Private Senator’s Bill

21 March 2024

I rise to speak on Senator Hanson’s Plebiscite (Future Migration Level) Bill. We have heard a contribution from Senator Scarr this morning. I know he is someone who has worked very closely with members of a lot of multicultural communities in Queensland, particularly the African and Vietnamese communities. It was a very insightful contribution about the benefits that we all get to enjoy from a number of migrant communities who have come to Australia to call Australia home.

But I do find it a bit ironic that this week is actually Harmony Week, a week we are meant to be celebrating and recognising the diversity that makes Australia such a great place to live—the envy of the world. Bringing people together from all different backgrounds shows how inclusive we are, how respectful we are and gives us the sense of belonging to the greatest country on earth. Yet before us today in the Senate we have a private senator’s bill that was brought before this parliament in 2018, I remember, back when I first came into this place and I made a contribution then.

This bill continues to be placed on the Notice Paper, and that is the senator’s right to do so, but it is an area of debate that, in my opinion, has well and truly long gone. We are no longer debating these types of bills, and rightly so. We already debated the terms of this bill back in 2018. We had the bill reintroduced after the 2019 election and now we are again debating the bill today in the Senate, and I suspect we will probably have the same outcome. When I spoke on the bill in the past, many others in the chamber spoke about their backgrounds. I am a proud son of a family who migrated here from Italy after the war. We came to this country and my parents made a great contribution. I really do feel compelled to speak on the bill briefly today because it is important that we place on the record not just our opposition to these types of bills but the benefits of migration to Australia.

It’s this very place—Parliament House—that was built when we had a number of migrants come and put together every single brick, all the concrete, all the timber and all these pieces of furniture we have here today. I’ve never come across a migrant who isn’t proud to be an Australian; in fact, I find them much prouder to be Aussies, particularly on citizenship days. I’ve written many times about how proud migrants are to call Australian home and to be Australian. I’ve always found people at citizenship ceremonies, particularly on Australia Day, to be so proud to be Australian and to call Australia home, because they want the best for their kids and for future generations. It’s these sorts of reasons that are why I, along with many others, had to speak on the bill beforehand. It is fair to say that this bill does fail to understand Australia’s heritage and fails to understand where Australia is going in the future thanks to the contribution by migrant communities.

I want to make it very clear to members of this place that Labor will not be supporting this bill. We never have supported it and we never will. As senators will remember, when this bill was initially introduced some parliaments ago, as I mentioned earlier, we opposed it with vigour then, and I note that we will do so now. It was also opposed with the same degree of vigour by those opposite when they were in government. There was strong language that was used by some in the government then, and I want to refresh people’s minds about what was said. ‘There was nothing noble about this bill,’ one government senator back then said. Another also said, ‘It will put economic improvement at risk.’

We do hear from time to time about the economic impacts of migration, but it is interesting to note and again place on the record that the Albanese Government, thanks to the work that it’s had to do in the Department of Home Affairs since coming to office, is now seeing migration levels taper off. In fact, migration levels are now forecast to drop. By 2030, we will see around 30 per cent less than what was forecasted under the previous government. We’re already starting to see migration levels dropping over the next two financial years in the forward estimates. It’s not because we are antimigration, but we do recognise that there needs to be a change of focus on migration in this country, away from temporary migration and toward more permanent migration with migrants who want to make a more permanent, meaningful contribution to this country. We had a number of visas that were on offer that did prop up parts of the economy but were only for short-term hits. This government is saying: ‘Enough of that. We want to see migration levels stabilise. We want to see migration that is on a more permanent basis in order to have a much-longer-lasting impact that is much more beneficial to our economy and to this country.’ It’s the hard work that this government is doing in the Home Affairs space that is bringing migration back to a sustainable level after all the comparable countries experienced a post-pandemic surge. We’re trying to restore some integrity to our educational system as well. As I said, the analysis by the Centre for Population shows that the Australian population is now expected to be smaller by 2030 than the prepandemic forecast by the former government.

I really do hope that, if there are other contributions here today, when considering this bill again, we do count on the support of senators—particularly those opposite—not just to vote down this bill but also to make very clear that type of sentiment that this bill has. We have no place for this bill in our vibrant and very robust democracy. I know there have been a number of issues raised by Senator Hanson, Senator Scarr and others, but this parliament can handle debates of all those natures. We are trying as a government to pass legislation to deal with the housing crisis. We’re also trying to deal with the economy and trying to tackle the cost-of-living crisis that is currently before this place. The parliament can walk and chew gum at the same time, but we shouldn’t also be spending time putting a question to the people in a very limited context without explaining to them the full context of how migration has actually made a significant contribution rather than the negative position, that somehow migration is bad, that is being put. In fact, it is not. As you can see, what we have done so far is ensure that this House will recognise that our story of this country—the story of us; of who we are as migrants—is tied to our heritage as a proud migration nation. With the exception of our First Nations people, all of us have come here at some point in search of a better life for ourselves and our families.

Today, nearly half of Australians were born overseas or at least have one parent that was. As I said, in my own case, my parents came here after the war in the sixties from Italy because they knew that this place was where one could actually work hard, get ahead and create a future for their children. They weren’t alone. They joined roughly seven or seven and a half million others since the war who heard about the same promise. They wanted to also join in—to pack their lives into a suitcase, with very little, and make that journey to this land, which prides itself on having boundless plains to share, as we say proudly in our national anthem. We owe much of our prosperity as a nation to those who make this journey. Indeed, the Australia that we all know and enjoy today simply would not have been possible were it not for the contributions of many of these people who were born overseas and people who’ve been here for a very long time. In our community, roughly one in three businesses are now run by people who have a connection to a migrant community.

Treasury has also outlined in many reports—I think in one of their recent reports they estimated that the migrant intake was worth around $10 billion over the five-year period—that migration improves the Commonwealth’s fiscal position since migrants are likely to contribute more to taxation revenue and claim in social services or other government support. I can attest to this myself, in my home state of Victoria, where one can barely walk down a mall or a high street without seeing the value that migrants make to our economy. But central to the defence against the kind of divisiveness that we are seeing before us is not merely the important role that migrants play in our economy; rather, it is advancing the vision that we all have for our nation. What would Lygon Street in Melbourne look like without the coffee machines? What would Box Hill look like without the dumpling restaurants? What would Oakleigh be without the smell of lamb meat wafting around down Eaton Mall? I know there are a couple of Victorian senators who are smiling, but they understand where I’m coming from.

We really need to be careful when we do have these debates—what is it that we are trying to achieve? What is it we’re trying to fix? It’s not the people that are causing the problems. I think it’s fair to say that we need to look and see, ‘How can we as a parliament and as governments do better?’ But let’s not go after the individuals who want to make a better life here in this country. The truth is that this nation would not be what it is today without the contributions made by those who have come here hoping to make a great contribution to this country. It is not for us to subject this to a divisive and, to be perfectly honestly, I think, hurtful plebiscite. Whilst Labor accepts that it is important that we make sure that we get the balance right in our migration program, this is the responsibility of any government to decide, with the best advice at hand. There is simply no place in our inclusive and proudly diverse nation for expensive polls. We really need to have a serious think about where we go forward as a nation. This is clearly not a bill that I and members of the government will be supporting.