Laboratorio Australia: Setting the benchmark for world’s worst practice

This month the British Government has announced the details of its new points-based system of migration management [1]: the white paper Making Migration Work for Britain was released on 7 March. [2] The system consolidates over 80 different modes of work/study migration permits into a single test, based on the accumulation of points in relation to skills. It is divided into 5 tiers, from highly skilled down to students and unskilled workers and privileges those at the top end such as doctors and entrepreneurs. [3] The new system follows in the footsteps of other points test immigration systems, such as those of Canada and most notably Australia. In fact the Australian system was the model at the centre of the debate on this issue when it was first raised by British Labour in the May 2005 election.

But at the same time as the points system is being implemented in Britain, it is being questioned and changed in Australia. These changes are inextricably linked to the reform of the labour market which, together with immigration, the privatisation of universities, schools and the public health system, formed the new program of Australia’s Coalition Government after its re-election in autumn 2004. The governing coalition is made up of just two parties, both of the reactionary right, the Liberal Party and the National Party. From July 2005 they have controlled the Senate through an absolute majority, along with the House of Representatives where they were already in power.

Immigration in Australia is divided into three principle sectors, in addition to which there is the humanitarian program covering refugee flows, asylum seekers and those in the humanitarian aid category. However this article will not deal with those in the humanitarian program.

The definition of migrant is itself regulated in a very precise taxonomy, articulated in three different typologies: first, the skilled migration stream - for migrants with specialised skills; family reunion - in which potential immigrants can be sponsored by a family relation who is an Australian citizen or a permanent resident; and special eligibility migrants, reserved for ex-Australian citizens who want to reacquire their citizenship, as well as for some citizens of New Zealand. The current government privileges the skilled migration stream on the thinking that, as one reads in an informative brochure from DIMA, attracting people with «outstanding abilities... will contribute to the Australian economy.» [4]

The current Minister for Immigration, Senator Amanda Vanstone, has explained how the skilled migration program is driven by industry: «What we need to do with the immigration program is be responsive to needs, and that means get the people with the skills that industry needs and get them where industry is.» [5]

In the 2004-2005 year skilled migration amounted to 77,800 people, that is 65% of all migrants who arrived in Australia, against the 13,178 who arrived under the humanitarian program. [6]

Within these three principal categories there are other categories and subcategories. Some of these categories in the skilled migration stream work according to the point system and the accumulation of points. The proliferation of typologies is reflected also in the variety of visas given out under various categories which function in a progression from the temporary resident visas, such as the student visas or certain work visas like the working holiday visa or guest worker visas to the permanent resident visa, and up to citizenship itself. Only a few visas allow the completion of the cycle up to citizenship.

Both the points system and the variety of visas can be interpreted as a dematerialised version of border controls that regulate not only the entrance into the country but, once within the territory, operate as internal borders, producing a hierarchy in the type of participation allowed and access to the rights of citizenship. For example if a person succeeds in passing the points system exam, once in Australia she must wait two years before she can access forms of subsidy from welfare for citizens and permanent residents. Other types of visa, like those for the spouses of Australian citizens, are staggered in two years blocks with provisions that include the requirement of minute documentation of the couple’s life.

A summary of the regulations of the points system is illuminating in helping to understand both how it functions in terms of border controls and its biopolitical aspects. [7]

Points are given based on particular characteristics of the applicant: skills, age, knowledge of the English language, experience in the type of work, professional or academic qualifications obtained in Australia, skills of his partner, bonuses for those who have investments of a minimum $100,000 (around 60,000 euro) in Australia, knowledge of a language spoken in the country, work experience in Australia, and for those who are sponsored by a citizen or Australian resident, the relationship with that citizen. The test is available on the DIMA website and functions like a game of monopoly.

For each attribute certain points are given, for instance in the case of the «skills» section, 60 points will be given if the profession indicated requires professional knowledge, a degree and work experience, 50 points if the applicant possesses the equivalent of an Australian degree even if not connected with the profession indicated etc.

The system is complicated with the introduction of «Occupations in Demand» - that is those professions where there is a significant shortage in Australia, such as doctors and nurses but also cooks, electroplaters, mechanics, hairdressers, upholsterers and panel beaters. If the profession indicated is among those required, twenty points are earned if accompanied by a specific offer of work, 15 without. Further if one has three or four years’ experience in the particular field of work, another 10 points are given, or five if the applicant has worked in another field.

In an analogous manner, points decrease according to one’s age, with a maximum 30 points for the age group from 18 to 29 years to a minimum of 15 for the age group from 40 to 44 years. You can’t migrate to Australia, in the General Skilled Migration stream at least, once you’re 45. Knowledge of English brings another 20 points for those who speak it at the mother tongue level (established by another test, one of linguistic competence, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)).

We could continue the list of points to do with qualifications ad nauseam, but it’s important to also note that, as well as the points accumulated in this system, one adds the state of health of the applicant and certificates that demonstrate that the person making the application is not disbarred from entry. Every migrant must put themselves through and pass a long series of medical exams to determine the state of their health. Some diseases, like tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS immediately disqualify the applicant from obtaining a visa, while other illnesses or particular conditions that might require care and therefore put a burden on government finances are subjected to scrutiny. Whenever the doctor decides that the costs associated with the disease could be too high, the migration application will be refused.

One can therefore say that the points system is one of the more important «filter functions of border controls» [8] in the Australian immigration regime, and that its functioning depends on the application of biopolitical categories to the life of the immigrant population, both before and after their arrival in Australia. These categories include the medicalisation and the meticulous checking of the state of health, the languages spoken, the choice of whether to reside in metropolitan areas or rural and regional ones, knowledge of the language of one of the larger ethnic groups and so on.

The multiplication of these control filters enters into the dynamics described by the Canadian scholar William Walters according to which the biopolitical management of Western societies is displaced from the interior and occurs more and more at the borders of the nation-state. It happens through the control apparatuses that are developed alongside the borders themselves such as medical authorities, customs and immigration officials. It’s important to note how these biopolitical spaces are not purely restrictive and repressive mechanisms but places where power itself is produced: borders can be understood as a privileged institutional site in which political authorities can acquire biopolitical data about their populations - their movements, health and wealth. In one sense, therefore, borders contribute to the production of the population as a knowable and governable entity. [9]

The Australian points system in fact goes beyond this sense of the production of power and not only serves as a means of gathering information on the biopolitical constitution of the nation but allows the government to intervene directly in the constitution and the production of the population itself through the management and fine tuning of the regulatory filters, such as by changing the «in demand» occupations (that is, the most requested) or varying the categories of exams and the scores required.

In an analogous way, once admitted into Australia the biopolitical fabric of the immigrant population will be scrutinized and ordered through a statistical system which, for example, cross-references their linguistic skills with their country of origin, employment rate and income. [10]

Considering borders only as systems of control facing the outside, oriented towards the international sphere, immigration and global flows, is to run the risk of not understanding the importance of borders in the governance and biopolitical composition of the nation’s interior.

The points system, one reads on DIMA’s website, was created to attract a labour force «young, highly skilled and able to contribute quickly to Australia’s economic growth» [11], but as shown by what we have described here, the government makes use of a much greater number of criteria to regulate immigration flows. These instruments of biopower are linked, from the very start, to the development of the ideology of official multiculturalism of the Australian government. The points system started in 1973, between the last years of the «White Australia Policy» [12] and the beginning of the policy of multiculturalism under the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam (1972-75) and the Liberal one of Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983). This system can be seen as a progression from a politics of immigration based explicitly on race to one based on economics.

The Asia Pacific Migration Research Network has said of it: «It is not discriminatory on racial, ethnic, religious or political criteria, but it does discriminate in favour of young, economically productive people who have been able to receive a good education. It tends to select either people from highly-developed countries or an elite from less-developed countries, thus encouraging the ’brain drain’.» [13]

According to this system immigration is a way of importing economic resources into Australia according to whatever is needed at that particular moment, through highly qualified and culturally diverse people - a multiculturalism rooted in economic competition. The proof of this is in the recent announcement of the raising of the quota of skilled migrants in response to the fears of an economic slowdown in Australia.

Contrary to what one might think from reading the recent history of Australia, multiculturalism still remains one of the founding myths of the nation, a multiculturalism often articulated in terms not of difference but of cultural diversity. The semantic change between difference and diversity indicates a series of displacements and reconfigurations that signal a passage from a social system where meaning is produced through difference to one where this difference is no longer dynamic but presented as neutral.

The type of diversity at the centre of making the Australian nation is precisely defined, as explained in one of the principle objectives of Productive Diversity, the multicultural policy: «benefits for all.» This objective is implemented through a particular program called the Productive Diversity Program, the purpose of which is to «encourage and support business to harness and capitalise on the talents of language and cultural diversity in the workplace and the community.» [14]

Cultural diversity comes to be analysed according to its productivity in purely economic terms, on the basis of statistics that show that 29% of small businesses are in the ownership of people born overseas and that 25% of the labour force is born outside Australia. The cultural diversity of the Australian labour force thus becomes a resource on which business can draw for the development of internal markets oriented to specific consumers, that is ethnicities, and above all for access to the global markets. In the case of the internal market it is recognized that the significant proportion of 43% of the Australian population that is born overseas or that have at least one parent born overseas, a number that breaks apart the image of an internal homogeneous market and leads to the necessity of differentiating the products and services on offer. In the case of overseas trade, cultural diversity transforms Australia into a «microcosm of the global marketplace» [15], in a context in which 12 out of 14 countries to which Australia exports are not Anglophone.

To this is added a transformation in a post-Fordist sense of the Australian market, with an emphasis on the export of services rather than primary goods and the necessity of, on the one hand, acquiring more and more detailed and up-to-date information on specific markets in order to develop products that respond to particular needs, and on the other to develop capacities of reading, comprehending and communicating within those same markets. Immigration of skilled persons responds to the need to access at low cost these linguistic competencies, knowledge of specific markets, both in terms of laws and protocols and in terms of consumption trends, and contacts with transnational networks. [16]

Ghassan Hage analyses the discourse of «Productive Diversity» introduced by the Labor Government of Paul Keating in 1992 around the White Fantasy of multiculturalism of the Australian state, through which the white Australians are able to manage ethnic groups as a productive resource. [17]

Cultures become goods and immigrant subjects become passive objects without citizenship: economically included but politically excluded. The power of this type of multiculturalism presented as «Productive Diversity», as a factor of production within the new capitalist order and connected to Hardt and Negri’s analysis of marketing: «postmodern marketing valorises the differences of each commodity and each segment of the population, fashioning its strategies accordingly. Every difference is an opportunity.» [18]

This system is currently being contested with what could be unexpected results, and the challenge comes from the system’s own sources of production. The protagonists of this challenge are the fruit growers of an area of eastern Australian called the Riverina, many of whom are second-generation immigrants who arrived many decades ago, politically aligned to the National Party, one of the two parties in the Coalition Government,. Traditionally fruit picking was done by labourers and their families and in more recent times by young people (under 26 years), tourists in Australia with working holiday visas, the so-called backpackers.

The continual casualization of the labour market, according to current estimates at 27.6% [19] , has lead in recent years to an abundance of «immaterial» jobs on short term contracts in Australian cities. The young tourists that up to a few years ago did seasonal work in the fruit harvest now fill many of these positions: better conditions of work and salaries, more flexibility and choice have led to the disappearance of backpackers from the orchards of the Riverina.

The farmers have successfully requested a review of the law on skilled migration, to include also workers without specific skills, who after having been «imported» from China, or other countries in Asia or the Pacific can work on short-term contracts in fruit picking. This demand, apparently innocuous, intersects with the reforms on union accords enacted recently by the Coalition Government. One of the reforms provides for a federal accord in the place of the current state accords that regulate among other things minimum wages, still calculated on the cost of living and not by market forces.

At the moment if workers from South East Asian countries and China come into Australia on contracts they would be on a contract with Australian working conditions, including a minimum wage included, a reverse process to that of the global capital that reproduces «Third Worlds», consequently casualizing and reducing minimum wages within countries of advanced development. This, in theory, could lead to the possibility of a new class of workers without specific skills capable of moving in transnational networks following the demands of the market.

Negotiations between the government, which has announced an increase in the number of skilled workers in response to a lack of economic growth, and the growers are not yet finalized. In October 2005 the Foreign Minister for Papua New Guinea and other leaders from Pacific nations lobbied hard at the Pacific Islands Forum for Australia to open its doors to seasonal workers from their countries. [20] The proposal was rejected by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, but support for a seasonal worker scheme remains strong among the fruit growers of the Riverina and many other parts of the agricultural sector in Australia. [21] The Pacific nations continue to press their case, and now a Senate Inquiry is touring rural Australia investigating labour shortages and the possibility of a seasonal worker program. [22] In the meantime DIMA has reformed the working holiday visa to give more generous terms to those who agree to do seasonal agricultural work (such as the opportunity to apply for a second visa once the first one expires) [23] in an attempt to try to win back some of the old backpacker workforce in this area. The Senate Inquiry will give its report in August 2006 -the spectre of migration continues to haunt Australia (and the world).

Ilaria Vanni works at the Institute for International Studies, University of Technology, Sydney. Her research interests include the analysis of the multicultural and transcultural discourse especially in relation to visual cultures. Email:

Damian Spruce is a lawyer and political consultant. He is currently undertaking doctoral research at the Institute of International Studies of the University of Technology, Sydney. His research is on the influence of the Australian government’s Pacific Solution on European politics and in particular on the recent agreements between Italy and Libya on border control. Email: