The previous coalition government led by John Howard was disastrous for labor mobility in the Pacific. By contrast, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government was very good to him, though in the end the limitations and contradictions in his approach were apparent.
Neither John Howard nor his Foreign Secretary Alexander Downer believed in labor mobility in the Pacific, and both refused Pacific requests to create a seasonal labor scheme.
Instead, and this was the disastrous part, they created an incentive for backpackers to work on Australian farms by offering them a second-year visa if they worked on a farm for three months in their first year.
They thus created a program which benefited the citizens of the large rich countries rather than the small poor islands of the Pacific; that had no built-in protections for workers; and this resulted in minimal demand for the Seasonal Pacific Workers (SWP) scheme when the Labor Party introduced it in 2008.
Labor introduced the SWP but, sensitive to the views of the unions, did not like to talk about it. When we first surveyed farmers in 2011, most hadn’t even heard of it.
Take-up remained modest, below the very low ceilings imposed.
That all changed under Julie Bishop, the Coalition’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2018.
While Howard and Downer viewed the SWP as a sort of handout for the Pacific, Bishop recognized that it was actually a private sector solution and could have huge diplomatic payoffs.
She promoted the SWP and she set about reforming it, in 2015 and again in 2017. She removed the cap when the numbers were still low, enabling the growth we saw afterwards.
It has also helped the Coalition and some state governments take steps to regulate the broader horticultural labor market (so far, a Wild West), and slow the growth of backpackers.
Under Bishop, Australia also introduced the Pacific Labor Scheme (PLS), a multi-year version of the SWP (and an extended version of the microstate visa introduced in 2015).
The idea that Australia would introduce a migration program explicitly targeting low-skilled migrants was radical.
The introduction of the PLS was a bold and creative move, as well as a sign of the growing influence of China and therefore the Pacific.
This was also a benefit of abolishing AusAID, since DFAT looked at the Pacific less through an aid lens.
When the pandemic hit, the PLS was still small, but the SWP issued some 12,000 visas a year and was larger than its New Zealand equivalent.
COVID-19 has led to many problems on the ground, with the number of fleeing workers and allegations of exploitation increasing.
It remains to be seen how this will play out in the years to come. But the pandemic has also supercharged both programs.
There are now nearly 25,000 Pacific workers in Australia on the SWP and PLS, which the government has brought together under the PALM (Pacific Australia Labor Mobility) brand.
While the last years of coalition rule were ones of rapid growth in labor mobility in the Pacific, they were also ones in which policy coherence began to suffer, even to collapse.
The Nationals and much of the farm lobby had never been big supporters of the SWP. Introduced by Labour, it was seen as too bureaucratic and hostile to farmers.
Rather than campaigning for reform of the SWP to make it fit its purpose, the Nationals and the National Farmers Federation instead set out to undermine it.
In November 2018, a third-year backpacker visa option was introduced with the aim, as the announcement says, of “providing farmers with immediate access to workers”.
But the ultimate goal of the Nationals and the NFF was an agricultural visa for Asian workers.
They started talking about it in 2017 and finally succeeded in June 2021.
In September last year, my colleague Richard Curtain wrote: “The obsession with creating a new plan for the Nationals to run in the next election will become one of Australia’s worst public policy debacles.
And he was right.
At first, Agriculture Minister Littleproud described the new visa as that of backpackers, but, once other ministers got involved, it became as heavily regulated as the SWP and PLS.
Government claims that tens of thousands of Pacific workers were set to come to Australia have only deepened the unanswered question of why this new visa was needed.
To protect the primacy of the Pacific, the new visa has been capped.
Yet Minister Littleproud continued to insist that there was no cap, even though he cited a DFAT fact sheet in support that talked about the new visa having annual caps. It was political chaos and generated negative publicity in the Pacific.
The Coalition’s other labor mobility blind spot was permanent migration.
Migration was to be circular, with money earned and skills learned in Australia to be deployed at home. The rhetoric sounded good, but the reasoning was superficial.
Permanent migrants can be just as tied to their country of origin as temporary migrants, and temporary migration does nothing to build the Pacific diaspora in Australia, which we desperately need if we really want to be part of the family. of the Pacific.
It was only during the election campaign that the Coalition signaled that it was ready to consider promoting permanent migration opportunities for the Pacific, and even then it was only as something that could be added to the programs existing temporary ones.
It wasn’t a bad idea, but it would have resulted in few permanent opportunities, and many would have gone to countries that didn’t need them but happened to be big SWP and PLS participants (like Samoa, Tonga and Fiji).
The Coalition’s proposal would also have increased the skills mismatch by increasing the incentive for skilled Pacific workers to migrate under the low-skilled PLS (to have a chance to migrate permanently).
Fortunately, the Labor Party has positioned itself to take the next big steps in labor mobility. He promised to abolish the agricultural visa and introduce a permanent migration scheme for the Pacific which is in no way linked to the existing temporary schemes.
She also pledged to end forced family separations under the PLS, something the Coalition was not prepared to consider.
Stepping back to take a longer-term view, the significant progress made over the past two decades in labor mobility in the Pacific appears to be a combined effort.
A positive dynamic was at work: from opposition to labor mobility under Howard; the quiet support of the SWP under Rudd and Gillard; to enthusiastic and even, towards the end, confused support for temporary Pacific labor mobility under the last coalition government; and now to a new Labor government position of strong support for both temporary and permanent migration from the Pacific to Australia.
In summary, while the past few years have shown the limits of the Coalition’s support for Pacific labor mobility and revealed its internal contradictions, overall its contribution has been to move this agenda forward, and substantially so.
- STEPHEN HOWES is Director of the Development Policy Center and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of this journal. This article first appeared on Devpolicy Blog (devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Center at the Australian National University.