Labor’s Home Affairs Spokesperson Stirs Up Xenophobia

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Kristina Keneally

Obviously, shadowing Peter Dutton is getting a bit much for Labor’s Kristina Keneally, so last weekend the opposition home affairs spokesperson decided to simply ape the minister in an op-ed she wrote for the Herald recommending Australia slow its migrant uptake post-pandemic.

That’s right, while other left-leaning politicians and trade unionists have been calling for government financial support to be extended to migrants on temporary visas during COVID-19, Keneally has penned, Do We Want Migrants to Return in the Same Numbers? The Answer Is No.

The Labor senator seems to be setting the post-COVID-19 race baiting agenda early on, with statements that imply Australians should be looking to this as an opportunity to refuse “the same numbers” and “the same composition” of migrants coming here as prior to the lockdown.

While leader of the opposition in the senate, Penny Wong, attempted on Monday night’s Q&A to sanitise the meaning behind Keneally’s opinion piece, the fact that she did so reiterates that the article’s appearance on Sunday simply stirred up xenophobic sentiment in the public.

And it’s not like this is the first time in the ring for the former NSW premier. Kenneally is well aware that the statements she’s made appeal to those very same bigots whose ears prick up whenever they hear minister Dutton partaking in a bit of dog whistling of his own.

Australia first

Keneally begins with the assertion that immigration has “helped sustain Australia’s 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth”, before going on to make the point that when the nation reopens its borders, it should welcome a different “composition” of migrants and less of them.

The shadow immigration minister goes on to provide the reader with the facts: as of last June, there were 2.1 million temporary migrants in this country. And they weren’t just stealing fruit picking jobs. One in every five chefs, four cooks, six hospitality workers and 10 nursing support staff are migrants.

“We must make sure that Australians get a fair go and a first go at jobs,” Keneally makes clear, in a manner that has already prompted One Nation’s Pauline Hanson to remark that the article has simply backed up the points she’s been making all along.

And in a brief moment of forgetting which side of the political divide she’s supposed to be occupying, Kenneally advised looking to the example of UK Tory prime minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 restriction on “low-skilled, temporary migration” as an opportunity to be seized post-COVID.

Kenneally then posits that halting the flow of immigration can commence prior to the reopening of borders as vacant jobs can be filled with local employees, which seems like a moot point as no one is suggesting that positions be left unfilled while the nation waits for more migrants to arrive.

A bit too much, a bit too soon

The comments of the shadow home affairs minister don’t appear in a political vacuum. However, they do come at a time when there are pressing matters being faced by large numbers of temporary migrant workers, who could find themselves made destitute.

The Morrison government – with Labor’s support – passed both the JobSeeker and JobKeeper packages to ensure that workers who had either lost their jobs or were in a position where their jobs were threatened, will now have financial support during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Yet, notably, these subsidy packages failed to cover over a million temporary visa holders currently in the country. The Morrison government has withheld access to the social safety net that these people have been contributing taxes to.

Indeed, some of these migrants have been local taxpayers for well over a decade.

“We could be facing a looming humanitarian crisis, where hundreds of thousands of migrants end up very desperate, completely destitute and on our streets with no support at all,” Unions NSW assistant secretary Thomas Costa told Sydney Criminal Lawyers a fortnight ago.

So, right at the moment, when the Coalition has abandoned these people, telling them to fly home at a time when borders are closed and the few flights left are exorbitantly priced, Keneally has seen fit to further demonise these vulnerable people.

And not to mention that there’s currently a wave of racists incidents sweeping the country aimed at Asian people. Involving taunts, physical assaults and even death threats, these episodes have been spurred on by some misguided blame game over the outbreak of the virus.

A post-COVID-19 future

Kenneally has hit upon a point that many have made, which is that the standstill COVID-19 has brought the nation to is the perfect opportunity for Australians to rethink the direction they want society to head in.

But, then the Labor politician goes on to frame her argument around the decades-old immigration debate, coming back to the usual tripe around there being too many migrants and not of the right kind.

Incidentally, Keneally is a migrant herself. She first moved here in the mid-90s, before being naturalised in 2000. So, it would be interesting to find out whether her type of migrant – a white American – is the right type of “composition” going into the future.

One of the most unfortunate aspects to Kenneally’s race-based outburst is it is going to bait perhaps the greatest racist the two major parties can produce right now – that being Peter Dutton.

And it’s sure that the home affairs minister – who a few years back wanted to prioritise white South African farmers as migrants – will come back with some particularly distasteful racist baiting of his own.

So, as our rather schoolmarmish sounding PM Scott Morrison dangles a COVID-19 restriction “early mark” on the proviso of a downloaded tracking app, it seems that the moment to contemplate an equitable future is fast being lost to the usual migrant-bashing politics our nation is founded upon.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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