In a small and quiet step, Australia is permanently opening its door for a few Pacific Islanders to do seasonal farm work.
The Pacific worker pilot scheme was a relative fizzer, but its slow growth has meant there was little political or bureaucratic pain involved in making it permanent. And so, from July, the three-year experiment becomes permanent. Now it becomes a question of actually making the thing work.
If you want to drill down into how this process has evolved, a good starting point is Jenny Hayward-Jones' 2008 paper on Pacific workers and Jenny's Interpreter piece in August 2008, when the three-year pilot was announced. Then, to see why less than half the available Pacific worker spots got used in the pilot, see this month's conference at the ANU and the paper by Danielle Hay and Stephen Howes.
The short answer for the failure so far: the backpackers with holiday visas have done the work. Also, the growers fear the risks and red tape of the Pacific scheme. To win, the Islanders have to beat the backpackers on productivity and reliability.
The broader significance is that for the first time, the South Pacific superpower is doing something specifically for Pacific workers who want to keep living in the Pacific. The Islanders don't have to migrate to get access to the region's economic powerhouse.
The shift has been a long time coming. A decade ago, this was a policy untouchable in Canberra. It was taboo because Australia had repeatedly bashed such concepts the moment they were proposed. Date the animosity from the moment in the 1969 when John Gorton finally and properly terminated the silly ministerial musings about PNG becoming Australia's seventh state.
At the same time, Australia was on its journey from having a discriminatory to a non-discriminatory immigration policy. Australia went from discriminating against the Islanders (along with much of the rest of the world) to a purist position where it wouldn't or couldn't discriminate in favour of its own neighbours. Read More
One of the laws of politics is that no argument is every finally settled and that is certainly the case with migration and Pacific workers. The 1984 review of overseas aid, the Jackson report, talked of a special migration program for the smallest islands. Thirteen years later, the Simons Review of aid returned to what it called the 'vexed issue' of migration for islanders.
I had plenty of history to draw on in February 2003, when I got up in a committee room in Parliament House to deliver a paper to the Menzies Research Centre, the think tank of the Liberal Party. That paper banged away at Australia's amnesia about our dynamic and vigorous Pacific history and what would always be our central role in the region.
As a journalist, you get a lot of chances to question and annoy politicians, but actually to lecture them is a rare treat. I went for broke. Australia had to tackle the taboo that had endured for decades – labour mobility from the islands. This should be seen as an issue of community, of security, or economic policy and aid, not merely a migration issue.
Shortly after that speech, a couple of excellent chaps from Foreign Affairs took me to lunch and gently but firmly told me I was crazy on the Pacific worker idea. The Immigration Department hated it, Employment didn't even want to think about it, and Foreign would not lose a layer of skin arguing for it. Beyond Planet Canberra, there was nobody pushing for special treatment for Pacific works and the trade unions would fight the concept. Had I noticed that Australia prided itself on running a non-discriminatory immigration policy? So why start discriminating for a bunch of Islanders who had no real diplomatic heft and no Australian constituency?
Perhaps, though, I was sniffing the wind while my hosts were merely reciting history. A few months later Australia and the region were off to start the RAMSI experiment in the Solomons, and Canberra started to count the billion-dollar bill involved in propping up a near-as-dammit failed state in Melanesia.
One of the unsung heroes in the process of change was a Labor MP Bob Sercombe, who served as Opposition spokesman for Overseas Aid and Pacific Island Affairs from 2004 to 2007. He took up the Pacific worker idea as part of his thinking on the creation of a Pacific Community. Most importantly, he got the trade unions on board, winning the backing of Sharan Burrow and the ACTU.
Unfortunately for the Pacific, Sercombe's fine work suffered the fate predicted in one of Labor's tougher sayings: no good deed goes unpunished. Sercombe didn't have a chance to implement his ideas when Labor took office in 2007 because he'd had to make way in his seat for the arrival in Canberra of Bill Shorten. Part of the Sercombe legacy, though, had been to inject some fresh thinking into an important part of Australia's Pacific policy.
The emerging debate in Australia was matched in New Zealand, feeding into the Island understanding of what might be possible. Fairly quickly, the labour mobility/seasonal worker argument moved from the margins onto the formal agenda of the Forum.
This is how politics and policy get done. Not so long ago in Canberra, this was bad policy and bad politics. Slowly it shifted to become a difficult policy option which was politically contested and subject to some fresh bureaucratic re-examination. Then the debate began in earnest and new things started to become politically doable.
New Zealand acted first and Australia followed. Making the scheme permanent is one more stride in the effort to get some Pacific people into Australia's Pacific policy.
Photo by Flickr user photobunny.