Thursday, 20 June 2013
Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013; Second Reading
It is always a pleasure to follow the opposition leader, whose wise words today should be followed and adhered to particularly when it comes to 457 visa arrangements. He of course is correct in what he says. Agriculture and food production are all about skilled labour. The opposition leader, who has been to my electorate and who has listened to my people, very much knows the value of 457 visas to agriculture and food production not just in the Riverina but, indeed, right across Australia. The 457 visa is a hallmark of skilled labour in the Murrumbidgee irrigation area, which makes up the majority of the western half of my Riverina electorate. This plan by the Labor government to rush through changes to the 457 visa system is testament again to just how out of touch it is with rural and regional areas.
These 457 visas are for skilled workers from outside Australia who have been sponsored and nominated by business to work in Australia on a temporary basis. They are not, as Labor would have you believe, part of a rorted system which leaves willing and skilled Australians without employment. Instead, they are an integral component of the harvests of many farmers I represent. Whether those farmers are citrus growers, grain growers—you name it—skilled labour from overseas is what ensures Australian food is placed on the dinner tables of Australian families, and many others too.
The shadow minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, put it aptly at the doors to parliament on Tuesday morning when he said that this is 'an attack on skilled workers'. He was right. This Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill seeks to amend the Migration Act to make seven main changes. First, this bill seeks to reinforce the obligations of employer sponsors of 457 visas. Second, it wants to make prescribed classes of sponsors undertake labour market testing for Australian workers before employers can seek to hire someone from overseas using the 457 visa program. Third, it seeks to require employers to demonstrate that they have undertaken labour market testing and provide for exceptions from labour market testing in some circumstances. Fourth, it will enshrine the kind of sponsorship obligations that the minister must ensure are prescribed in regulations. Fifth, this bill wants to give Fair Work inspectors the necessary power under the Migration Act to give them access to employer premises for the purposes of the act. Sixth, it will allow those same inspectors to determine whether an employer has contravened or broken a civil penalty provision or any other employer sanction provision. And finally, this bill seeks to extend the period available to an employee to seek new sponsored employment to 98 days, amending the current provision of 28 days.
Yet despite all the huff and the puff of the government and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Brendan O'Connor, being quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday, saying that he is 'tired of being told they don't have evidence' of rorting within the system, the response to these changes has been almost universally negative.
This is particularly true of my constituents in the Riverina. I think particularly of Mark Hoskinson, a grain grower from Kikoira in the far north-west of my Riverina electorate, who told me that overseas skilled labour is what made his winter harvest possible. Through a company named Odysee-Agri in France, Mr Hoskinson has had three French agricultural science students come to Australia and work on his property during harvest. This week there are eight of these agriculture students in the far west region of the Riverina. These students, Mr Hoskinson told me, have all grown up on farms in France and are very well aware of the latest developments in agricultural technology and equipment. With good levels of English, Mr Hoskinson said the only challenge the French students found in working on his Riverina property was an adjustment from paddocks the size of 20 acres in France to ones on Mr Hoskinson's property which are closer to 500 acres. But he could not have completed his harvest without them. He could not have got through it.
Mr Hoskinson paid each of the students and helped them set up bank and superannuation accounts and was also able to help them with the practical components of their agriculture degrees. Overseas skilled labour such as this, Mr Hoskinson said, is mutually beneficial, not just for him and the students but for anyone who consumes Australian produce. And Mr Hoskinson is right. This is an attack on skilled workers. And skilled workers are what makes many Riverina producers able to feed the nation and the world.
We hear a lot from this Labor government about its commitment to food security, to irrigation, to agriculture and to ensuring Australian farmers are competitive within the world market. Indeed, the government recently announced its food plan. I have heard on many occasions the Prime Minister talking about the Asian century. Last year she gave a keynote address at a forum in Melbourne to talk about our unique geographical and climate position to be able to feed the Asian century, to be able to tap into those markets in Asia where they are requiring more protein and where they are requiring more fresh fruit and vegetables—many of which are coming from the Riverina. But we have seen so many times that this Labor government has railed against farming and farmers. We saw it with the live cattle fiasco. We saw it with the Murray-Darling situation, whereby so much of the water that was required for so-called environmental purposes, which would otherwise be used for productive purposes, is now being either stored in the dams or sent down the river and flooding the lower flood plains, and doing nothing really for those supposed water icon sites.
This 457 visa legislation proves just how little the Labor Party actually values farming. It is no wonder that commentators and journalists such as Nick Cater in The Australian on 18 June said:
…the knowledge gap between city and country has never been wider. Fewer Australians have any experience of the gritty reality of farming.
He is right, of course. Like Mr Hoskinson with his advocacy for 457 visa workers on his property, Mr Cater is right in what he says. Not since Federation has a government been so far apart from the reality of farming, what it entails, the value it brings to this nation and the importance of this to put food on the table of Australians and foreigners. All the while, these 457 visas are absolutely critical and necessary to ensuring future production, to ensuring that Australia can take advantage of its unique global position and to ensuring they can take advantage of the clean and green way so farmers, who are the very best environmentalists of the land, can continue to do the work that they have done for generation upon generation.
Any attack—and certainly this is an attack—on skilled workers is an attack on the nation's farmers. Put simply, this legislation is a myopic plan from the Labor Party just trying to shore up votes in the western suburbs of Sydney. Have we not seen that over and again in recent times? This legislation is short-sighted. It is rushed. It is bad for Riverina growers. And when it is bad for Riverina growers I will stand up every time and rail against it, because Riverina growers, just like the good farmers in Wannon, need protection. They need help, and this 457 visa legislation is not doing anything to help and preserve the great integrity of Australian farmers or doing anything to enhance their ability to grow food to feed our nation and to feed other nations. I know the member for Wannon is also very worried about what this legislation will do in his part of the world, as he should be. The minister might be tired of being told he does not have the evidence, but the people of the Riverina and the people of Wannon in regional Victoria are tired of Labor's various plans to recapture their heartland in Western Sydney. Labor have betrayed the people of Western Sydney, as they have betrayed the people of Australia with the carbon tax the Prime Minister said would never be part of a government she led.
This legislation is an affront to the farmers and associated communities of the Riverina. They are good folk. They do not need to be told continually that they are not doing the right thing by the environment or by Australian workers. They are. They have done it for generations, and they will continue to do it so long as they get good public policy from this place—good public policy which has been lacking since 2007. Section 457 visas are the major source of skilled labour for farmers, and that is the reality. Contrary to what Labor would have you believe, there is simply not the required number of workers to make harvests possible for food producers.
We all know that this particular legislation is just kowtowing to union demands. Not only do we know how led by the nose this Labor government is by the union leaders—because most of those opposite have union representation in their DNA and CVs—but we also know that it is not business-friendly. It is certainly not farmer-friendly. All too often we have seen legislation in this place ruled by what those people—those apparatchiks in Sussex Street—say is a good thing for Australia. But it is not a good thing for the Riverina or for regional Australia. It is only the Labor government and its merry band of Green and Independent supporters—who have put agriculture well and truly on the backburner in this parliament—who think that this plan is a good idea. We on this side know that it is not. The 457 visas are designed to provide a quick response to fluctuations in demand for skilled and semiskilled workers. They are not an affront to the virtues of full employment for Australian citizens. They are a critical part of ensuring we can feed the world, and feed it well.
It is not just Mark Hoskinson who uses overseas skilled labour as part of his employment strategy during harvest; it is also many citrus growers in the Riverina. Redfern Citrus in Hillston, which is a large orange and other citrus fruit producer in the west of my electorate, uses 457 visas as part of its business plan. For Redfern Citrus, 457s offer willing employees with skilled labour, which helps during harvest. I stress this point further: the recipients of a 457 visa are willing employees with skilled labour. Why else would this short-sighted and illogical Labor plan be so heavily criticised by industry groups, labour market experts and the Migration Council?
Labor members have come in here and told us this is a plan to put Australians first—and I am not against putting Australians first—and to ensure the 457 visa system is not rorted by unscrupulous individuals. But some facts must be put on the table. In my Riverina electorate, there is simply not the required number of skilled and willing individuals during harvest time, and as such 457 visas for skilled workers become the only option to get the job done. For growers, farmers and associated communities, the 457 visa system is a harvest's backbone. Anyone who knows anything about small rural and regional communities—and you would have to wonder if there is anyone who fits that bill amongst those opposite—knows that, when these farmers are doing well and the seasons are good, times are also good for associated communities. When there is a good harvest—as many are predicting Riverina grain, rice and cotton growers will have this season, for example—local towns also prosper. A better harvest means more money to be spent in the shops, creating more employment and attracting more people to our smaller towns. Harvests in this part of my electorate simply do not happen without skilled labour, much of which is drawn from 457 visas.
So, in a myopic attempt to shore up Western Sydney, the Australian Labor Party—the once great party formed under a tree at Barcaldine, who wanted to make life better for farmers and country towns—has discounted the multiplier effect skilled migration and labour has in many smaller communities. To win a couple of votes in Rooty Hill, the people of Rankins Springs will suffer. To allay concerns in Greenway, it will be the people of Griffith who will bear the brunt.
These changes will increase the levels of regulation and allow inspectors onto properties to ensure compliance with the new bureaucracy this bill seeks to implement. The bill seeks to establish the powers of authorised inspectors, and there will be two types of authorised inspectors: compliance staff from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and workplace inspectors from Fair Work Australia. These will come at a cost of $3.4 million to the Australian taxpayer.
This is a government which should take agriculture seriously. It does not—certainly not by implementing this particular legislation. I think that this legislation needs to be rejected for the sake of rural and regional Australia, which feeds this nation and many others.