Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Philippe Legrain spoke this evening at the Seymour Centre as part of the Sydney Ideas series of public lectures sponsored by the University of Sydney. In the afternoon sun, the building was masked by the new IT school edifice, the old signboard completely overcome by its shiny new neighbour.

I guess about a hundred people were interested enough in the topic of immigration to attend. One woman swanned around like she was at a masked ball, giving me the eye a couple of times. Needless to say, this butterfly had not one but two questions for Legrain when he opened up the floor after 45 minutes of monologue, for questions.

By 6.30 the foyer was buzzing with people waiting to take their seats. Legrain's book was on display and available to buy for $35.

I passed the time looking at the rather fetching paintings by Tony Slater that adorn the space. We filed in. I grabbed a chair at the front, but there was no need to rush as the theatre did not fill. In fact, there were many empty seats around the sides.

Legrain's talk will be posted as a podcast at the Sydney Ideas Web site, so I will be free with my commentary.

He is adamantly in favour of freeing up borders. It helps both economies, he asserts, because immigrants who do not qualify for skilled permanent residency visas can still contribute to the economy.

"In Australia only 17,000 people were admitted on humanitarian grounds in the year to June last year." This is peanuts, he says. "But is it really true that foreigners are a threat to our jobs, to the welfare state, to our way of life?"

"Or perhaps does their diversity enrich us?" How far does our sense of solidarity and justice extend beyond national borders? How different are immigrants, to us, he asks. "Foreigners are strangers, and therefore largely unknown." But they are generally hard-working and enterprising, he asserts. "It takes courage and enterprise to leave behind your family, friends and homeland, to leap into the unknown, into an alien and potentially hostile country in order to seek a better life for yourself."

He decries the narrow, nationalistic scope of the debate over immigration which is, he says, a global phenomenon not suited to this restricted scope. "It's as if each country is an isolated citadel threatened by hordes of invaders." Immigration, however, is not happening in a vacuum. "It's part and parcel of globalisation."

"In London, Goldman Sachs employs people from around the world to trade in global financial markets." He notes the practice of English football teams employing players from many countries, and points to the perennial expatriates who work in large corporations. "At the same time, migration stimulates further globalisation and trade. The most obvious example of that is that you see Asian students going to study in Silicon Valley and then staying and starting businesses which in turn trade with Asia."

"Or then going back to China or India or Taiwan and starting up their own companies which then trade with the U.S." He points to the paradox of governments pulling down trade barriers while building walls to keep out people from developing countries. No government would ban cross-border trade, but they do ban the movement of people across borders.

"For governments that want products to move freely but want people to stay put are not just hypocritical, they're economically illiterate."

I should point out at this point that the man who introduced Legrain was an academic from the Faculty of Economics and Business. Legrain's academic training, also, is in the field of economics. I should also point out that he is only 33 years old. He reminded me a bit of Tony Blair. The same accent and similar mannerisms when talking. Every now and then, unlike Blair, he would reach up with his right hand and scratch his neck. A tic of some sort.

And while Legrain was highly articulate and clear during the lecture itself, when it came to answering questions from the floor, he seemed unsure of himself, scattered, and less than fully in control of his material. In fact I left after asking a question (which he did not answer satisfactorily) because I had become bored.

People in developing countries are more aware than ever before of the opportunities available in rich countries (his term). Travel, too, has become much cheaper. He sees baby boomers in poor countries coming in ever increasing numbers as the workforce in rich countries ages.

Also, people in rich countries don't want to do low-paid work, and so the demand for unskilled immigrants will inevitably rise. "Whether this potential for migration translates into an actual increase in migration in practice depends on the border controls the rich countries' governments maintain and how effective they are."

Obviously, Legrain wants these controls to lapse. "That, in turn, depends on voters' attitudes to migration. It depends on you and me." He points to the irony of John Howard overseeing an "immigrant boom". Immigration to Australia is at an all-time high. "Over the past eight years, the immigration rate has doubled."

"They're not taking peoples' jobs. Unemployment, as the government likes to boast, is at near-30-year lows: 4.5 per cent." "Just as they fill jobs, they create new jobs, too." They create demand for complimentary work. "Immigrants don't take jobs from anybody."

Immigrants help to sustain Australia's economic boom. But the government places so much emphasis on skilled migration. "Many low-skilled services simply cannot be mechanised or imported. You can't care for old people using a robot, though the Japanese are trying." Richer, older people pay for others to do low-skilled tasks.

Australians are increasingly well-qualified. "Yet someone has to clean toilets, collect the rubbish and do casual labour." Old-age care is a good example of an area where immigrants would fill a gap in the employment statistics. "Wages in Sydney are several times higher than those in Manila." And that's why immigrants are happy to do these kinds of work.

It's not exploitation, he says. Everyone is better off. "Isn't this kind of division of labour creating a new underclass," he asks rhetorically. "People born in rich countries have a different set of opportunities and a different set of alternatives to people who are born in poor countries."

Given that fact, it is better for immigrants to have the opportunity to do the jobs that people in rich countries don't want to do. "This is truly a way that everyone can benefit from migration."

He says that Australia's immigration system "reeks of Soviet-style manpower planning". It's a fallacy. He compares it to asking a person from the eastern states to get a visa to work in Western Australia. The government tries to micro-manage immigration.

I think that you get the picture. Legrain is compelling and logical. He makes sense. It'll be interesting to see if the pundits in the media make something out of his assertions.

I caught a Geoffrey Smart moment on the way to my car.

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