No-one likes being called a bigot but the left/progressive side of politics – such as Labor and the unions – especially hate it. They see themselves as the moral high ground on social issues.
Actually, their history is tarnished by deep bigotry. From the 1800s, the labour movement fought against non-white arrivals to Australia. Skilled or unskilled - unions opposed them; fearing competition from Asian and Islander workers on lower pay and longer hours and from the likes of Japanese deep sea divers possessing superior expertise.
The White Australia policy was enacted in 1901 by the new Commonwealth Government, a Protectionist/Labor coalition. It didn’t expressly ban non-white migrants. Rather, officials could require new arrivals to pass a dictation test in any language. Ostensibly neutral, in practice the test was used to exclude non-whites.
Labor actually didn’t think this went far enough, unsuccessfully seeking outright exclusion of non-white immigrants. Labor leader Chris Watson believed educated Chinese, who were more likely to pass the test, posed a greater threat:
“With the Oriental, as a rule, the more he is educated the worse man he is likely to be …. The more educated, the more cunning he becomes, and the more able, with his peculiar ideas of social and business morality, to cope with the people here.
I do not think there is any advantage in restricting the admission of coloured people to those who are educated; and, in any case, I contend that the number which will filter through under the Government’s proposal will still be sufficiently large to constitute a great menace to the well-being of the people as a whole.”
Labor’s anti-Asian policy continued to the late 1960s. Arthur Calwell, an Immigration Minister and Labor Opposition Leader, wrote the pamphlet “I Stand by White Australia” justifying Labor’s forced deportation of Asian refugees after WWII. About 800 wanted to stay - many had Australian families and some served with Australian forces in the war.
Opposition to non-white workers was badged as economic policy but rooted in xenophobia, reflecting the insecurities of a fledgling white nation far from the motherland fearing the “Yellow Peril” at its doorstep. There was no equivalent opposition to European arrivals.
Australia is different now, but the xenophobia sometimes resurfaces, such as in the 1980s Asian immigration debate. We’re seeing it again today in the union campaign against the China/Australia FTA.
Like protectionist arguments of old, the campaign is dressed up in economics – protecting Australian jobs. It’s a nonsense argument built on misinformation and lies. And Federal Labor is indulging it.
CFMEU’s Michael O’Conner has warned:
“If our Government binds us to an agreement that allows Chinese workers to access work in this country, then it cannot be undone. It would constitute an historic betrayal of all Australians…”
He claims Australia has been “outsmarted by the Chinese government”. The clear message – ChAFTA will flood Australia with Chinese workers destroying Australian jobs and the Chinese are not to be trusted. It’s an antagonistic, “them against us” message, pandering to xenophobia.
The anti-ChAFTA campaign makes false claims about safety standards, workplace conditions and migration laws being eroded.
But ChAFTA isn’t an Act of Parliament. Governments must pass a law to change the law and the only proposed changes are to customs tariffs, nothing more. It follows that other laws won’t change.
If the Migration Act doesn’t change, the current labour market testing regime will continue to apply post-ChAFTA; likewise, if ChAFTA contemplates Departmental or Ministerial discretion, that discretion must already exist under the current Act. The same reasoning applies to workplace conditions, health, safety and construction standards.
And ChAFTA expressly says this. The provisions quoted to “evidence” union claims are all subject to overriding provisions that employers, workers and visa applications must comply with Australian laws, including migration rules and therefore the 457 visa regime. Departmental rules confirm this.
There’s nothing sinister about offering companies more certain and efficient processes for hiring labour when there are known skills or labour shortages putting a project at risk. Chinese workers won’t take jobs away from Australians - the jobs don’t even exist yet; they aren’t being performed by anyone, let alone Australians.
Having lived under the shadow of racism my whole life, the bigoted anti-ChAFTA campaign makes me deeply angry. It’s embarrassing watching Labor dance around why they oppose ChAFTA when they didn’t oppose similar deals with other countries; or why the labour market testing regime isn’t good enough for Chinese companies when it’s good enough for everyone else.
It begs the question what Labor actually wants to address its concerns. Presumably it’s not proposing to amend the Migration Act to treat Chinese more restrictively than others (as it did in 1901).
In the 1970s, Labor had the foresight to reject the White Australia policy and champion Australia’s relationship with China. Labor is now losing its way. If ChAFTA fails it will be an act of vandalism by Labor against Australia’s economy and Australia/China relations.
Labor say they’re “on the side of the angels” on ChAFTA. They’re not. They’re dancing with the devil and history will judge them harshly for it.
This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 10 September 2015.
Labor dancing with the devil on free trade
10 September 2015
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine
Racist cartoon published in The Bulletin, 14 July 1888. Caption reads: "The Mongolian Octopus - His Grip on Australia"