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We're not racist. We're an immigration nation. And cuts must be made carefully

Amanda Vanstone
Updated June 21 2024 - 8:58am, first published June 20 2024 - 5:30am

That Australia has a number of people who are racist is no surprise. To conclude because of that that we as a nation are racist is stupid.

The simple fact is that unless you are a full-blood Indigenous Australian you have migrant blood in your veins.

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The only difference is how long ago you or your granny came here.

But we are all newcomers. Even first Australians came here from elsewhere. It's a timing thing. That's who we are. An immigration nation. "Home to First Australians, joined from near and far" is a good way to describe us. The more popular song describes our make up this way "from all the lands on earth we come". We are a melting pot. It's what binds us together.

Peter Dutton is right is his call to cut immigration, but it won't fix all of our problems. Pictures by Sitthixay Ditthavong, Shutterstock
Peter Dutton is right is his call to cut immigration, but it won't fix all of our problems. Pictures by Sitthixay Ditthavong, Shutterstock

The more we recognise that and celebrate it, the stronger we will be. Who doesn't know that you play to your strength? A recent post of mine on X sought to do just that; celebrate our strength.

The post read: "God I love this country. The young clearly very competent nurse checking me out in emergency was in grade 5 and living in India when I left politics. For opportunity from all the lands we come. Like our predecessors" .

The response was quite strong and sadly from people who clearly don't join in singing the chorus "and from all the lands on earth we come".

Poor them. Narrow-minded and ill-informed . A quick flick through the responses shows a small band of people with nothing better to do than whip each other up into some sort of mini-frenzy.

There were people trying to appear caring by asserting that we should not take skilled people from poor countries. We're not the world's police. If you've busted your gut, worked hard become for example an engineer or doctor there's just no way any country should say "that's far enough, mate. You're not allowed to go further, you have to stay and help your own people."

Others had less attractive views. That there are some amongst us, mercifully not many, who see us as a nation built "by white people for white people" only shows that despite a good education system delusion and prejudice exist in the world. Ho hum. So what?

Don't judge the rest of us by those loonies. Even more importantly, don't give them the attention and publicity they crave. Why on earth tell that lot that you think they're in a strong position let alone the the majority?

Being the immigration minister isn't a fast track to popularity. There's always different views about individual cases and about the makeup of the program as a whole.

Having had the job, I'm reluctant to comment on individual cases. Former Labor senator Robert Ray tipped me off early on to that risk. He snuck over in the chamber, sat down next to me and said he would not attack me on individual cases.

Why? Because having had the job he knew that the applicant and their advocates tell the media all the good stuff, everything to pull the heart strings. Why would they do otherwise?

But as minister you've got the whole file. And he knew you often couldn't release all the information.

There's another point about individual cases. Obviously we want our immigration system to be fair.

That means, as far as practical, people in the same position get the same treatment. But the public are often encouraged to push the minister into making an exception just "in this case".

Why? Because the applicants are judged by their neighbours to be nice people, because their kids are gorgeous, because the local community like them and so on.

Seriously, it's ridiculous. If you're not as open, your kids aren't as attractive or your local community hasn't got to know you yet you should have a lesser chance?

That's no way to decide an immigration application. Come in, spinner. There's always more people in almost exactly the same position.

In this age of identity politics and conspicuous compassion there's too many people happy to use an applicant in order to demonstrate how compassionate and caring they are.

These selfish people use personality and proximity to try and push a decision that should be on principle.

As to the broader program former Labor luminary Mick Young told an audience of the Indo-Chinese refugee Association in my state in the 1980s that if you're a fan of immigration you will keep both the size and makeup of the program broadly within community expectations.

We are an immigration nation and we all, broadly speaking, need to be happy with the direction we're heading.

Dutton was right to say he'd cut the volume of the program. Immigration didn't create the housing problems we have and cutting it won't fix them. But it might ameliorate them, however slightly. In any event, continuing to bring in larger numbers in the face of the problem puts community support for the immigration program at risk. It's a ridiculously long bow to call his decision racist.

There are two aspects that are important to our program. Not many people realise that we have been for many decades under successive governments the second or third largest taker of refugees for permanent resettlement in the world.

The top three are the United States and then us or Canada. That should be a matter of immense national pride.

The reason it isn't understood is because Labor decided to portray the Howard governments tough stance on people smuggling as being anti-refugee. The figures show otherwise but Labor and their mates in the media have no interest in telling you that.

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The second main aspect is the skills program. If you haven't heard of a business that can't get all the workers they need you're living in a different place than the rest of us.

Understanding our needs a few years out and managing that program isn't easy whatever your political persuasion. We have however a looming problem.

Having a university education has morphed in many minds to "being educated". There are several big problems with that.

First, it ignores the education others have either through technical studies or simply at the University of Life.

Second, it treats all graduates the same way and frankly the fact that I have both an arts and law degree is small beer compared to someone who because of their field may discover a cure for some terrible disease.

Third, it has enormous over reach. Your degree makes you educated in a limited area. Full-stop. Of course that doesn't stop people with degrees marketing themselves as knowledgeable way outside those parameters.

And all of that leads to young Aussies not being prepared to take on jobs they see as beneath them. And that will have to push up migration numbers.

  • Amanda Vanstone is a former senator for South Australia, and a former Howard government minister. She writes fortnightly for ACM.
Amanda Vanstone

Amanda Vanstone is a former senator for South Australia, a former Howard government minister, and a former ambassador to Italy. She writes fortnightly for ACM.