Beazley silent on pension wait for migrants

April 8, 1998

By Lisa Macdonald

In a cynical attempt to woo the migrant vote, Labor leader Kim Beazley told the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia annual conference in Sydney on March 28 that the ALP unequivocally supported multiculturalism and that he would take "personal responsibility" for ethnic issues if Labor is elected.

What Beazley did not say is that his party would alleviate the severe hardship being experienced by new migrants under the Coalition's March '97 legislation which abolished social security payments to migrants for two years after their arrival. Beazley's silence on this critical issue for migrants has angered many migrants' rights organisations.

Instead, Beazley said Labor would consider granting new migrants access to employment services to help them find work. However, in a context of 2 million unemployed in Australia (ABS, March 9), and the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research finding, announced in September, that 46% of unemployed non-English speaking background people are long-term unemployed, this offer is largely worthless.

The suffering experienced by new migrants since the wait for government assistance was increased from six months (under the ALP) to two years was reflected in the results of a survey commissioned by the NSW Ethnic Communities Council last December. The study, titled Newly Arrived Migrants and the Two Year Wait, found that more than 97% of people who had arrived in Australia in the previous six months said they were in extreme financial hardship. Not surprisingly, 48% of respondents (from 22 ethnic backgrounds) said they had been better off in their home country; among south-west Asians, it was 67%.

The destitution of so many new migrants is a result of not only the lack of jobs and the two-year wait, but also that the 1997 legislation made it almost impossible for new migrants to obtain the Special Benefit, a small discretionary payment intended to alleviate immediate financial hardship. Under the legislation, a new migrant who cannot find work, or loses their job, quickly uses up all their savings because they are not entitled to public housing, or a health care or a transport concession card. Once destitute, they can then be refused the Special Benefit on the grounds that they did not bring sufficient funds into Australia!

Beazley's implicit support for the two-year wait coincides with a sharpening of the Coalition's attacks on immigration and migrants' rights. Using federal immigration department figures showing that aged migrants who have arrived in the last 10 years are costing $400 million a year in social security payments, multicultural affairs minister Philip Ruddock told the National Press Club on March 18 that the intake of migrants in the three years prior to Coalition's election had grown out of control, and was dominated by unskilled migrants and those who found it easier to rort the system.

Having already slashed the parental migration quota to 1000 for this financial year (which filled up in the first three months and, growing at a rate of 400 per month, has created a backlog of almost 14,000 cases), Ruddock announced he was considering classifying aged parent migrants as temporary rather than permanent residents. This would make elderly migrants ineligible for social security benefits and Medicare.

In a move which seems designed to enable Labor, if elected, to make more cuts to certain categories of migrant intake without paying the electoral price in migrant communities, Beazley said in his March 28 address that if elected, Labor will separate the immigration portfolio from the multiculturalism portfolio. "We need to ... make the ideas of multiculturalism absolutely separate from, and absolutely unassailable by, that annual debate surrounding the numerical immigration intake."

The only difference between the two major parties' positions on immigration and migrants' rights is that, whereas the Coalition is employing racism and the politics of scapegoating to legitimise direct attacks on migrant intakes, rights and services, the ALP is continuing to use the language of multiculturalism to veil its own parallel policies.

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