House debates

Monday, 24 June 2013


Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013; Second Reading

Photo of Philip RuddockPhilip Ruddock (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Before the member for Hindmarsh leaves the chamber might I—lament the fact that he has now gone! But I will take up the point he was making, frequently, that there are people who have skills who cannot get jobs. They do not always offer their skills where the jobs are, though, and that is one of the major difficulties we have in our society. Very often, employers who wish to engage employees, and want them if they are suitably trained and qualified, find that they are not available in the area in which they are working and they seek people from further afield—and it is more expensive and more difficult to seek people further afield.

I wonder why this matter is being progressed and I wonder why, particularly when I note the amendment moved by member for Cook, the government is continuing to press this matter. I want to take these matters up in some detail, if I may. The amendment calls for the consideration of this bill, the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013, not to be concluded by the House until a:

1. full research report is completed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the true incidence and nature of abuses and non-compliance within the 457 visa program in comparison to other programs to substantiate the requirement for the measures proposed in the bill;

2. full consultation program with industry and other stakeholders has been conducted by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the impacts of the measures contained in the bill; and

3. regulatory impact statement has been completed by the Government in relation to Schedule 2 of the bill relating to the proposed labour market testing regime as required by the Office of Best Practice Regulation and the statement be submitted to the Parliament."

That does not seem unreasonable to me, and yet the matter is being progressed in a period in which we shortly expect to have an election. I would expect that if this matter is being progressed on substantial grounds then the research would have been available and the matter substantiated.

I come to this matter having had an interest over a long period of time in the 457 visa regime. I was in the parliament back in 1995 when a former Labor government commissioned a gentleman whom I know well, Neville Roach, to undertake a study in relation to temporary skilled visas and what the requirement should be. He handed down a report which bears his name, the Roach report, on business temporary entry and it was accepted by the former Labor government. These visa classes were implemented following that recommendation; in fact, the Labor government at the time was strongly of the view that we needed the streamlined access to skilled temporary workers from overseas. Senator Bolkus said in the Senate when he was the minister:

The policy objective for this government is to place Australia, through our rules and regulations in this temporary migration area, in a position to benefit both now and into the future.

He went on to say:

… it is crucial that we ensure smooth movement of key personnel into and out of this country.

That report was accepted, they did not remain in office all that much longer, and I accepted the recommendations and implemented the report. I noted in a speech that I made in the House of Representatives in September 2006 that it was interesting that in the eight years of the operation of the new scheme resulting from that report that the then Labor opposition leader had 'no complaint' at all.

What occurred at a later point in time was that they then started to raise some issues and I might say that that prompted me to look more closely at the way in which the 457 scheme was operating at that time and whether there were really any reasons for complaint. The reality was that, in the economic circumstances of the time, there had been a substantial increase in the number of visas issued, but it has been acknowledged, even in this debate, that there is an ebb and flow in relation to these matters: the more prosperous the economy the greater the need and when there is a downturn it tends to come off. I had to say at that time that in the context of the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, a jobs growth of 180,000 and the longest period of sustained economic growth that we had experienced in Australia, it was not unreasonable to see an increase. I made the point that the visa was demand driven; its size did not fluctuate with the strength of the economy, and I made some comments about research that had been undertaken at that time.

The research showed that the program had been highly positive in its impact on living standards of Australians and the Commonwealth and state budgets. Access Economics had done a considerable amount of work in relation to the visa class and had been able to substantiate those benefits. The sponsored temporary business workers were seen to raise the average productivity of Australian workers. They provided fiscal benefits to the Commonwealth, state and territory budgets. The intake of about 37,100 persons a year—that is, 22,000 principal applicants and their dependants—provided benefits to the standard of living of existing Australian residents of $43 per year. So we can see that this class of visas benefited Australia generally, and I think that is the point that needed to be made. It had brought people to Australia with skills that we needed. The primary resource countries then were the United Kingdom, India and South Africa. Managers, professionals and associate professionals were the largest users of the 457 class and registered nurses were the largest denominated occupation at that time.

So the point that I have made in relation to the scheme as it operated when I was minister, and that was over an eight-year period, was that there were few complaints. There have been something of the order of 6,471 business sponsorships monitored to test their compliance with the sponsored undertakings during 2005-06. Of those, 1,700 business sponsors were also site visited on a basis of targeted risk profiling, and they were random samples. At that period, they found some 15 allegations with four investigations finding that allegations were proven. The department was investigating 200 employers in relation to potential issues of abuse of the 457 class.

It certainly was the case under my stewardship that there was a conscientious checking of the way in which these visas were dealt with. There was no evidence of any substantial abuse. It was seen to be positive and beneficial to the Australian community as a whole. I have had a look at the situation since that time. I noted recently in the work that was done on this matter that the number of applicants for temporary skilled migration had again risen to levels that were much higher than they were before the so-called economic crisis.

In 2010-11, the number of lodgements of 457 primary visa applicants, not including dependants, was 39 per cent higher than the previous year. So with changes in economic circumstances, we have seen that that number again rose—nothing unusual; that is what has happened in the past. We saw that the top industries of primary visa applicants were health and social assistance classes of 13 per cent, other services 12.4 per cent and instruction 12.3 per cent. It seems to me that there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary in relation to those matters.

There have been further reviews. When Kevin Andrews was the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, in 2007 the government announced several reforms to the 457 program, including civil penalties for employers who had breached the law and greater powers for the department and the Office of Workplace Services to investigate. An English language requirement was also introduced into the program in July 2007 to ensure that overseas workers were able to contribute effectively to the workplace.

The point that I make is that it seems quite clear that there was a continuing monitoring of the program to ensure that it was proceeding satisfactorily. In April 2008, even the Labor government announced the establishment of a major review to look into 457 visas—the Deegan review. As part of that, three issues papers were released for comment. The review found that concerns about exploitation of 457 visas was evident to a degree and it recommended a number of changes aimed at improving the system. Those changes were announced by the then minister in 2009. That included a market based minimum salary for all new and existing 457 visa holders from September 2009 to ensure that people were not exploited. It included that conditions were not to be undermined.

Prior to this, 457 visas were required to be paid according to a minimum salary level set by the government which was below market salary rates. It increased the existing minimum language requirements for trade occupations and chefs. It progressively introduced formal skills assessment from 1 July 2009 from high-risk countries as to certain trade occupations such as chefs. It introduced requirements that employers seeking to access the 457 program had a strong record of demonstrated commitment of employing local labour and non-discriminatory employment practices. And there was the development of training benchmarks to clarify existing requirements on employers to demonstrate a commitment to training local labour, and there was the extension of the labour agreement pathway to all ASCO 5 to 7 occupations to ensure employers using the program to access those occupations satisfied obligations of local training and employment.

Why do I mention all these matters? It is because the 457 visa class has been the subject of continuing review and monitoring. One has to ask: why, without any justification, without any inquiry, without any further evidence, after implementing changes recommended by this government as a follow-up to the Deegan report, are we being asked to look at these issues again? It is not unreasonable to ask why this is occurring. I think it is occurring for base political reasons that have very, very little validity.

Acting Deputy Speaker Murphy, I am sure you know that in relation to the government's management of border issues there is a good deal of concern in the community amongst people who have migrated to Australia from a wide range of backgrounds—and they say, 'I came through the front door' or 'I came the right way'—and who ask this question: 'Why are we losing control of our borders and why are a whole lot of people arriving here who have not been through similar processing?' That is the concern that they have. That is the matter that the government ought to be addressing, but the difficulty we have is that they have found no way of substantially dealing with those issues because they are not prepared to adopt the measures that were known to have worked under the Howard government.

What we have seen is the attempt to divert people's attention from those concerns which I believe are real and substantial by creating an issue in relation to 457 visas that does not exist. That is the reason that I believe this legislation should not be supported. The amendment is one that is real because it calls for research before any further changes are adopted. Given the way in which these issues have been dealt with in the past, I do not consider that that is at all unreasonable.


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