This is why the myth of the "Australian points-based system" is so damaging

The British right doesn't really want Australia's immigration system. In fact, it's the Australian right that wants Britain's

February 20, 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel. Photo: PA
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel. Photo: PA

Along with “Get Brexit Done” and “oven-ready,” few soundbites have been as ubiquitous in Boris Johnson’s recent rhetoric than “Australian points-based system.” In practical terms, it refers to a migration system organised around assigning ‘points’ to desirable professional skills. In political terms, the phrase stands in for taking back control of Britain’s borders. Today's announcement of new visas for 'highly-skilled' migrants is billed as the first step in this Australian system's implementation in Britain.

Recently, Priti Patel made the (spurious) claim that when the British public voted to leave the EU in 2016, it voted for the introduction of an Australian system. Despite criticism from the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee, it remains committed to the term, perhaps because focus groups before the election showed that an ‘Australian’ system polled well. With its refugee detention camps and historical ‘White Australia’ migration policy (only abolished in 1973), the antipodes evoke the exclusion of non-Anglo migrants.

Despite this positioning as a panacea to free movement, a number of commentators have pointed out that far from cutting migration, in Australia a points-based system has been a tool of immigration growth.

Maintained by both right and left-wing governments since the 1990s, the system aims to attract large numbers of skilled migrants from all over the world. The majority of these migrants are young and highly-trained, counter-balancing the costs of an ageing Australian population and contributing to a rapid increase in GDP per capita. This has resulted in higher net migration, proportional to population, than in the UK.

At the same time, it has fostered greater cultural diversity as migrants’ skills supersede their country of origin. Indeed, while Boris Johnson has been happy to trumpet the ‘control’ an Australian system will give Britain over its borders, sotto voce he has acknowledged that the Australian system could mean Australian-style migratory growth, something sure to please a nervous business sector. The proposals announced today, whereby would-be migrants would need to prove a number of skills as well as produce a job offer to migrate to Britain, have worried businesses; however, the government is yet to confirm details of a planned 'non-sponsored' branch of the points-based system that it argues would facilitate flexible migration based on perceived need.

There are further ironies embedded in the Tory embrace of an Australian system. Just as Britain’s conservative government takes it up, Australia’s right-wing Liberal-National Coalition government is questioning its commitment to the system. As elsewhere, Australian politics has seen rising xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years. Coalition electoral success has depended on fending off the threat of the far-right One Nation party by co-opting its claims that migration is a problem.

One weapon in this fight is a continued, hard-line commitment to refugee detention in offshore camps despite the human rights abuses rampant in this system. Another is increasing governmental criticism of an economy based on migratory growth.

In Australia, this shift has manifested in an embrace of the rhetoric of British migration control under Theresa May, with evocations of hostile environment policies. In 2017, responsibility for immigration, national security and law enforcement—previously managed in separate civil service departments—was merged into a new ‘super-ministry’ called the Department of Home Affairs. Harking back to old-fashioned ‘Interior’ ministries, this shift also evoked Britain’s Home Office and its anti-migrant policies under May.

The Australian Minister for Home Affairs is Peter Dutton, from the hard-right flank of the Coalition government. Much like May and Phillip Hammond, Dutton has engaged in a long battle with his own party’s treasurers in calling for a cut in immigration. Since Dutton’s appointment, the points-based system has come under sustained attack, with a migration cap introduced in March last year designed to cut numbers from 190,000 per year to 160,000. While the decrease of 30,000 may seem largely symbolic, it telegraphs to the Coalition’s supporters that Australia cannot continue its high-migration path.

What does it mean that the British government is championing an Australian system just as their antipodean political-equivalents are questioning it? On the one hand, it speaks to a British-Australian policy carousel, where the dominant right-wing parties in both countries borrow from one another’s “border control” toolkits. That these disparate tools are treated as interchangeable speaks to the lack of coherence in migration policy in either hemisphere.

On the other, this carousel highlights the contradictions within the migration policies of both British Tory and Australian Coalition governments. Both governments define themselves as pro-business and pro-free trade, positions that arguably militate against migration caps. As a recent BBC Newsnight discussion of the Australian system pointed out, it prioritises state control over market demands by making government and not employers the arbiter of a migrant’s desirability. This can be an uncomfortable position for a Tory politician.

At the same time, both Conservatives and Liberal-Nationals increasingly rely on nativist policies for electoral support, as indicated by the Tories’ wholesale take-over by the Brexiteers. In Australia, Dutton’s insistence that migration is out of control serves a similar purpose. In the end, the primary losers in this internally-contradictory rhetoric are migrants themselves. Squeezed between a system that reduces them to tools of economic growth and another that rejects them as a ‘danger’ to the body politic, their presence highlights the fact that in centre-right ideology, only trade is meant to cross borders. Once again, Boris Johnson hopes to have his cake and eat it too.