Seasonal work schemes were the sticking point at last week’s Pacific Islands Forum in Port Morseby. John Howard rejected calls for seasonal work visas for Pacific Islanders, citing fears that it would create an underclass of lower-paid workers and result in visa overstayers. ‘I think you either invite somebody to your country to stay as a permanent resident or citizen, or you don’t,’ he told reporters.
But PNG’s Foreign Minister, Sir Rabbie Namaliu, accused Australia of hypocrisy for having one rule for Pacific Islanders and another for European and North American backpackers, who are allowed to undertake short-term work in Australia. Howard retorted that one-off working holidays were not the same as seasonal work schemes. The Foreign Minister was told he didn’t understand Australia’s immigration program.
He could be forgiven; the rules are in perpetual motion.
The latest changes see working holidays denied to Pacific Islanders extended from one to two years for visa holders who have taken on fruit picking and other farm labour in their first year. Is this not a ‘guest worker’ scheme?
Two years ago, a Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee released a report into ‘Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea and the islands of the south-west Pacific’ which argued in favour of special migration schemes to fill labour shortages in Australia, especially in seasonal work such as fruit picking.
The Immigration Department in the same report opposed ‘low-skill guest worker schemes’ which it said did not benefit the sender or receiver countries. However, the report concluded labour migration from the Pacific could have mutual economic benefits. It recommended the risk of overstaying could be lessened if migrants knew they could return each year on a seasonal basis and if the schemes were managed from the home country.
Labour mobility in the Pacific is not just about filling shortages. It’s also about whether Australia’s long-term policies for peace and security in the region can be better realised through migration than through direct aid or trade.
Much public money in Australia has been devoted to the study of conflict in Melanesia. Australian policymakers’ interest in a stable and peaceful Pacific has been sharpened since the 2003 commitment of an intervention force to restore law and order in the Solomon Islands, and last year’s decision to embed police and civil servants in the failing State bureaucracies of Papua New Guinea.
Poor leadership, corruption, poverty and ethnic tension are often blamed for community breakdown and violence in the region, and Australia’s solution to this has usually been to pledge more aid.
But part of the solution for the Pacific Islands may lie in the opportunity to travel, establish family networks overseas, and return with skills, money and life experience. At least this is the view of some academics, who want governments to make it easier for Pacific Islanders to move around the region and the globe.
‘It’s a humane and cheap way of keeping the region secure,’ says Helen Ware, a peace studies specialist at the University of New England. ‘Allowing [Pacific Islander] immigration is better than aid or trade. They’re not asking for special assistance. They want to come and work.’
Of course, many Pacific nations have long developed networks overseas, providing valuable remittances in foreign currency. The migration solution has been tested by Polynesians in New Zealand, where 6.5 per cent of the permanent population is now (non-Maori) Polynesian.
The depth of integration with mainstream New Zealand achieved by Polynesians could, some argue, be copied by Melanesian countries to stabilise urban unrest and reduce dependence on direct Australian aid.
Without broader migration choices, idle young men will continue to fill the cities of Melanesia and make trouble, says Ware. ‘[Migration] is giving people an option. What are they supposed to do if they’re not manning the barricades? Go back to the village?’
She cautions against Melanesian countries falling back on subsistence agriculture and holding out for a high-income industry like tourism to absorb the urban unemployed. The problems of ‘brain drain’ are overstated, she says, and emigration can free up the job market for those who stay at home.
While Australia has a ‘non-discriminatory’ immigration policy, there are precedents for treating some countries differently. Ware says: ‘Australia has reciprocal agreements [for]working holiday visas with countries such as Canada and the UK, even Estonia so why not with the Pacific? We are all for free trade in goods but scream when the question of the free movement of people arises. Clearly Australia cannot take everyone but we can be far more open.’
John Henderson, a political science lecturer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, supported the Australian intervention in the Solomons as ‘necessary and successful in its primary role of restoring law and order’, but in the long term, he believes Islander immigration would allow Australia to embrace the Pacific as a less threatening place.
According to Henderson, apart from the flow of funds back home, migration can also help transform the political culture.
‘The argument is that Melanesians don’t like to travel,’ he says. ‘But I think that’s a bit of a cop-out. They haven’t had the opportunity to travel.’
Meanwhile, the issue will be back on the agenda at next year’s Pacific Island Forum. ‘We’ll be looking for a strategy in which we can convince the Australians, yes, we are still good people to employ in your apple orchards,’ PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare told reporters.
The Melanesian archipelago extends from the island of New Guinea (of which the state of Papua New Guinea is the eastern half) through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia to the Fiji Islands.
A version of this article first appeared in the August edition of Pacific magazine.
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