including, most commonly, sexual favours. In 2018-19 they constituted 7,661 cases, 40.8 per cent of the total Refugee and Special  Humanitarian permanent residency stream. Were we to virtually abolish this sub-category (cutting it to, say, 1,000 p.a.), we could even possibly contemplate some increase in the Refugee stream, though only subject to what is said in proposals nine and ten.

My ninth proposal, then, is for Australia to insist that our intake under both the Refugee program and the (reduced) Special Humanitarian program should in future be chosen not by the UNHCR, which will always ‘dump’ on us as many of its difficult cases as possible, but by our own Department of Immigration selection officers. Periodic surveys by the department have invariably shown people in these categories, even five years after arrival, still display low employment levels and low competence in speaking even functional (i.e., low-grade) English. This isn’t good enough; as well as being very costly, these people seem unlikely to make good citizens.

When then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2015 provided a 12,000 special addition to the Refugee and Special Humanitarian quota, for Middle Eastern people suffering religious persecution and with a focus on families and women and children, they were carefully chosen by our own selection officers. They did a great job, particularly in selecting many thousands of Yazidi (an obscure sect from northern Iraq) women and children who had been captured and enslaved by Isis terrorists, and who are reported to have transplanted here very successfully.

More generally, my tenth proposal is that when our own selection officers  assess our Refugee and (reduced) Special Humanitarian streams, we should be more selective. In particular, we should cease accepting anyone who cannot speak, write and comprehend English; anyone who cannot pass a rigorous health examination; people aged over (say) 40; and so on. There is no lack of people satisfying these criteria in refugee camps around the world. A more selective approach would not only reduce the extremely high cost of this intake; it would also mean those selected, unlike their current equivalents, would find jobs and settle into the community more readily.

My eleventh proposal is for the treasurer to instruct the Foreign Investment Review Board to give much greater weight than heretofore to its ‘national interest’ test. Treasurer Frydenberg has recently reduced to zero all the former ‘thresholds’ below which foreigners could confidently expect to have their applications accepted (particularly, but not only, applications to buy Australian residential property). However, this decision has a six-month sunset clause. The treasurer should make his decision permanent or, at least, indefinite.

I should not close this article without noting that on 22 April the Minister for Energy, Angus Taylor, announced that ‘taking advantage of historically low fuel prices’, Australia had ‘made an initial allocation of A$94 million to begin building a strategic fuel reserve’. (That was the seventh policy reform proposed in my Dis-Con Note of 25 April, but as the respective dates indicate, that Note can take no credit for Taylor’s decision).

The two key words were ‘initial’ and ‘begin’. During his subsequent media conference, Taylor noted that, because our ‘fuel storages here… are full’, our new oil will initially remain in the US, ‘where there is spare storage’. Significantly, however, ‘we are exploring opportunities with the industry to establish local storage’, which was ‘a priority… that needs to be concluded’ as soon as possible. How soon, however, can we expect an upgrade of our badly run-down refinery facilities? But that query apart, well done.

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