Saturday, August 23, 2008

A policy just to plug the gaps?

As predicted the Rudd Government is introducing a scheme to bring Pacific Islanders to Australia to harvest crops.

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.


  1. Chris Berg asks,

    How does the free movement of people differ in any significant way from the free movement of goods or services?

    The simple answer is that the "free movement of goods and services" does not need to impinge on the sovereignty of nations or its citizens.

    In fact, the "free movement of good and services" is better characterized as the simple exchange of goods and services free of tariffs and red tape.

    On the other hand, the "free movement of people" implies an imposition by certain individuals on others who still recognize their sovereignty as a people and nation and wish to avoid that imposition.

    Ironically, this unwelcomed imposition seems a form of sovereignty itself, but in reality, it's a form of individual imperialism. Or, as it's been defined before, absolute autonomy.

    And so paradoxically, absolute autonomy is the antithesis of a sovereign nation and its sovereign citizens.

  2. 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. ...

    The objections to expanded immigration seem nationalistic or economically illiterate at best, and immoral at worst.

    We're subjected to precisely the same babble here in the U.S. How can any non-insane person not understand how a human being is distinct from a widget, that there is more to a human culture than "growing the economy", or that an imprudent immigration policy may not be to the benefit of a culture and its citizens? The entire Western world is infested with these diseased minds.

    Well, as you suggest of course, it's really just a useful after-the-fact justification for the lining of pockets. Unfortunately people start believing their own baloney after a while.

  3. Hello,

    I'd like to comment on immigration in regards to a concrete example if I may.

    In the Australian Army one of the first things you'll notice is the makeup, which is largely though not exclusively "white guys". Women are increasingly joining but they are white women. The army is certainly not alone in this respect. Many other social organisations such as firefighters or lifeguards are similar. Why is this the case?

    Many jobs have always had a "tribal" membership and being the ethnic or cultural "new guy" in such a sphere can come with its difficulties. Indeed the attractiveness of these jobs is often stated as the "lifestyle" which often thrives on like-minded members with similar backgrounds as opposed to diversity.

    However, these organisations are not merely "clubs". "The love" that many members experience is that of national connection, pride and public service. It is not coincidence that (with apologies to the aboriginals) it is our longest residing citizens who join them. Indeed also that immigrants with weaker ties to the country should feel less desire to and join in fewer numbers.

    Going further many of these socially beneficial organisations face difficulties with recruiting and retention over and above the existence of the “tight labour market”. Ideas of "love of country" or society at large are generally not promoted in society and have been replaced with notions of economic advantage. The "great marketplace" of society doesn't lend itself easily to the "altruism" of social service. Indeed social service and volunteering can be regarded as folly in contrast with the goal of individual economic maximisation. Consequently we can hardly expect new immigrants or indeed many citizens to be so "stupid" as to willingly undertake such activities.

    As was stated in the comments unrestricted immigration makes perfect sense in a world of individual economic interest and strong arguments can be made in terms of national economic benefit. Perhaps then it is our excessive love affair with economics that is at fault in regards to questions of immigration.

  4. Hello,

    I was discussing the pacific solution the other day with a senior public servant in favour of the proposal.

    He stated that there currently existed substantial tax fraud practises in the labour hire companies supplying fruit pickers. That the workers themselves frequently claimed illegal centerlink benefits to supplement their wages and that overall there was substantial illegality within the fruit picking industry. As low cost labour is beneficial to farmers and agriculture is important to the balance of trade the government has often been unwilling to rigorously enforce the law and in practise often turns has often turns a blind eye to illegalities.

    His view was that an immigrant worker program would provide several advantages over existing practise. Not only would a more certain supply of labour result it would also be easier to regulate. Any legal breaches by workers could be dealt with by terminations of worker visas rather than drawn out prosecutions. Also among the pacific nations there would be substantial competition for worker contracts reducing fraud as nations would be unlikely to risk future contracts going to competitor nations. In addition there was the already stated strategic advantages of closer relations with the region.

    In reply I mentioned that any large scale immigration scheme would inevitably lead to demographic changes. People "jump ship" and local immigrant populations facilitate their legal integration. Also Australia had faced labour pressures in the past without resorting to immigration solutions, such as the C19th when the termination of the convict labour program lead to calls for the importation of Indian labour, a proposal ultimately rejected on the grounds of the substantial demographic change it would bring.

    In response he replied that demographic change wasn’t such a bad thing. Additionally that the Australian scheme was being copied from New Zealand where one of the reasons for the adoption of the policy was Maori desire for closer ties with the pacific nations, including larger immigration intakes. That in 3 generations NZ would be a majority pacific Islander nation...

    Well I wasn’t sure what to say to that.

  5. Jesse, some really useful information. Do you mind if I use it for a post?