Under the Rudd government, a pilot program for up to 2,500 seasonal workers per year from Kiribati, PNG, Tonga and Vanuatu was implemented. The program was made permanent in 2012 as the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP).
During her recent visit to Fiji, new Foreign Secretary Penny Wong announced that the Australian government would create a Pacific Commitment Visa, providing a pathway to permanent residency for Pacific Islanders and their families.
The visa, she explained, would be modeled on an existing visa system in New Zealand (NZ), the Pacific Access Category Resident Visa.
How does this program fit into the broader framework of Australian and New Zealand migration policies vis-à-vis the Pacific? In a recent article, I explored some significant longer-term differences between Australian and New Zealand Pacific policies that exist alongside the many important similarities in the two Australasian countries’ approaches to the region.
Perhaps the most pronounced difference between Australian and New Zealand Pacific policies relates to migration. While Australia has created special programs to bring in seasonal workers from the region, it has refrained from facilitating the permanent migration of Pacific peoples. As a result, Australia’s Pacific population is tiny.
For historical and constitutional reasons, pathways to permanent residence from the region do, however, exist in New Zealand, contributing to a very different Pacific population profile on the other side of Tasmania. New Zealand’s proximity to parts of the Pacific, its constitutional commitments to the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, and its large Maori (Pacific native) population underlie New Zealand’s claim to be not only ” in” but “of” the Pacific. More importantly, the tagata Pasifika (“Pacific peoples”) are the fourth largest ethnic group in the country, making up 8% of the population in 2018. The Pasifika are also well represented in Wellington’s parliament, particularly in the Labor caucus. There is therefore a strong national base for pro-Pacific policies in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s large Pasifika population contrasts with the small size of Australia’s equivalent demographic segment. According to the 2016 census, only around 200,000 people – less than 1% of Australia’s total population – are from the Pacific. Interestingly, this group is dominated by Polynesian communities whose members traveled to Australia in most cases via New Zealand.
Australia’s closest Melanesian neighbours, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, on the other hand, are severely under-represented – even though Melanesian countries have a much larger resident population (around 11 million against about 600,000 in Polynesia). As James Batley notes, more Australians claimed ancestry from the Cook Islands than from PNG in 2016 – despite PNG’s population being about 500 times larger than that of the Cook Islands.
Different migration routes underlie the very different demographic profiles of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific. While just over 2,000 Pacific people lived in NZ in 1945, their numbers had risen to almost 300,000 by 2013. Around 30% of Pasifika at that time were Cook Islanders, Niueans and Tokelauans, benefiting free access to NZ by virtue of their dual citizenship, belonging to the Kingdom of NZ. As New Zealand was the former colonial administrator, large numbers of Samoans have also migrated to New Zealand since the turn of the 20th century. They do not enjoy the right to automatic New Zealand citizenship, but a preferential migration regime is in place, first introduced under the Treaty of Amity in 1962 upon independence. In 2000, the Samoan Quota Scheme was introduced, under which 1,100 Samoans are granted permanent residency in New Zealand each year. As of 2018, approximately 200,000 people of Samoan descent lived in New Zealand, making it the largest Samoan diaspora in the world.
Since 1984, the Pacific communities in New Zealand even have their own ministry: the Ministry for Pacific People. Aside from health and education, signature policies driven by Pacific Peoples programs have included New Zealand’s apology to Samoa for its colonial past, the country’s nuclear-free policy and the Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) program.
Easy access for people from the Samoan kingdom and quota aside, there is the Pacific access category resident visa program mentioned above. This, like the Samoa Access Quota, is essentially a heavily oversubscribed annual visa lottery. Currently, 75 citizens of Kiribati, 75 Tuvaluans, 250 Tongans and 250 Fijians (along with their partners and young dependents) are granted residency in the country, provided they find employment. Eligibility for the annual ballot is limited to Pacific people from the named countries between the ages of 18 and 45. This “US Green Card” type migrant labor program opened an additional pathway for Pacific Islanders to migrate permanently to New Zealand.
Finally, since 2007, there has been the CSR program which allows New Zealand horticulture and wine companies to recruit workers from nine Pacific Island Countries (PICs) for seasonal work. The program, originally capped at 5,000 places per year, has since grown to 16,000.
By contrast – at least until now – no separate pathway to permanent residency for Pacific Islanders existed in Australia. In accordance with White Australia policy, most Pacific Islanders working as indentured laborers in Queensland and New South Wales were deported in the early years of the early 20th century: “[I]n an effort to “racially cleanse” the new Australian nation […]. The Pacific Island Laborers Act of 1901 authorized these expulsions and prohibited any new recruiting after 1903.”
The Holt government quietly began to dismantle the White Australia policy in 1966, but parliamentary and cabinet-level discussions in 1966 and 1968 about bringing people from the then-administered territory of PNG to Australia did not came to nothing. Even when the Whitlam government in the early 1970s formally replaced the White Australia policy with a non-discriminatory migration regime, special access to Australia for Pacific workers remained taboo. Graeme Dobell notes that after independence from PNG in 1975, Australia’s peace policy “became a matter of diplomacy, defense and aid – not of the people who were under the responsibility of [the] newly independent nations [in the region].”
It was not until the middle of the first decade of the new century, under the Rudd government, that Australia, facing pressure from PICs and domestic farmers, would for the first time follow New Zealand’s lead. and will launch a pilot program for up to 2,500 seasonal workers per year from Kiribati, PNG, Tonga and Vanuatu. The program was made permanent in 2012 as the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP). The SWP has provided over 40,000 seasonal jobs to workers in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.
Finally, as part of the Pacific Step-up, the Australian government in 2018 added the Pacific Labor Scheme (PLS), open to all PICs, allowing Pacific workers to be employed in regional areas for up to four years. .
While some 25,000 Pacific workers are currently in Australia under the SWP and PLS, both schemes remain small in numerical terms and involve issues of family separation as well as bureaucratic demands on native country. Moreover, by not leading to permanent migration routes, they do nothing to stimulate the Pacific diaspora in Australia. Repeated recommendations by Australian academics and the World Bank to copy New Zealand’s residency visa lottery for Pacific Islanders have long been ignored, being dismissed as “too radical” by the government.
Recent parliamentary hearings into Australia’s relationship with IPCs have again seen suggestions to copy New Zealand’s lottery system. In March 2022, one such parliamentary committee recommended considering the creation of a “dedicated Pacific component within Australia’s permanent immigration, similar to the New Zealand model”. And now the new Labor Government has announced a new Pacific Commitment visa, along precisely these lines.
The de facto lack of regular permanent migration options has long been a sticking point in Australia’s relationship with PICs. Pacific leaders have also not forgotten that Australia for years used the region as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees, placing them in detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island as part of its “Pacific Solution” and “Operation Sovereign Borders” programs. The new visa for Pacific Islanders will not solve all of these concerns. However, it is a late step towards finally putting people at the center of Australia’s relationship with the Pacific.
This blog is inspired by the author’s recent article “The Pacific Politics of Australia and New Zealand: Aligned, Not Alike” in the journal Political Science.
This article first appeared on Devpolicy Blog (www.devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Center at the Australian National University.
Patrick Köllner is Vice President of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), Director of the GIGA Institute for Asian Studies and Professor of Political Science at the University of Hamburg. In recent years he has worked extensively on Australia’s and New Zealand’s policies towards China and the Pacific.
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