Editorial
Visa ‘integration test’ unconscionable

Already have been loosed the federal police. Officers will comb phone records and intimidate sources.

As it is too often, the subject of outrage is immigration. As it is too often, the issue being addressed most aggressively is the government’s embarrassment.

Documents marked “Protected: Sensitive – Cabinet”, and leaked to the Fairfax press, show a radical plan to overhaul the visa system.

The documents outline the creation of eight new visas. Among these is a mandatory “provisional visa” that would stand between all migrants and permanent residence. An “integration test” would be implemented, to question their capacity to become Australian.

As with much already in this debate, the departmental advice warns that the changes would “likely contravene our international obligations”. They would affect the vulnerable most harshly, particularly refugees.

“The proposed reforms could undermine Australia’s social cohesion and potentially increase the risk factors that may lead to violent extremism by creating a two-tier society where migrants are treated substantially differently to Australian citizens,” the briefing says.

“Changing the longstanding national narrative to one which treats all migrants with suspicion does not best leverage migrants’ willingness and potential to contribute.”

It is unusual for cabinet to leak. It is uncommon for documents prepared for cabinet to be made public. Usually, these leaks occur because something unconscionable is being seriously considered.

This was the case in December 2010, when Scott Morrison told a meeting of shadow cabinet that the Coalition should do more to question “multiculturalism” and focus its rhetoric on “Muslim immigration”, “Muslims in Australia” and the “inability” of Muslim to integrate.

Six weeks later, when Morrison complained about the cost of flying asylum seekers to the funerals of their parents and children after the Christmas Island boat disaster, the comments were leaked by a colleague. The hope was that, in making naked the cynicism of this cruelty, decency might be imposed.

“We’re going too far with this stuff,” one Coalition member said at the time. “The danger is you lose the debate very easily by going over the top.”

Another said: “Abbott has let him off the leash. We shouldn’t be going anywhere near this.”

Morrison eventually apologised, not for urging his party to capitalise on fear of Muslim Australians but for his suggestion that the then government had been excessively generous to asylum seekers who were mourning the death of 50 people who died trying to reach Australia.

Then opposition leader Tony Abbott accepted the qualified regret. “I want to thank Scott for being man enough to accept that perhaps we did go a little bit too far yesterday.”

Six years later, and the leak is not about rhetoric. It is about legislation. It is about changes that stoke the pyres of division Morrison had been so keen to light. It is about questioning every migrant on their motives, about ill-defined tests of “integration”.

No one any longer is admitting that “perhaps we did go a little bit too far yesterday”. Instead, they’re calling in the federal police and hoping to go ever further.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Visa v harmony". Subscribe here.

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