While the final few years of Coalition rule saw rapid growth in Pacific labour mobility, they were also years in which policy coherence began to suffer, if not fall apart
| DevPolicy Blog | Edited
CANBERRA - The Coalition government led by John Howard was disastrous for Pacific labour mobility.
By contrast, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government was very good for it, though at the end the limits and contradictions of its approach were apparent.
Neither Howard nor his foreign minister Alexander Downer believed in Pacific labour mobility, and both turned down requests from the Pacific to create a seasonal work program.
Instead, and this was the disastrous part, they created an incentive for backpackers to work on Australian farms by offering them a second-year visa if they worked on a farm for three months in the first year.
They thereby created a scheme that benefited the citizens of large, rich countries rather than of small, poor Pacific islands; that had no in-built protections for workers.
This resulted in minimal demand for the Pacific Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) when Labor introduced it in 2008 but, sensitive to union views, didn’t like to talk about it.
When we first surveyed farmers in 2011, most hadn’t even heard of it. Take-up remained modest and below the very low caps that were imposed.
All that changed under the watch of Julie Bishop, the Coalition’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2018.
Whereas Howard and Downer saw SWP as some sort of hand-out for the Pacific, Bishop recognised that it was actually a private sector solution that could have huge diplomatic returns.
She promoted SWP and set about reforming it. She removed the cap when numbers were still low, thereby allowing for the growth we subsequently saw.
It also helped that backpacker growth slowed and that the Coalition and some state governments took steps to regulate the broader horticultural labour market (hitherto a wild west).
Under Bishop, Australia also introduced the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), a multi-year version of SWP.
The idea that Australia would introduce a migration program explicitly aimed at low-skilled migrants was a radical one.
The introduction of PLS was a bold and creative act, as well as a response to the growing influence of China, and, therefore, the Pacific. It was also a benefit of the abolition of AusAID, since now DFAT was looking at the Pacific more through a strategic and less through an aid prism.
When the time the pandemic emerged in 2020, PLS was still small but SWP was issuing some 12,000 visas a year and was bigger than its New Zealand equivalent.
Covid-19 led to many problems, with a growing number of workers absconding and increasing claims of exploitation. How this plays out in coming years remains to be seen.
But the pandemic also supercharged both programs. There are now close to 25,000 Pacific workers in Australia on SWP and PLS, which the government brought together under the PALM (Pacific Australia Labour Mobility) brand.
But, while the final few years of Coalition rule were ones of rapid growth for Pacific labour mobility, they were also ones in which policy coherence began to suffer, if not fall apart.
The rural-based National Party and much of the farming lobby had never been big supporters of SWP.
Introduced by Labor, it was seen as overly bureaucratic and farmer-unfriendly.
But rather than campaigning for reform of SWP to make it fit for purpose, the Nationals and the National Farmers Federation (NFF) instead set out to undermine it.
In November 2018, a third-year backpacker visa option was introduced with the objective, as the announcement said, of “providing farmers with immediate access to workers”.
But the ultimate goal of the Nationals and NFF was an agriculture visa for Asian workers. They started talking about this in 2017, and ultimately got their way in June 2021.
In September last year, my colleague Richard Curtain wrote: “The obsession with creating a new scheme for the Nationals to take to the next elections will go down as one of Australia’s worst public policy debacles ever.” And he was right.
At the beginning, agriculture minister, now nationals leader, David Littleproud described the new visa as like the backpacker one. But, once other ministers became involved, it became as highly regulated as SWP and PLS.
Government claims that there were tens of thousands of Pacific workers ready to come to Australia only made more acute the never-answered question of why this new visa was needed.
To protect Pacific primacy, the new visa was capped. Yet Littleproud continued to insist it was uncapped, even as he cited in support a DFAT factsheet that talked about the new visa having annual caps.
It was policy chaos, and generated negative publicity in the Pacific.
The other blind spot of the Coalition when it came to labour mobility was permanent migration.
Migration was to be circular, with money earned and skills gained in Australia to be deployed back home.
The rhetoric sounded good, but the reasoning was superficial.
Permanent migrants can be just as connected to their home country as temporary ones, and temporary migration does nothing to build the Pacific diaspora in Australia, something desperately needed if we are truly to become part of the Pacific family.
Only during the recent election campaign did the Coalition signal that it was prepared to contemplate the promotion of permanent migration opportunities for the Pacific, and even then it was only as something that might be added to the existing temporary schemes.
This was not a bad idea, but it would have resulted in few permanent opportunities and many opportunities would have gone to countries that didn’t need them but happened to be big participants in SWP and PLS (such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji).
The Coalition proposal also would have increased the skills mismatch by increasing the incentive for skilled Pacific workers to migrate under the low-skill PLS (to get a shot at permanent migration).
It has promised to abolish the agriculture visa and introduce a permanent migration scheme for the Pacific that is in no way linked to the existing temporary schemes.
It has also undertaken to end enforced family separations under PLS, something else the Coalition was not prepared to contemplate.
Stepping back to take a longer-term view, the significant progress over the last two decades on Pacific labour mobility seems like a combined political party effort.
A positive dynamic has been at work: from opposition to labour mobility under Howard; to quiet support for SWP under Rudd and Gillard; to enthusiastic if, towards the end, confused support for Pacific temporary labour mobility under the last Coalition government.
Now the new Labor government has stated strong support for both temporary and permanent migration from the Pacific to Australia.
In summary, while the last few years showed the limits of the Coalition’s support for Pacific labour mobility and revealed internal contradictions, overall its contribution was to take this agenda forward, and substantially so.