Immigration and nation building in Australia

Looking back and looking forward at the national story.

Michael Pezzullo

Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

23 April 2015

As Australia’s policy shifts from migrant intakes to boosting visitor numbers, so the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s role transforms.

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.

But in my role as Secretary for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection I must give primacy of thought to the continuation of our national story in the modern era of globalisation, with ever increasing flows of people and goods around the world. In doing so I have come to reflect upon three principal revolutions in our migration history since the Second World War that have positioned Australia well within the world of today and for the world of tomorrow.

The first revolution was the post-war mass migration program with its objective of building the population base, for national defence and industrialisation purposes. Australia actively sought migrants from the displaced people of continental Europe uprooted by the war. These migrants built our infrastructure and laboured in newly developing industries, such as our automotive, mining and steel industries.

This 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. Instead we turned towards the highly skilled and educated for the purpose of more immediately enhancing our national competitiveness and productivity.

These two revolutions have boosted our population and provided us with more skilled workers than we could have generated through natural means. But now we are seeing the third revolution, which is the migration of skilled workers living abroad on a temporary basis, and not necessarily seeking to settle at all.

These are mobile global citizens, who work in connection with the flows of global trade and investment. Next year the Department will issue around five million visas for visitor and temporary residency purposes. At any one time the total number of people in Australia on a temporary basis will amount to around 1.9 million, and growing – 10 times the annual permanent migration planning level. Effectively, we are no longer mainly running a permanent migration program as we have done since the war, but rather a border entry and control program.

This necessarily leads me to think about a contemporary conception for ‘immigration’ and ‘border protection’. Seen through the logic of globalisation with its emphasis on global interdependence and mobility, borders are often seen as a cost and time imposition.

Michael Pezzullo giving speech at Crawford School of Public Policy on 21 April 2015.

Michael Pezzullo giving speech at Crawford School of Public Policy on 21 April 2015. Photo by David Paterson from Dorian Photography.

I prefer to see borders in a very different way; 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. 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.

On 1 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.

Recognising the three revolutions described, the new department will have a very different mission and mandate to its predecessors.

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 effort where it can make the most difference.

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 surface risk. For this reason, the Department is undertaking 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.

What we will focus on in the 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 migration.

In so doing we will support the continuation of Australia’s national story, one built on our engagement with the world.

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