Boundless Plains to Share; Surrounded by a Hard Border

Joshua Preece | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow


Image credit: Mike Stevens via Unsplash
Image credit: Mike Stevens via Unsplash

Despite the modern Australian state being built upon an act of uninvited immigration, Australians have a complicated relationship with our modern immigration system. We oscillate between a recognition that immigration can lead to prosperity and is therefore generally in the national interest, while feeling apprehensive about immigrants themselves. This apprehension ranges from valid concerns about integration, to blatant xenophobia and mistrust. Ultimately however, these misgivings stand in the way of achieving our strategic interests.


Djokovic vs The Australian Border


Courtesy of a Serbian tennis player who refuses to have his body taught how to produce antibodies to COVID-19, Australia’s border policies have attracted a level of global attention unseen since that one time we commandeered a Norwegian shipping vessel.


Serbia’s Prime Minister described Djokovic’s deportation decision as “scandalous” and sensationally suggested it was a sign that the rule of law is “not functioning” in Australia while the Serbian President described Australia’s treatment of Djokovic as “torment and torture”.


Despite the hyperbole, there is unlikely to be any long-lasting damage to the Australia-Serbia relationship. Djokovic is treasured by Serbians as a projection of Serbian success and a perceived attack on Djokovic was always going to be seen by the Serbian people as a slight towards Serbia.


Although the Serbian government cancelled the lithium mining licenses of Australian-owned corporation Rio Tinto just days after Djokovic’s deportation, that is more likely related to a need to be responsive to well-organised domestic environmentalists against the backdrop of an April election in Serbia than an aversion to Australian investment in the future.


As the Djokovic saga closes, we should examine whether a hard-line Fortress Australia remains fit-for-purpose, and the opportunities available to Australia to use our immigration system to advance our national interests.


Immigration: Our strength and our fear


In a 20-year time span from 1851–1871, Australia’s population soared, quadrupling from 430,000 to 1.7 million people as immigrants came to seek their fortune in the nation’s gold fields. The Victorian gold rush alone accounted for more than a third of global gold production in the 1850s.


The growth in non-white migration was considered undesirable and in 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act formally established a policy of securing a ‘White Australia.’ By 1947, only 2.7 per cent of Australians were born outside Australia. Once we reached a point when British migration to Australia alone was insufficient to sustain Australia’s prosperity and security, we recognised that Australia’s stance toward international arrivals would need to shift, and the White Australia policy was eliminated in the 1970s. But being strong on borders has remained good politics.


John Howard famously declared at the Federal Liberal Party campaign launch on 28 October 2001, that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” On its own it is an entirely sensible statement—all modern nation states exercise sovereignty over the rights of non-citizens to enter its territory, and Australia’s foreign policy should support a sovereign state’s right to the integrity of its territory’s borders.


While Howard’s line was delivered as an election battle-cry, it also served as a soothing balm to a fearful populace living in the shadow of the September 11 attacks that had taken place weeks earlier, and anxiety over the Tampa affair of two months prior.


It is human nature to look inward when we’re afraid—towards our own tribe, and to shut out the other, to shun difference. A desire to seal our borders shut does not only stem from a desire to protect our national security interests. In December 2020, as COVID-19 ravaged a pre-vaccine world, 83 per cent of Australians agreed that “our international borders should remain closed, not allowing anyone in or out”.


Seeing immigration as opportunity

Our migration program today has a strong preference for skilled migration to meet the needs of Australia’s labour market.


Our strategic competitors for skilled migrants are the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Between the four of us, we capture about 70 per cent of skilled migration flows. There is a strategic opportunity for Australia to increase our share on the international stage as being open to the world’s brightest and most hard-working individuals seeking a fresh start.


We cannot rest on our laurels. Canada is planning to admit 1.2 million immigrants to address its most acute labour shortages. Other wealthy nations including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Finland are aggressively recruiting medical workers from the developing world.


We need to commit to deftly balancing two messages. First, we need to make the argument abroad that we should be a skilled immigrant’s first destination of choice—that we are in fact rather than just image, a safe and multicultural home in which to prosper. Second, we need to make the argument domestically that immigration can secure both our nation’s prosperity and security.


Australia’s security requires stringent border controls and Australian sovereignty includes the power of exclusion. Our focus on skilled migration and students has enhanced our prosperity, but xenophobia regularly threatens our economy and our image abroad as one of only a few genuinely multicultural, peaceful democracies in the world. As post-COVID-19 borders relax, we should strategically take advantage of pent-up demand for emigration to Australia. Joshua Preece is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.