PERTH, Australia — After a “testy” phone call on refugee resettlement got these two world leaders off to a rocky start four months ago, all eyes were on the face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull Thursday. But while analysts and journalists alike rushed to speculate about the extent to which the relationship had been improved, very little attention was being paid to something else developing between the two nations in recent months: the irony in their channelling of one another’s immigration values.
Has the relationship been salvaged? It seems so, even though Trump thanked Rupert Murdoch and talked about pro golfer Greg Norman before even thanking the Australian leader for his speech. It was an “all-smiles” dinner, after all.
While it is unclear where this relationship stands, regardless of the pleasantries exchanged Thursday, the immigration channelling is noteworthy, particularly because it comes at a time when both countries have expressed a desire for fine-tuning their respective immigration policies.
Although the two have clashed on refugees and immigration protests threatened to spoil the American president’s homecoming, what has flown under the radar about Turnbull and Trump ― and is likely going to be sidelined as more analysis of the meeting surfaces ― is how they have curiously and contradictorily crossed paths on distinct components of immigration policy ― merit and nationalism.
One of the hallmarks of Trump’s presidency so far has been his proposed changes to America’s immigration policy. And in his effort to overhaul the system, the president has looked to other nations for inspiration, including Australia. But while Trump sings Australia’s praises for its merit-based immigration system, Australia’s Turnbull is also being accused of emulating Trump by scrapping a central pillar of that policy and planning to institute an “Australian values” section of the Australian citizenship test.
Domestic pressures have forced Turnbull to appease the right-wing members of his own party with half-hearted gestures once seen as out of character for this more centrist conservative leader.
Whether the two manage to cooperate is one thing, but given Trump’s praise for Australia’s style of immigration management ― and now its universal health care system hours after celebrating a vote to scrap the U.S. Affordable Care Act ― the future may be intriguing. But the interesting question at present is: can Australia and the U.S. borrow more from one another on immigration, as English-speaking democracies and allies that already share so much?
The answer is complicated. The two nations differ vastly in population and economy, making wholesale borrowing hard. But how do merit-based systems fare in that process, and is there much that America can take from Australia’s policy?
Can Australia and the U.S. borrow more from one another on immigration, as allies that already share so much?
Trump in particular has zeroed in on merit-based immigration as a possible solution to what he considers a flawed system in the U.S., saying that such a measure would provide “many benefits” for U.S. citizens economically.
“Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others,” the president said in a speech to a joint session of Congress soon after taking office, “have a merit-based immigration system. It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially.”
And in theory that sounds great. In Australia, there is a particular push for those coming in to be able to, at least in part, be self-sufficient, something arguably lacking in America’s own policy. One of the ways this manifests itself is in the recently scrapped 457 visa, as well as a points system.
Were the 457s a success, and would they work in the U.S.? The measure was introduced by Prime Minister John Howard in 1996 to promote skilled migration by providing workers for jobs that could not be filled locally. The visas had a period of four years and those on them could apply for permanent residency.
Murray Thornhill, director of HHG Legal Group, a law firm that focuses on immigration in Western Australia, said that 457s, “[have] been very effective as a tool for managing skill shortages and giving employers and businesses in key industries like tourism, health and agriculture the ability to fill shortages quickly.”
In an ideal world, this principle would also apply to the U.S. and make the law a plausible fix for America’s skill deficit. But countries cannot simply copy and paste policy and expect it to work ― and even if they could, the measure wasn’t entirely a home run for Australia either.
Azadeh Dastyari, a law lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University, doesn’t see the skilled migration system in Australia as a complete success.
“On the one hand it has attracted more educated and wealthy migrants. However, there has been no guarantee that high-skilled migrants will in fact be able to move into high-skilled jobs,” she said. “As a result, there is the situation of high-skilled migrants competing for unskilled labor.”
For some Australians, Turnbull's moves represent a clear shift by the prime minister to placate the Trump-like fans of his own party.
The visa, though ironically lauded by “America First” Trump, was a point of contention in the country prior to its elimination, with both sides of the Australian political sphere taking aim at it over varying concerns, ranging from potential overflow of immigration or cheaper labor options undercutting locals, to possible abuse of immigrant workers. The concern included union protests that occurred across the country in opposition to the employment of 457 workers.
In his immigration reform sweep, Turnbull has also announced that his country would institute a values test, a tactic that was similarly floated by Trump back in August of last year. For some Australians, this represents a clear shift by the prime minister to placate the Trump-like fans of his own party or ride the wave of populism that has seen success elsewhere, including the U.S. Indeed, the removal of the visa has been loosely compared to the reassessment of H-1B visas for temporary skilled migration in America or even Brexit motivations ― part of a larger global trend aimed at curtailing the flow of migrants in certain countries.
America’s immigration system is more family-oriented. According to the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news agency focusing on inequality in education, “Seven out of 10 immigrants to Australia are accepted based on having skills the government and employers say are needed. In the United States the proportion of immigrants admitted for their skills is less than two in 10.” In addition to the skills deficit this leaves, in America it is the lower-skilled immigrants who often end up doing low-paid jobs locals wouldn’t want to do. And fair wages are even a problem for those who are native-born citizens.
That’s where Dan Engles, a Perth-based migration agent who runs Visa Solutions Australia, a company that assists immigrants through the legal aspects of the country’s visa application process, is skeptical about an Australian immigration system realistically transferring over to America.
“A key issue for the U.S. [in implementing a merit-based measure like Australia] would be the requirements to pay a minimum level of income, [because] Australia requires that workers coming here are not subject to exploitation through low wage earnings, which can lead to poverty traps for migrants,” he said.
Where America’s government has lagged on immigrant working conditions, Australia’s government has been blunt. Canberra has made clear that the issues of immigration and working standards are of high importance, while the current American administration has instead started to implement policies that may negatively impact immigrant working conditions.
In fact, Labor, the current Australian opposition, suggested it would not pass the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, or ChAFTA, an agreement that eliminated a large majority of trade tariffs between the two countries and granted 5,000 visas to Chinese nationals for work and holiday purposes in 2015.
The backlash surrounding ChAFTA was due to the fear that it could have potentially allowed for more lax labor standards ― and an influx of Chinese workers. The idea was that not only could the workers allowed in under the ChAFTA have taken jobs that could have otherwise been filled by Australians, but that the working standards may have even been lower as well. This differs from the U.S. where often less care is taken to ensure migrants do not work for lower wages, with regular cases of exploitation of guest workers and other immigrant labor occurring across the country.
'[Australia and the U.S.] were born as the rebellious children of the same parent.'
And while the move towards focusing on the local Australian workforce is in line with much of Trump’s own vision for the U.S. ― think “America First” ― it may seemingly feel at odds with the merit-based system Australia prides itself on and that Trump not so long ago championed.
Globalist Turnbull would baulk at his policies being called Trump-like, but his goals appear to be getting closer to Trump’s with recent actions, despite their initial frosty personal relationship. The prime minister is at pains to appease the right wing of his party and voters who are swinging towards Pauline Hanson’s populist right-wing One Nation, which is protectionist and against Muslim immigration. As a result, he’s making some sort of anti-immigration noises and has changed policy without spelling out what he plans to replace it with. He’s also said that Australia is one of the most successful multicultural nations in the world and that “Australian values” include democracy, respect for the rule of law and equality between the sexes. Exactly what is he trying to fix with these changes? Unclear, save that things could be “even better.”
After “getting along great” in New York, it will be interesting to see how the relationship between Trump and Turnbull progresses from here. After all, as Trump put it in a speech following their meeting, “[Australia and the U.S.] were born as the rebellious children of the same parent.”
Even if the nations aren’t identical, there are certainly things the two have in common. One of those things is not immigration policy so much as the lack of a coherent one.