The scheme is not without its critics. Aboriginal leaders have asked why their own youth couldn't be employed to do the work; similarly, Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson has pointed to the large numbers of local unemployed available for work:
Why is it beyond the wit of our country to be able to provide the resources and encouragement in supporting Australians who are unemployed to go to areas where they can get seasonal work?
Dr Nelson is taking the scheme at face value; he is assuming that its promoters really do believe that they are just plugging temporary gaps in the labour market. I think it's more likely that those who support the scheme do so for other reasons.
Back in 2005, as the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Kevin Rudd boasted,
Labor led the government on the East Asia Community. We're now leading the government on the creation of a Pacific Community.
As PM, Kevin Rudd has had a further go at developing the East Asia Community, but with lukewarm support from abroad. But what is the Pacific Community he is so keen to create?
In 2003, an Australian Senate committee delivered a report which (quoting the report itself):
proposes a Pacific community which will eventually have one currency, one labour market, common strong budgetary and fiscal discipline, democratic and ethical governance, shared defence and security arrangements, common laws and resolve in fighting crime, and, health, welfare, education and environmental goals.
The Senate committee proposed, in other words, something like the European Union, but made up of Australia, New Zealand, PNG and the smaller Pacific Island nations. It's important to note that the Pacific Union would effectively replace the existing nations of the region, as there would be a free movement of people, a single currency and common laws.
The current policy of bringing in Pacific Islander labour fits this larger aim of creating an integrated Pacific Union. It's a first step toward a single labour market and an integrated economy.
Steve Lewis, the national political correspondent for the Herald Sun, has written openly about this aspect of the labour scheme. In a recent article, he attacked Brendan Nelson's opposition to the policy:
... his populist stance against a Pacific guest worker scheme ... is outrageously shrill ... he panders to the lowest common denominator ... A guest worker scheme makes sense ... it should also pave the way for a pan-Pacific economic and trade pact ... Rudd's employment scheme, which will initially allow 2500 "guest workers" into Australia, is the first tranche of an eventual Pacific "common market".
Steve Lewis summons up the usual open borders platitudes, telling Dr Nelson that he is "playing the politics of fear". Oddly, Steve Lewis ends his piece by appealing to Dr Nelson's patriotism: "The nation deserves better".
Steve Lewis is trying to have it both ways. He is anti-national in backing a policy designed to create a supra-national Pacific Community. He is anti-national too in associating nationalism negatively with a politics of populism and fear. But he then appeals for support for his open borders, anti-national policy on the grounds that "The nation deserves better". Go figure.
It's interesting too to look at the reasons given by Chris Berg for supporting the guest worker scheme. He is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and describes himself as a libertarian or classical liberal (in other words, he is a right rather than a left liberal):
I admit to being very uncomfortable with those supposedly free market advocates who oppose immigration, for whatever reason ... The idea that we should stop an individual from searching for work beyond the national borders of their birthplace simply because we believe that their culture is somehow incompatable with ours is a deeply illiberal position to hold ...
How does the free movement of people differ in any significant way from the free movement of goods or services?
... we have a moral obligation to accept into our borders those who want to come. For individuals born in under-developed countries, simply crossing into the developed world can dramatically increase their potential salary, as well as allow them to experience the historically unprecedented living standards that we already enjoy.
The objections to expanded immigration seem nationalistic or economically illiterate at best, and immoral at worst.
This is the "atomised and materialistic individual living in an economy" view of society - one which has come down to us in the classical liberal tradition. If we are to be guided by an acquisitive individualism, in which the important thing is a lack of restriction on our solitary efforts to accumulate material goods, then Chris Berg is undoubtedly right - it would be immoral to prevent anyone from moving to whichever country most improved their material standard of living.
But what if the underlying view of man and society is wrong? What if man is not by nature solitary and selfish, but instead most fulfilled in his nature when he is living within a settled community? What if the primary form of human community is not so much an economic market, but rather a social community with a distinct culture and history? What if there are natural bonds between people giving rise to natural forms of community?
It then becomes immoral to break up these natural, settled forms of community.
So the issue goes beyond policy arguments to first concepts. If there is only the solitary, economic man working privately toward acquiring material goods - if that is the primary view of man and society - then it will be difficult to find a principled basis for defending existing forms of community.