We need to go beyond Australians First thinking

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We have done a lot right as a nation during the pandemic, but on the whole we have not treated foreigners as well as we might have. The inequality of treatment has been in evidence during the twin health and economic crises brought on by COVID-19.

Main image: Ruby Princess ship (Getty Images/Mark Metcalfe)

Foreigners who have found themselves stuck in Australia and, strangely, Australians stuck overseas have been among those who have been largely forgotten. Responsibility for these omissions has largely rested with the federal government.

Through its generous JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs, the government has attempted to support the economic circumstances of Australian citizens and industries. Simultaneously, the health emergency has been addressed effectively through closure of all but essential businesses, international and domestic border controls and enforced social distancing. This health response has largely caused the economic crisis.

There are many categories of foreigners in Australia holding a variety of visas, some specific to categories such as New Zealanders. These include workers, students, refugees and tourists. Old and young, they come from virtually every country in the world. Some are on their own, while others are with some other family members. Most are a long way from home. Those in work are found in just about every sector of the economy. Their economic circumstances vary from the relatively comfortable to the absolutely desperate.

Looking after their welfare is undoubtedly a moral obligation, given that we share a common humanity of greater value than any national citizenship. Welcoming strangers is a deeply held humanist and religious value.

Welcome also should be seen as a reciprocal social obligation given that at any time, and certainly during this pandemic, in just about every category bar refugees there are Australian citizens in similar situations spread around the world.

 

'Lying behind these policies has been an attitude of exclusion and off-handedness. It has been an Australians First policy by Team Australia.'

 

In various ways caring for these strangers in our midst is also in our national self-interest. Our economy needs the continued participation of foreign workers. International travel restrictions preventing crucial immigration over the next twelve months means that it is in our national economic self-interest for them to remain in Australia, with adequate income support, if they wish to do so.

Yet during the crisis their needs have been largely neglected and their welfare has often been treated as of secondary importance at best. This general point can be illustrated in various ways.

Those directly in the Australian workforce have often worked in temporary or casual jobs, many in the hardest hit sectors such as hospitality and retail.

International students, another important category which forms a huge export industry, have usually supplemented their income through casual work of the above kind.

A smaller category, but high profile, has been those thousands of foreign workers trapped on cruise ships stuck in Australian waters.

In all cases the go home ASAP treatment of these foreign workers has been dismissive and unworthy.

Generally this has been demonstrated through their exclusion from the various income protection schemes. But, even worse than this, lying behind these policies has been an attitude of exclusion and off-handedness. It has been an Australians First policy by Team Australia.

The treatment of the foreign workforce of the notorious Ruby Princess, for instance, was hard-hearted. They were shunted off to Port Kembla with too little attention given to their obvious health needs. Many were COVID-19 positive. The eventual departure of the ship from Australian waters was ordered with almost breathless anticipation.

A footnote to our treatment of foreigners in Australia has been the patchy attention given by our government to those Australians caught overseas working, travelling or cruising. Some notably good steps were taken but there was also plenty of neglect. Many still overseas but wanting to return need assistance desperately. The market option seems to have been given priority when other governments, like the UK, have taken more extensive direct care of their offshore citizens. If it wasn’t for efforts by private businesses and groups the situation would have been much worse. An opportunity for international collaboration in caring for travellers around the world was missed.

It is not too late for the nation to insist that the federal government lifts its game in this regard. Already some state governments and charities, as well as individual employers, universities and communities, have begun to recognize the limitations in our care and begun to fill the gaps. Much more needs to be done or our national reputation as a caring nation will suffer irreparable damage.

 

 

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Main image: Ruby Princess ship (Getty Images/Mark Metcalfe)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, COVID-19, auspol

 

 

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Existing comments

A very true and accurate reflection John. Thank you, though 'welcoming strangers' is not necessarily attributable to religion, more so humanitarianism I would suggest. Scott Morrison, and some of his cohort profess deeply held religious beliefs, but l wouldn't call them welcoming. I feel not only our national reputation as 'caring' could be damaged, but our international reputation, perhaps l should say even more so, in light of such with our treatment of reugees'.
Julie | 28 April 2020


Evolution is said to proceed by periods of 'off-ness' and 'on-ness' which enable chances of constructive novelty to be realised. This currend 'off-ness' occasioned by Covid 19 might well occasion a humanising shuffle of our values and disvalues. For example, resources hitherto absorbed by oceanic cruises might be redirected to improved care for the elderly in aged care facilities while erstwhile cruise ship consumers could organise themselves to attend to the elderly. There must be lots of other opportunities to humanise the new 'normal' which is anticipated, as in the marketing of education for overseas students, the outsourcing of work by corporations, both of which represent something of the negatives of globalisation. 'Small is beautiful' and 'charity begins at home' are ready for novel expressions.
Noel McMaster | 28 April 2020


Insightful as usual John and deeply disturbing. The Morrison Government's treatment of 'non citizens' is shameful, yet they contributed so much to our economy and well being before the Pandemic turned everything on its head . However none of this should come as any surprise given the treatment of the 'boat people' and other refugees. His proclamation of his so called Christian faith is a real embarrassment to those of us who practice as well as we can, the message of the "Good news of salvation". Apparently he believes only "The Elect" will be saved, the rest of us can go to Hell!
Gavin O'Brien | 28 April 2020


The government has done remarkably well with management of the pandemic and has demonstrated a generosity rare in the modern world. Thank goodness the government has pursued an "Australia first policy". After all, that is precisely what the Australian people pay the government to do. Viruses don't pay any heed to constructed notions of social justice or human rights. To base a response to a killer pandemic on a belief that they do is the height of naivety, on a par with the burning of incense and the wearing of a posy of rosemary to ward of the plague of the Middle Ages. Human rights and social justice From the virus won't protect us. Atichoo!! Atichoo!! We all fall down [dead] Covid-19 is nowhere near finished with us yet.
john frawley | 28 April 2020


The government has done remarkably well with management of the pandemic and has demonstrated a generosity rare in the modern world. Thank goodness the government has pursued an "Australia first policy". After all, that is precisely what the Australian people pay the government to do. Viruses don't pay any heed to constructed notions of social justice or human rights. To base a response to a killer pandemic on a belief that they do is the height of naivety, on a par with the burning of incense and the wearing of a posy of rosemary to ward of the plague of the Middle Ages. Human rights and social justice From the virus won't protect us. Atichoo!! Atichoo!! We all fall down [dead] Covid-19 is nowhere near finished with us yet.
john frawley | 28 April 2020


In my limited understanding of the various visas (because I have only assisted a few times) is the matter of Sponsors and their commitment to obligations to provide for persons in their care and separately, the applicants own indicated financial resources. Tourist and working visa applications from certain countries frequently required the Application be accompanied with a Sponsor letter either from their home employer, family or some Australian resident stating they would provide financial assistance and accommodation for the applicant for the duration of the stay. Similarly, visa applications from certain countries required evidence of around $10K in the bank or property ownership in their country of residence. Selfish Nationalist tones aside, it seems that there should be recourse to examine the finances/means declared before we fork out more welfare money to a class of person rather than an identified individual need.
ray | 28 April 2020


While giving the Morrison government due credit for addressing the grave social issues created by the spread of Covid-19 in a manner foreign to its usual values, the shortfall so well analysed by John Warhurst must be advocated. Thanks, Eureka Street for continuing your role as a social conscience.
Peter Johnstone | 29 April 2020


The whole concept of citizenship needs a rethink. Why is that some people who live in this country are considered, and privileged, as 'citizens' and others are not ? The criteria for becoming a citizen are being progressively narrowed. One can now be 'native-born' but not thereby acquire citizenship; one can live in the country for a lifetime, contributing to the society and economy, and not be granted secure citizenship; having the right to citizenship in another country can mean that one's Australian citizenship can be cancelled by executive fiat. What then is citizenship other the membership of some exclusive 'Team Australia' where everyone else in the country is on the outer and a lesser person. During the period of massive post-war immigration we went out of our way to welcome newcomers and to encourage them to become 'New Australians' and we facilitated this process. And it worked, unlike the 'guest worker' models that several European countries used, and the various gulf states are now using. What gives us the right to claim exclusive possession of the status of citizen and to exclude other residents, any more than South Africans of European ethnicity had the right to exclude South Africans of African and Asian ethnicity ? What happened to 'I am, you are, we are all Australian'. Was it just a nice warm feel-good song for children ?
Ginger Meggs | 29 April 2020


Yes, Ginger!
john frawley | 30 April 2020


I do not accept much of the premise of this argument. For example, John claims "the treatment of the foreign workforce of the notorious Ruby Princess, for instance, was hard-hearted. They were shunted off to Port Kembla with too little attention given to their obvious health needs. Many were COVID-19 positive. The eventual departure of the ship from Australian waters was ordered with almost breathless anticipation." "Shunted" and "breathless anticipation" position us emotionally, but is that what happened? My research suggests this is incorrect. The crew were given first class medical treatment. The clearest and best outcome in the immediacy was self isolation and this is what the cruise crew did - self isolation onboard. First class accomodation. The ship was sterilised completely. The 200 who tested positive to COVID 19 were constantly monitored and given first class care, in hospitals if needed. The crew and the owners released press statements thanking the NSW government for their support. [The crew were from over 50 nations. They return to their countries with a clean bill of health; others remained in hospital.] Its not quite so cruel as described. This is a global pandemic - if governments were caught unawares, discombobulated, then its a little understandable. It seems nowadays the first thing Australians tend to do is accuse fellow Australians of the worst cruelty, with little evidence. Supported by a false or dubious global comparison ["look at Sweden" usually, however, in this case, the UK.] The global response to foreign workforces was not so good, generally. USA the worst.
John Kilner | 01 May 2020


Current experiences around the world show us that politics (regardless of whether it's "democratic" or "communist" ) are ineffective and downright dangerous in a crisis. The current experience shows us that the US is a psuedo-democracy under the tyrannical rule of Trump's ego, and China is a pseudo-communist country under a similarly self-centred regime known as the CCP. The current experience shows us that a benign dictatorship led by medical experts is the solution. Many people are praising PM Morisson's leadership during Australia's crisis, but I'm giving credit to the medical experts whose advice I'm presuming Morisson is following.
AURELIUS | 02 May 2020


I am a registered nurse working in the public health system. We received several memo's at work reminding us that international travellers and workers were all entitled to free health care during the pandemic. (Normally patients without Medicare cards +/- citizenship have to pay). I thought this was the correct and just approach from our state health department. I don't agree with this article
M. H. | 03 May 2020


Hear! Hear! and Here! Here! to John Kilner, Aurelius and MH.
john frawley | 04 May 2020


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