The Growth of Restrictive Australian Immigration Policy

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Julia Bishop, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, once described Australia as being “the most successful multicultural nation on Earth'. In that very same night, Sir Frank Lowy spoke about the benefits immigration has brought us, and urged our politicians for a more “ambitious immigration program”. While there is some truth in Bishops description of the current state of Australia, there is increasing support for more restrictive immigration policy. While inherent racism may play part of the role, there are more comprehensive reasons as to why Australia has seen greater support for a greater restriction on immigration. In this essay, it will be argued that a moral panic incited by politicians has greatly influenced the increased support. The role of the media in how the public discerns immigration as a social issue will also be discussed as well as Australian immigration policy in a historical context. It should be noted that in this essay the term ‘migrant’ will be used as a blanket term for all migration that occurs in Australia.

In Australia, one in four people are born overseas. It is estimated that migrants contribute over 10 billion dollars into Australia’s economy over the span of 10 years within their settlement. Perhaps Australia is as multicultural as Julia Bishop once described. However, Australian politicians overlook the racialised discourses and public policy in Australia and while it is unfair to label Australia as inherently racist, there are additional factors that encourage the restriction of immigration in Australia. Moral panic has played a large role in Australian politics, and has played into how the public has perceived immigration as a social issue. Moral panic refers to a “condition, episode, person or group that emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. It is used to incite a threat to the stability of shared societal values. Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal Party at the time, instilled a moral panic with his strict stance on immigration during the 2013 election. The slogan ‘stop the boats’ incited a heavy focus on immigration and the concerning potential for the loss of Australian values, which arguably afforded the Liberal Party the win for the 2013 Federal election. Despite Australia being a “very minor recipient of asylum seekers” in comparison to similar countries, there has still been a heavy focus on migrants entering the country. The Australian Government has incited a typical moral panic, which included a sense of strong morals, a broad set of societal values, and the behaviour in which incites a disruption by a ‘deviant’ group. It could be argued that this moral panic stems from a set of innate racism, however to incite a moral panic involves the loss of core Australian values and a proposed threat to a cherished way of life. Despite Australia being a nation built on migration, this moral panic instilled the feeling of a loss of national identity in Australia, which ultimately perpetuated the moral panic to ensue. Whilst moral panic is not the direct result in the growing restriction of immigration in Australia, it does provide some explanation for the rising concern within Australia.

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The Role of the Media Within the Context of Australian Immigration Policy

Mills conceptualises the role the media plays in mass society. He identifies that “very little of what we think we know of the social realities of the world have we found out first hand”. The media plays an important role in how we perceive immigration in the post 9/11 era. It tugs at our standards of reality in which we take our world view from, and is “set by these media rather than by our own fragmentary experience”. Mills’ work on the media remains relevant in contemporary society. The misinformed media coverage of migrants has ensued a culture war in Australia while “the anxieties and nostalgia for older and simpler forms of social life” are perpetuated through the “culture war rhetoric which indulges its [audiences] most short-sighted fears and hatreds”. Despite this, it is argued that this rhetoric is a “cloak for racism and brute power”. It is noted through the changing political environment, and the growth of conservative populist parties, that the message Australian politicians hold, retain a seemingly strong urge to ‘reclaim Australia’, which is exhibited through their proposed anti-immigration policies. The white cultural attitude is prevalent through media representations of race and encourages a sense of “deviancy in media discourses” when referring to ethnic minorities in the media. Mills’ work on the role of the media in his work The Power Elite offers us an understanding as to why the media is an “overwhelmingly powerful” entity. It feeds our experience of the world. Given the disproportionate rates of media ownership in Australia, it gives us a very narrow narrative to work with. While the media might not directly contribute to Australia’s conservativeness and restrictive immigration policies, it actively promotes a framework of ideas to which it contributes to the rising support for restrictive immigration. The nations discourse on immigration is maintained through the media, and the public perceives the world view through that medium. In spite of the fact Australian media serves a narrative that perpetuates the support for a greater restriction on immigration, Australian history serves as a significant starting point in understanding how tighter restrictions on immigration are so supported.

The Support for Tighter Immigration Policies

As this essay has discussed the role of moral panic and the media, the history of Australian policies during the early era of settlement will be discussed to underline another prominent cause which details the background for greater support for tighter immigration policies. The White Australia policy was conceived through the animosity of an influx of non-British and non-European migrants. Within this policy, “Australian culture was congealing into a set mould” and the exclusion of “foreign influences” had become something Australia had been privy to throughout the short history of the nation. In saying this, the word ‘invasion’ associates itself with the beginning of Australian history, as Indigenous Australians inhabited the land for thousands of years prior to it being settled on. Augoustinos, Tuffin and Rapley suggests that the history of Australia's colonial past are held with “fierce contestation and debate”. The inherent racism of Australia lies at the bare bones of its history. It is followed through at the highest institute in Australia where the government fulfills the narrative of an inherently racist Australia, feeding it through restrictive policies and racist statements by politicians who encourage the further divide between those who support and contest immigration. Given the argument that Australia possesses traits deemed racist, it should also be argued that ethnocentrism informs the narrative of Australia being a ‘racist’ nation within the context of immigration. It also focuses on the negligent history of Australian governments failure to appropriately recognise the affairs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are the traditional owners of the land. A constant battle which has been fought by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Cromb identifies that “the Government continue to view Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a ‘problem’ that they are tired of ‘solving’”. Cromb notes that all elements of Government are instrumental in the institutional racism and illustrates the “failure to grant land rights and facilitate justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. This failure to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights preserves the ethnocentric rhetoric of Government, and ultimately causes further harm for those who are the traditional owners of the land. Historically, Australia is a nation that has settled on stolen land, and given the colonisation of settlers, it has consistently lived through its ethnocentrism and arguably, its inherent racism which is not as evident as one would think. Through government institutions we can see racism playing out in its most blatant form. Through our history of policy and our history of treatment of those who are not of anglo heritage, it is evident that our cultural biases and our historic xenophobia, builds on Australia’s racist image. The emerging support for restrictive immigration policy lies on the forefront of our historical events as a nation that occured with racialised tendencies and ethnocentric narratives of a nation built on immigration.

While there are a number of reasons as to why Australia’s support for restrictive immigration is increasing, however inherent racism plays only one role. The discourses this essay has discussed all work cohesively in attempting to understand why a growing support for restrictive immigration exist today.

Inherent racism merely plays only an elementary role in understanding why increasing support for restrictive immigration policy exists in Australia. Moral panic, the role of Australian media and a background in historical Australian policy has managed to perpetuate the notion of a more conservative Australia, with an urge to place a padlock on Australian immigration. The incited moral panic forms a paramount conclusion to the increasing measure of support for restrictive migration policy today. It serves as a moral platform to delve into short sighted fears in order for politicians to gain increased political power. A surge of concentrated media entities has since enabled a set of persuasive rhetorics that pose a divided nation infiltrated with Australian culture wars and othering. It is suggested in this essay that the media perpetuates a curated reality in the world. Understanding historical policy gives an understanding of the country’s constant woes towards migration, with a selective immigration process. Given these discourses, they work together to define why immigration policy is so selective and restrictive in Australia.  

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