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What does it mean to be ‘not quite Australian’? An interview with Peter Mares
Not Quite Australian by Peter Mares

Today, there are more than a million temporary migrants living in Australia. They work, pay tax and abide by our laws, yet they remain unrecognised as citizens. All the while, this rise in temporary migration is redefining Australian society, from wage wars and healthcare benefits, to broader ideas of national identity and cultural diversity.

In Not Quite Australian, award-winning journalist Peter Mares draws on case studies, interviews and personal stories to investigate the complex realities of this new era of temporary migration. He gives an insight into the complex issues below.

What does it mean to be ‘not quite Australian’ in society today? 

It can mean lots of different things, depending on what kind of ‘not quite Australian’ you are. For refugees on temporary protection visas it can mean total despair about the future, with no sense of belonging anywhere and the prospect of permanent separation from a wife, a husband, a child, a mother or a father who is still stuck somewhere overseas. For others it might manifest as sense of resentment or a feeling of rejection and exclusion. For example New Zealanders, who have lived, worked and paid tax here for up to fifteen years, could not vote at the federal election this month, and if they fall on hard times—lose a job, for example—then they don’t get any government help to get them through. For others, like some international student graduates, the experience of being not quite Australian is a long and frustrating wait for a permanent visa, or a complex game of stepping stones, jumping across different visa categories in the search for a safe landing in the country that they now feel is their home. It can mean that you are vulnerable in the workplace and that your rights are precarious and uncertain. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s experience of temporary migration is bad: many backpackers have a fun time travelling and working in Australia for six months or a year; some skilled workers on 457 visas make a seamless and almost automatic transition to permanent residence after two years. The ‘not quite Australians’ who concern me are the ones who get stuck living here, but not belonging.

The number of temporary migrants living and working in Australia has recently tipped over one million. What drove you to write Not Quite Australian now?

This book began with individual stories, and one story would often lead to another. I’d write about a student graduate stuck indefinitely in a visa-processing queue, for example, and someone else would get in touch with me about their own situation, like a nurse disabled in a terrible workplace accident being told she had to leave Australia because, due to her injury, she no longer met the definition of a skilled migrant. As these individual stories accumulated over the years I began to see a pattern emerging and I realised that something bigger was going on—that, almost unnoticed, Australia was changing the way it does migration. The notion of the permanent settler that had been such a strong element of our history—or at least of our historical imagination—was being replaced by a system of temporary or two-step migration that was much more tenuous and uncertain. So while I was primarily driven by story telling, I wanted to frame those stories in a larger narrative that tells us something about how Australia is changing as a nation, and asks questions about whether all those changes are ones we want. 

Issues surrounding temporary migration have received a great deal of public scrutiny of late, from the development of the backpacker tax to recent investigations into 7-Eleven employee exploitation. How has the rhetoric around temporary migration changed in recent years? 

Journalists like Adele Ferguson at Fairfax and Caro Meldrum-Hanna at Four Corners have done fantastic investigative reporting on the 7-Eleven case and the exploitation of working holidaymakers in agriculture. There have been lots of other great stories too, and numerous reports by Senate Committees and the Fair Work Ombudsman and so on. So the issue of temporary migration has become part of the public debate, but there is still a tendency for the issue to be seen quite narrowly: it is either a case of ‘why are all these temporary foreign workers taking Aussie jobs?’, or, ‘how can we crack down on these shonky employers who are ripping off migrant workers?’ So it is seen through a fairly narrow lens, as a particular problem with a particular type of visa, for example, rather than being cast in the larger framework of what is happening to Australia’s migration program overall, and whether the incentives and structures of temporary migration itself are creating the conditions for exploitation of migrant workers and abuse of the visa system. As the stories and reports build up, broader questions are being asked, and I hope Not Quite Australian will contribute to the discussion. 

Beyond mere data and case studies, your book also uses a number of personal stories to help depict the realities of temporary migration. Why was this important to you? 

I’ve been reporting on migration-related issues for more than twenty years now, both in my former role as a broadcaster with ABC Radio National and in my capacity as a contributing editor at Inside Story, and it is the personal stories that attract me to the topic: every migration story is unique, but every story also embodies essential and universal human experience and strivings—separation, loss, new horizons, hope, excitement and anxiety about the future, the desire to improve life for your children, the need to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of place. Telling a personal story opens a door to the investigation of larger policy dilemmas: how do we regulate our borders ? On what basis do we let someone in or exclude them? At what point do you become Australian? These issues might otherwise seem abstract. Personal stories also throw light on the ethical challenges of policy. When we talk in broad terms about attracting ‘skilled labour’ to increase economic productivity, or when we crow about Australia’s record ‘education exports’, it’s easy to forget that what we are really talking about are significant events in people’s lives—we are talking about individuals with loves, hopes, ambitions, tastes, desires, families; we are talking about people with a history and people with a future. There is a quote that I first heard when I was studying German at university more than thirty years ago, from Swiss playwright Max Frisch. He was talking about Gastarbeiter (guestworkers) in Europe in the mid sixties and he said: ‘Man hat Arbeitskräfte gerufen, und es kamen Menschen’—roughly translated, we called for labour power but what we got was human beings. That quote is always in the back of my mind when I write about migration. 

What role does public opinion play in the experience of temporary migrants? How can public sentiment be measured in the context for your work? 

This is a hard question to answer. Public opinion is fickle, and even as individuals we are capable of holding contrary and contradictory opinions. For example, opinion polling generally supported a harsh line on border protection, but if you ask people whether children should be locked up in immigration detention they are much more equivocal. Similarly, you can have resentment at ‘foreign workers taking Aussie jobs’, but we are shocked at examples of exploitation in the workplace. We don’t want to pay more for restaurant meals or takeaway, or for meat, fruit and vegetables in the supermarket, yet it is becoming increasingly clear that prices are kept down in part by paying low wages to temporary migrants doing work that most Australians would not do for the same pay. 

It often seems as though the moral and ethical issues surrounding temporary migration are left unresolved when it comes to implementing practical solutions. What can be done to help repair this disconnect? 

One of the arguments in my book is that you have to start from a moral position and work out a policy that is built on that basis. So, for example, if we claim to be a liberal democracy, as we do, where everyone has equal rights and everyone gets an equal say, then we have to hold ourselves to that standard and measure our policies against it. To allow someone to live, work, study and pay tax in your society for three or four years and regard them as temporary is one thing; it is another for them to be here eight or ten years and for us to still say ‘you are not Australian’. To me, that fails the fundamental test of what it means to be a liberal democracy. 

What’s next for temporary migration policy in Australia? 

Continued debate and controversy! Employer groups are always pushing for new visa categories to be opened up, especially at lower skill levels—for aged-care assistants, for example—who do not fit the category of skilled migrant under current rules. Our universities and TAFEs are starved of public funds and so desperately want to keep boosting their international enrolments to improve their revenue base. The privatisation of vocational education means that there is another powerful lobby group wanting easier entry rules for students. On the other hand, there is also a growing demand for people to be treated decently. Unions and others have mounted a powerful argument, for example, that we need to regulate the labour-hire industry where many of the worst exploitation occurs. The New Zealand government raises the issue of Australia’s treatment of Kiwis at every chance it gets. Temporary migrants are making their voices heard, and we will again come to the realisation as a nation, as we did in the late Howard years, that the policy of temporary protection visas that makes people permanently insecure is both unconscionable and counterproductive. There are no simple solutions to the complex issues thrown up by temporary migration, but the only way to make progress, to develop policy that is both practical and ethical, is to talk about the issues at stake. I make my own specific policy suggestions in the conclusion of Not Quite Australian, and whether or not others agree with my proposals, I hope that they will contribute to a more thoughtful and productive conversation.

Not Quite Australian

Not Quite Australian

Peter Mares
$32.99

Not Quite Australian is released 1 August. Order at your local bookshop or online now.

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