Thursday, 20 June 2013
Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013; Second Reading
Suffice it to say that it is quite an extraordinary parliament, isn't it, when we hear the debate that has gone on today in relation to migration, immigration, 457 visas, border control—all of those things generally. Quite frankly we have a Labor government that has excised Australia from Australia, even though back in 2006 some of the very same members were arguing against this position, which I find quite extraordinary. We now have an opposition claiming that the government is demonising foreign workers through the 457 visas. I am speechless, almost, even though it I am on my feet to speak about this issue. If there has ever been a party that has demonised foreign workers, asylum seekers more than the opposition, I would like to see it. This is the party that says, 'We choose who comes here!' They had big posters and signs up around the electorate, and here they are now as the friend of foreign workers!
It is quite extraordinary that this parliament is in such a state that we see both sides making political points rather than looking at what the legislation is, what the real issues here are and what the solutions to them are.
I came to this debate very neutral. I did not have a particular view. I saw the competing arguments, and I think the competing arguments can be summarised pretty much as, 'Are we putting more red tape and regulation and more onerous positions on business by requiring checking and market testing before they get 457 visas?' versus, 'Do we give the benefit of the doubt to an Aussie worker?' That seems to me to be where this debate is and where you draw the line on it. From my position, the benefit of the doubt would always go to the Aussie worker. If that means that a business has to go out there and market-test to see whether there is someone out there who can fill the job, terrific. I think that is a good thing, and I find it extraordinary that we have the opposition out there arguing that this is some huge burden on business. For goodness sake! Can they come up with some better areas of red tape where there are burdens on employers rather than this? It is quite extraordinary that this is a big issue for them in terms of where there is a huge, onerous burden on business. It is just a nonsense of an argument that they have.
What I did, though, was also go out to my electorate and say, 'What's your view on this? These are the competing views.' I represent an electorate that has higher unemployment than most. We are an area that was one of 10 across Australia that the Labor government has recognised as needing extra assistance in terms of employment services to get people back into jobs. So giving Australians—people who live here—the first chance at a job is something that is pretty high on the priority list in my electorate. But I thought I would test it, because it is fair enough to say, 'Is this going to stop people from being employed?' I have not found one person in my electorate who does not think this is a good idea. In fact, what I have found is that most people are stunned that this is not the situation already. So this confected argument that we are having here from the opposition is just a political argument to try to cause political damage to the government. It is not about the issues at all.
I also listened to the member for Lyons. I always listen to the member for Lyons when he gets up to speak, because he often has some very interesting and thoughtful things to say. His argument is that it is not necessary, because there are already regulations that can cover this. That might be the case, but aren't we prepared, on an issue like this, to say that the benefit of the doubt should go to the Australian worker? That is what this is about. Let's go out there and test. If the member for Lyons is right and this legislation goes through, so what?
Honourable members: Lyne.
Lyne. So what? I think the member for Lyons would agree with me too, but he is probably bound by a caucus decision, unlike the member for Lyne. But so what? We then have an extra requirement—not an extraordinarily onerous one—for an employer to market-test. Is this such a heinous imposition that we are going to be putting on employers? I do not think so.
One of the other issues that show why the opposition have taken this as just a political debate is their insistence on trying to categorise this legislation as a piece of union legislation. I know quite a few union officials and have spent some time there. The No. 1 issue for the union movement is not stopping 457 visas. If the government were about trying to put up legislation that was to give a leg-up or a hand-up to the union movement, I do not think the leaders of the ACTU would be rushing there and saying, 'Look, the one thing you can do for us is put up the 457 legislation, because that's a terrific thing that's going to ensure the survival of the union movement for the next 30, 40 or 50 years.' This is just about playing the politics in terms of this.
But what is wrong with a union or the union movement having a view on employment matters? There seems to be a view from the opposition that, because the union movement has a view on employment matters, this is some great conspiracy that is wrapped around the government and is forcing them to take a particular position on this legislation. I think you would expect the union movement to have a position on employment matters, as you would expect the Business Council to have a view in relation to business. What can we expect? That the government will come in here and say: 'Oh my goodness! There's a piece of legislation that the opposition are supporting because the Business Council have said it's a good idea. This is some sort of rort for the Business Council'? This is a ridiculous argument and is an indictment of the way this parliament is now operating: it is just about the politics. We really do need to get back to what is going to work—what is a feasible proposition.
As I said at the start of my contribution, if the choice is between slightly more onerous requirements for employers in terms of market-testing whether there are Australian workers available and giving the benefit of the doubt to Aussie workers having an opportunity for employment that they may lose then surely everyone in this chamber, in the dark hours of the night, with their hand on their heart, would say, 'We should be giving the benefit of the doubt to the Australian worker.' The fact that we are having this argument shows that this place has descended to such a state that we will manufacture arguments entirely for political gain and political purposes, and I think that is terribly sad.
The member for Higgins, in her contribution, also spoke about a labour market needing to be flexible. My view, in terms of government regulation, always is that government should only regulate a market where there is unfairness, potential unfairness or a failure in the market. If you took the position of the member for Higgins through to its conclusion in terms of offering the greatest flexibility, you would not have a Fair Work Commission, you would not have wages that are negotiated in any way collectively. It would be entirely up to the market as to how these things are set.
I am sure there are some on this side who hanker for that to be the actual position but that is not the tradition in Australia. It never has been. The tradition in Australia has been to make sure there is some balance and fairness and that there is a fair go for all. Flexibility always has to be balanced with fairness. The issue of fairness here is making sure that the benefit of the doubt in relation to a potential job is given first to the Australians who work here. I think that is where you balance the fairness in terms of what is there.
In my electorate only last week I was able to secure $2.7 million for a skills centre. There is never a magic bullet for employment issues and getting people back into jobs. I do not think I have heard anyone from the government side in this debate say, 'We tighten up 457 visas, this is nirvana for Australian workers.' But it is part of what needs to be done as in my electorate, where I was able to get $2.7 million for a skills centre which is going to be set up in the Wyong Shire. Young people are going to be given the opportunity that they would not have had without that investment of money to start in a job, trade, apprenticeship or certificate type training on the job at a skills centre.
The reason I go back to my electorate is that it is electorates like mine, which have high unemployment and even higher youth unemployment, which are going to be most unfairly treated if, on balance, the benefit of the doubt does not go to the Australian worker. This legislation is important to that, along with a whole raft of other measures that are needed.
If everyone in this chamber is genuine about this issue, they will say this is not going to fix unemployment, this is not going to do all those sorts of things. But in some cases it will. I had a constituent come and see me last week while I was sounding out my electorate as to what they thought about this legislation. This constituent came in to talk to me about employment in her industry and the use of 457 visas and the effect that it was having on opportunities for young Central Coast workers. Her view quite clearly was that things like giving the benefit of the doubt first to the Australian worker—making sure that employers first test to see if any are available—are some of the most important things that can be done.
I came to this debate without a view but have gone to the electorate, have spoken to people and taken the position that I would support this legislation and then, as more and people spoke to me quite strongly about their position in this, felt that I needed also to contribute to the debate. I have been horrified at the standard of argument that we have had from the opposition on this issue. I do not have an issue with them if the whole argument that is being put is this is going to cause all sorts of terrible issues for the employer. Make that case out, run that argument. I do not even have a problem with the argument of flexibility. Let us just argue where that line is drawn. But this absolute nonsense that we are getting that this is some sort of union plot to fix up declining union membership is just an absolute nonsense. This opposition can never stand in this place or any place else and say, 'We are worried about the demonisation of foreign workers,' given their consistent position—one that has been followed by this side of the House as well—on asylum seekers. This is not groundbreaking legislation, but it is important legislation, and it is legislation that should be supported.
I rise to follow the member for Dobell in this debate. I remind the member that he left the Labor Party and the government to sit as an Independent in this place because of his view that the government is not a competent government and it does not meet the standards that the Australian people expect of governance in Australia today. This Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 is yet another example of that.
Not only have we heard this ridiculous contention that 547 visas or skilled migration workers are taking Australian jobs but we have also heard a minister and a government deceitfully claim figures that do not exist and arguments that are not real in an attempt to pit Australian against Australian. We see from the member for Dobell a false argument in the sense that he says, 'Well, in the immigration program, asylum seekers are not being dealt with fairly yet we are allowing skilled migrant to come to this country.' It is true to say that most of the Australian population felt most confident about our immigration regime at the height of the Howard government's successful border protection regime. That is what all the statistics show. People felt most confident about immigration in this country and our immigration program which was substantially increased, especially in the categories of skilled migration, when the government had effective control of the borders and who came here. That is the best way to build confidence in your migration program.
The 457 visas in this Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 were introduced in 1996 in the Howard government. They are there to meet shortages and skills gaps in industries that exist today—gaps that have to be filled to enable companies, corporations and businesses to meet the demand in the economy at the moment. It is not a solution to say we will train people up for these jobs, because the demands are there now. Filling those demands with skilled migrants does not take away Australian jobs. Filling those demands with skilled migrants from overseas allows those businesses to continue to succeed, which creates more jobs, more wealth and more prosperity right now.
So this fallacious argument from the government that this is about taking Australian jobs bells the cat about what is really going on with this legislation. It is of course the unions behind this legislation. We are in the last days of a government—a very bad government, one that I think many people would acknowledge is the singular worst government in Australian history and probably for many decades and centuries to come—in this parliament. It is so bad that in the last days of this parliament and, potentially, of this government, all we see is legislation designed to try to get a poll bounce—measures implemented to cement unions in leadership struggles, which unions on which leader's side in the Labor Party.
The victim, of course, is the integrity of the Australian immigration program. We want skilled migrants to come to this country. We want businesses to have flexibility in the migration program to be able to say: 'We can't fill this category of worker right now. We need to grab some from overseas to keep our business and our projects going.' It works well. The government has made no substantive case for why it is not working well. Of course there will be abuses of any single migration category. Of course there will be problems. But then what do the government say to their own measures which have reduced the amount of money available for compliance in their budget cuts? On one hand they have cut money available for DIAC's compliance and on the other they have said, 'Well, there are some abuses going on, so therefore we need to change the system.'
The coalition has said quite separately that we will take and support any measure that improves the integrity of the system. That is our position. But we know what is going on here and what the government is all about. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship came forward and said there had been 10,000 cases—he put a figure on it—suggesting that he had some detailed evidence provided to him by inquiry, the Migration Council, somebody or anybody. He was then and is now unable to substantiate 10,000 abuses. It suggests that the government clearly has this very wrong and there is no evidence to support such claims.
The government's approach has been strongly criticised. It has been criticised rightly by industry groups, who need flexibility to keep our economy turning over; labour market experts; the Migration Council of Australia; and the government's own advisers. Everyone states there is no evidence to back up widespread rorting claims being made. If the government were serious about this matter or training people up to meet skills shortages in the economy, they would be addressing the VET sector. They would be addressing how we spend money in education and training. They would be doing those things in a coherent and proper way to ensure we have greater capacity and more people trained up in areas of skills shortages for the future. It is not really a valid approach to do what they are doing—to undermine the integrity of the migration system and the immigration process in Australia.
Their language and rhetoric have been so inflated and conflated, but I guess that is situation normal for this government. Everything has to be the biggest. Everything has to be the most historic initiative. The rorts have to be the most widespread we have ever seen. It has to be 10,000; it cannot be 1,000. It must be huge. It must be bigger. If you can think big, you have to think very big. And of course they failed to achieve all of their benchmarks and their initiatives because the scope of what they set out to do is completely wrong. The scope of what they are setting out to do in this bill is again pretty wrong.
We support robust integrity in the 457 program and we support measures that would strengthen the problem. But, in an attempt to justify the comments, Minister O'Connor referred in the House to a Department of Immigration and Citizenship document on strengthening the integrity of the 457 program. The document the minister referred to, of course, did not show any widespread abuses or rorters. I have heard many members of the Labor Party refer to these problems as small. I was on Lunchtime Agenda yesterday with Senator Lisa Singh from the Labor Party, and she referred to this problem as 'a minor problem with 457 visas'. I think she understood that she had made an error in the Labor Party dogmatic system by saying something out of the prescribed form of words, as she sought to correct it, but she saw it as of a minor nature.
Senator Lisa Singh is a Tasmanian senator of Indian descent. I know that she may consider this to be a problem of a minor nature because the figures about 457 grants are quite interesting. The biggest growth in 457 visas being granted in Australia today—of the top 15 citizenship countries for primary applications in 2012-13—is from India. That is about 20.5 per cent. I know, coming from Western Sydney, that there are seats across Western Sydney that deeply resent this bill and the implications of the government in putting this bill forward. They are somehow doing the wrong thing. Just because we are sourcing people from India and other places to fill skills shortages in our economy, the government is now saying those people are taking Australian jobs. Each one of those people I meet, whether it be in Lindsay, Chifley, Parramatta—all these seats across Western Sydney—are working very hard. They are model migrants. They are the kinds of people you want to come to this country, that work for a living, generating an income.
I find that people's biggest and deepest concern about the migration program here in Australia is that, when people come here, they will end up on the welfare system, not making a contribution. So what is the setting that this government wants to send to all of those migrants from India coming here and working so hard in places like Western Sydney? We do not want them to end up on the welfare program; we want them to work for a living. We want them to be part of the great story of skilled migration to this country that has benefited our country so overwhelmingly with the new skills, talents and mix of people from around the world. And working, of course, is the best way to validate the integrity of the migration system.
But from the government we have this dog-whistling on the behalf of the unions to suggest that these people are somehow doing the wrong thing. They are not taking Australian jobs; they are contributing to the Australian economy and to keeping the ability of business to have flexibility. That is where the arguments of the Labor Party and the member for Dobell in this place, I think, come a cropper, because they argue that this is about a secret industrial relations agenda and that this is somehow stealing Australian jobs, but also allowing for flexibility in the workplace.
You cannot argue that there should not be any flexibility for business in the Australian industrial relations system and then deny businesses the ability to meet workplace shortages in our economy. We have to meet these shortages. If these businesses do not meet these shortages and are unable to keep projects going in our country, all of us will suffer, there will be less employment for all Australians and there will be less prosperity.
The provisions of this bill and the concerns articulated by the government are deeply troubling for the coalition. We supported the 457 skilled migration visa system, and it has worked very well. It has worked well from an industry point of view. It has worked well from the Migration Council's point of view. It has worked well for all Australians and it has not attempted, in any way, to detract from Australian employment. In fact, you could argue overwhelmingly that it has enhanced employment and increased employment opportunity for Australians, as well as provided for skilled migrants to come to this country.
Once again from the government, we see this attempt to divide Australians—this awful and pathetic attempt to say that, just because you have come from overseas to work in a skilled migration spot, somehow you have taken an Australian job. I reject that notion.
You can go to any part of Western Sydney and find communities who have come here on skilled visas and ended up migrating here legally and lawfully. They are welcome because they contribute to our society. They contribute not just through their skilled migration visa when they are meeting a worker shortage but in a meaningful way as a part of the depth and breadth of our community.
If the government could get the borders under control and rein in the arrival of illegal people by boat, there would be a lot more confidence in our migration system generally. But what a government should not do at any time is seek to actively undermined confidence in the migration system and immigration. We are a nation of immigrants. We rely on migration, and skilled migration is overwhelmingly the best system for Australia to meet its workplace shortages.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this bill and I commend the previous speaker for his contribution. Australia is a country of migrants—we always have been; we always will be. Ever since the First Fleet turned up in 1788, we have been a nation of immigrants.
The people who drove the bullet trains across the Blue Mountains were not born in this country. The people who herded the sheep and cattle on our great plains were not, by and large, born in this country. Some of the Aboriginal stockman were, but, by and large, the people who developed our great pastoral industries in the 19th century were not Australian-born. The people who came to this country in the 1850s and the 1860s to develop the mining industry were not born here. But they became absolutely outstanding Australian, because they came to this country with a dream to build a better future for them and their children. They saw this country as a great land of opportunity. It was then; it is today.
The marvellous thing about this country of ours, almost unique across the world, is that people have come to this country from an extraordinary diversity of backgrounds, cultures, races and religions and made a home here. They have contributed to the richness of a diverse, yet cohesive, society. This is almost unique in the countries of the world. People have come here and left their antagonisms behind because of the gravitational pull of our culture and because of the genial quality of the Australian way. It is a heroic dimension to our national life, and long may it continue.
Six million of us were born overseas, but those six million came to this country to make a life, to work hard and to build a nation. The thing which is troubling about this legislation and the messages that we are getting from senior members of the current government is this suggestion that people who come to this country to work and to pay taxes are somehow stealing our jobs. This is a contemptible suggestion. It is a contemptible and false suggestion. People who come to this country to work and pay taxes from day 1 are not stealing our jobs, they are building our nation. That is what they are doing. That is why the coalition is so concerned about this bill and the general messages that we are getting from the government on this issue.
It has not always been this way. When the previous minister, Mr Bowen, was the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, he quite rightly praised skilled immigration. In the middle of 2011 he said:
And anyone who tries to tell you the 457 visa program is not working, needs to take another look at the facts.
That is what I respectfully suggest that members opposite should do: take another look at the facts. The facts are that this program has been good for Australia. It was good for Australia when the Howard government started it; it was good for Australia when the current government continued it. It was good for Australia then; it is good for Australia now, and it should not be tampered with or undermined by members opposite.
But we all know why this is happening. It is happening because this government has a political problem. So never mind the facts; never mind that everyone who has seriously looked at this knows that the system is working well and if there are one or two problems or abuses they can be sorted out in the normal course of events; never mind that this government which is now complaining about 457 visa entrance has actually increased 457 visa entrant numbers to an all-time record in the last financial year of some 120,000. Never mind the facts, the government has got a political problem. So what do they do? Yet again, they look for someone to blame. They look for more people to demonise in their attempt to hold onto office. Yes, this government has a serious political problem on its hands. It is the border protection disaster, which has meant that since August 2008 we have had more than 700 illegal boats and more than 44,000 illegal arrivals by boats, a problem that this government cannot solve, a problem that this government has effectively surrendered to the people smugglers.
So what do they do? They could address the real problem, but instead they have decided to raise a false problem. Instead of tackling the real problem of boat people and people smuggling, they are attacking the false problem of people here on 457 visas. They cannot get tough on illegal arrivals by boat so they have decided to get tough on legal arrivals by plane. They cannot stop people coming to this country illegally and unsafely by boat so they are going to get tough on people coming to this country legally and safely, and working and paying taxes from day one. It is a shame.
It is a tragedy for our country that we have come to such a pass under such a government. What this government is doing is so transparent. That is why Dr Peter McDonald, one of our leading demographers and a long-time adviser to governments including this government, has described what the government is doing here as 'nasty'. That is why one of the honourable members opposite—and I do mean honourable member opposite—the member for Hotham, Simon Crean, has said that what the government is doing here is simply 'dog-whistling'. And I say to the minister at the table, a decent man: surely, if the Prime Minister is not better than this, you ought to be better than this and the government should not be further proceeding down this embarrassing path.
It is not just the fact that the government is dog-whistling, as the member for Hotham says; it is not just the fact that the government is addressing a non-problem, there is also the element of hypocrisy here—complete hypocrisy. I have got nothing against the Prime Minister having someone working in her own office on a 457 visa. If he is the only person who can do the job, fair enough, and for all I know, there was not a single Australian capable of giving adequate political advice to the current Prime Minister. For all I know, not a single Australian wanted the job. So I have got absolutely nothing against the Prime Minister having someone in her office on a 457 visa. I do not say that that person is stealing the job of an Australian. I assume that that person is making a unique and special contribution to our country. But, if it is right in the Prime Minister's office, why is it not right for the other employers in this country? If the Prime Minister did not have to advertise, if the Prime Minister did not have to engage in six months of labour-market testing, why should every other employer in this country? It is wrong in principle, it is demonising decent Australians and yet again it is illustrating the hypocrisy of this Prime Minister.
The first law of good government is 'govern for all Australians'. The first rule for anyone who would be Prime Minister of this country is that you have to grow in the job. It is all right being a tribal chief as a party leader, but once you become the Prime Minister of this country, you have to be a leader for our nation; you have to be a Prime Minister for all of us. And that is the problem with this Prime Minister. Whatever lip-service she might have paid to this notion in practice—whenever it has served her political purposes to divide our nation, whether it is on the basis of class, gender and now country of birth—she has taken that path. It is just not good enough.
We saw about 15 years ago a member of this parliament set out to divide this country. We saw a member of this parliament set out to make perfectly decent Australians feel like strangers in their own country, and I never thought I would see the day when it would not just be an independent member of parliament, a disendorsed member of a political party, but the Prime Minister of this country setting out to deliberately divide Australian from Australian to serve a political purpose. It is an embarrassment. That is the best you can say about it, that it is an embarrassment. Many people right around this country are saying that it is worse than that. Members opposite are saying that it is worse than that, and who knows what action they might take to try to ensure that we do not for very much longer have a Prime Minister who is deliberately setting out to divide our country.
It was the great Dr Johnson who said a long time ago that 'patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel'. Everyone in this chamber, including the Prime Minister, loves our country. But true love for this country is expressed by trying to unite us, not by setting out to divide us. True love for our country, true patriotism, means putting the nation first. That is what it means; not trying desperately to cling to office using ever more desperate stratagems to cling to office, as this Prime Minister is now. This bill is yet another manifestation of the desperate stratagems that this Prime Minister has sunk to in her desire to cling to office. This bill is false patriotism from a failing government, and that is why it should not be proceeded with.
The people of this country appreciate that which has made us what we are. The people of this country understand that our people have come from everywhere, and what unites them now is a desire to work together to build a better Australia. We appreciate our debt to the migrants of this country. We welcome everyone who is prepared to come to this country the right way; to join the team, to work and to pay taxes from day 1. Never, never, never, will you find from this coalition any attempt to say that there are first-class and second-class Australians: first-class Australians who were born here; second-class Australians who were not. I am proud of the diversity of this coalition. I am proud of the fact that we are embracing the Australian people, regardless of background, religion and regardless of where they have come from. I humbly submit to members opposite that it is not too late for them to stand up for decency and do the same.
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.
I rise to speak against the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. Firstly, what is the need for this bill? We have heard the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship claim that there were 10,000 rorts in the 457 visa. What an embarrassment! The minister has had to admit that he simply plucked that figure out of thin air. What sort of hopeless minister makes up figures without any evidence? Perhaps the minister for immigration has taken inspiration from the Treasurer, because that is how it seems this government works with so many things, and now the minister for immigration is simply plucking numbers out of thin air with no evidence.
The other reason we should be opposed to this bill is because of what the government has previously said. I would like to look at a few quotes from the former immigration minister, the honourable member for McMahon. In July 2011, the honourable member for McMahon, as the former immigration minister, said:
And anyone who tries to tell you the 457 visa program is not working, needs to take another look at the facts.
That is what the former immigration minister said. And here this government is telling us it is not working and that we need to change the legislation. The former immigration minister went further and in November 2011 he said:
… the temporary skilled migration program, the 457 visa, continues to play a vital role in supporting business and meeting immediate skills gaps.
These skilled workers are employed across a great variety of industries and work in many different occupations. The program has become international best practice …
International best practice!And yet this government wants to completely change the legislation. Further, in March last year, the former immigration minister said:
… statistics clearly show that the 457 visa program is working extremely well …
He went on in May, last year:
Skilled migrants are increasingly moving to growth regions and places where there is demand—they are complementing rather than competing with our domestic labour force
Complementing rather than competing with—the minister was right. He went on in September last year:
The 457 visa allows businesses to employ overseas workers in designated skills occupations only. The program cannot be used by business as a substitute for training and employing Australian workers.
Again, the minister is right. In January this year, the former immigration minister said:
The 457 visa program is designed to address genuine labour shortages that cannot be met from the Australian labour market and we believe we have this balance right.
I believe that the honourable member for McMahon had it right. I hope that he carefully considers his vote, when it comes, on this bill. If the honourable member for McMahon votes with this bill, he will be saying that everything he said as a minister was hopelessly wrong. I hope he considers his vote, stands up and does the right thing and sticks by his words.
Another reason to speak against this bill is because of what the industry groups have said. An unprecedented letter, a joint letter signed by the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the Migration Council Australia has warned against this legislation, and I quote directly from their letter:
We are greatly concerned by the lack of supporting evidence, damaging rhetoric and poor process associated with the proposed changes to the 457 visa scheme, along with the considerable risks posed for investment, job creation and economic growth.
… … …
The legislation risks undermining the capacity to fill identified skills gaps in a timely way without a proper assessment of whether there is a genuine problem to be solved.
The letter goes on:
The new regulations will reduce flexibility and waste time and resources for no discernible benefit.
Further, this legislation:
… will only serve to work against business investment and economic growth.
In this time, of all economic times, how can we bring legislation to this parliament that we are being warned by the leading industry groups will work against business investment and against economic growth? The letter concludes:
The unsubstantiated assertions and unhelpful and damaging rhetoric associated with the 457 scheme and this Bill are unwarranted and have been harmful to Australia's international reputation and business confidence. At a time when Australia ought to be pulling out all stops to ensure the economy is firing strongly on all fronts—which means being able to fill critical skills needs in a timely and efficient way—we should not be rushed into major labour market changes which risk discouraging investment, job creation and economic growth.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I put it to you: given the comments in that letter by the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the Migration Council Australia, this legislation should not and cannot pass this parliament.
Another argument against this bill is the refusal of the government to produce a regulatory impact statement. The reason we have that provision for legislation that is brought to this parliament is to ensure that our legislation is given due and proper consideration before it passes. Given the long, long list of this government's failures, with policy mistake after policy mistake, you would think the very last thing this government would do is abandon a regulatory impact statement, but that is exactly what this bill does.
So why is the government bringing this bill in? Why are we going down this track when industry tells us there is so much risk to the economy? We know why. It is simply a distraction and an diversion—one of those tricks: 'Look over there!'—hoping that the public take their eyes off the problems we have on our border. We are currently averaging 100 people a day arriving on boats. Just this year alone, we have seen 12,700 people arrive on unauthorised boats. That is three times the number for the same period last year. This problem is getting worse—and dramatically worse. In total, over 44,600 people have arrived on boats under Labor's failed policy. That is more than we can fit into the Sydney Cricket Ground. So we come up with this diversion to take the public's attention off the enormous problems and this government's failure; we come up with this legislation and the rhetoric, trying to demonise foreign workers, claiming that they are stealing Aussie jobs.
The government wants to demonise foreign workers and skilled migrants—these industrious new members of our society, people who pay their taxes, create wealth, help our businesses to win export contracts, which greatly contribute to our economy, and pay for their own health care. The government wants to attack those people and in the meantime is releasing tens of thousands of people into our community—people who have paid people smugglers to get to this country, having arrived without any documentation, are being released into our community. They are not allowed to work and not allowed to contribute to our society but are forced to sit around all day, drawing on social welfare and straining local health resources. Is there any clearer indication how wrong and muddleheaded, and how detrimental to our national interest, the policies of this government are?
Then there is the complete hypocrisy of this bill. We know that the Prime Minister's communications director is employed on a 457 visa. I have heard members on my side ask the questions: did the Prime Minister advertise widely for this job and for how long? What market testing did the Prime Minister do? I would like to defend the Prime Minister, because I believe there is simply no other Australian that could possibly fulfil this role in her office. Who could have thought up the genius of orchestrating the Australia Day riots? What mastermind would it take to have dreamt up the PM's Contiki tour of Western Sydney, staying at good old Rooty Hill? And what brilliance did it take to envisage the PM's attack last week on men wearing blue ties? Clearly, no Australian could come up with such genius policies in communications, so the PM's office rightly needed to employ someone on a 457 visa. Or perhaps, given that everything this government does turns to mud, there is no-one else, no other Australian in our nation, prepared to do the job.
What really concerns me in this debate are the arguments put forward by those on the other side, arguments simply based on a delusional socialist ideology that there are a limited number of jobs in the economy, all of which are somehow centrally planned and coordinated by all-knowing bureaucrats based here in Canberra. That delusion led them to believe that somehow when a skilled worker migrates to Australia and contributes to our economy, they are displacing an Australian worker. What the government does not understand is that jobs are created in our economy by entrepreneurs and risk-takers and that they are created by small, medium and large business in the private sector. When the business employs a skilled worker from overseas, they are not taking jobs—the opposite—they are creating wealth and thereby creating more employment and more wealth and more funds flowing from the taxpayers into government's central revenue in Australia. It is a good plan for Australia. So this proposed legislation which is being rushed through without the proper consultation will simply tie these businesses up with more red tape. It gives them a disincentive to go out and take that risk. In doing so, you are not protecting Australian jobs; you are doing the exact opposite. This legislation will destroy Australian jobs. It will make fewer employment opportunities.
Not only is this legislation based on faulty ideology, not only is it dangerous to our nation's economic prosperity, its true danger is its danger to our nation's social cohesiveness. To falsely, misleadingly and mistakenly frame this debate as one of Aussie workers versus foreign skilled workers is a very dangerous track for this nation to head down.
In the short time I have left, the other reason this legislation must be opposed is the so-called 'market testing'. It is no wonder. We have a government on the other side that is completely dominated by trade union officials. How many members of this government have actually gone out there in a competitive market, taken on a contract to supply goods and services within a tight time frame, and faced the risk of liquidated damages if there was any delay? How many members of this government actually understand what it is like to be in business and to risk their own capital? I would say none.
Maybe in some centrally-controlled Canberra bureaucracy where you can sit around for six months and undertake a six-month market testing regime, you can do it, but the private sector does not have this luxury. If we bring this legislation in, it ties business up in red tape. It will cost jobs.
In conclusion, the coalition will not and cannot support this bill. We are seeking its referral to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. The coalition members remain consistent on our policies on 457 visas, and will be strong on policing our immigration laws, our borders, the community and the workplace. We oppose this appalling legislation.
I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 following the terrific contribution from the member for Hughes, who summarised the coalition's position very clearly. I will seek to add, the best way I can, to his contribution and to those of the other coalition members who have spoken in this debate.
This is a horrific piece of legislation. It is being driven through in the second-last week of the parliament, which is scheduled to end this time next week. Of course there are all sorts of shenanigans going on around the offices at the moment. Who knows how it will play out this time next week? This is an attempt to divert the Australian people from the real challenges that we have in our economy, the real cost of doing business. They are challenges that are really starting to drive some major negatives in our economy.
In South Australia we are seeing investment that should be going ahead being withdrawn. The most obvious example is the Olympic Dam project, which did not go ahead last year, and which, sadly, has been put on the backburner by BHP because the cost of doing business in Australia is now too high. Daily we see events in the manufacturing industry and in the car industry affecting South Australia's Holden plant. We saw the managing director of Holden Australia out there yesterday explaining that the costs of doing business in Australia are too high. Yet you see this government at the end of this term of parliament—it may be re-elected in 86 days if it gets that far; the Australian people have a choice in that time—seeking to push through legislation which will have a terribly detrimental effect on our economy.
If you go back to the genesis of this, it was some time ago when we were under the stewardship in the immigration portfolio of the member for McMahon. The member for McMahon approved a migration agreement under the Immigration Act relating to a proposed mining development in Western Australia, which was a company owned by Gina Rinehart, who some, not all, of those on the other side seek to demonise most days in this place—only some seek to demonise people who create wealth and opportunity in our country. Ms Rinehart's company sought a migration agreement to develop a very significant project in Western Australia, which—I could be wrong here—I understand has in recent days been wound back in scale because of the cost of doing business in Australia. We will lose those opportunities there because of that.
At the time when the migration agreement was sought—I am not in the government but I understand the negotiations for this migration agreement went on for some time with the then minister for resources, the member for Batman; the minister for immigration, the now member for McMahon; and the companies involved. When this was announced—I think it was a Friday at the end of a sitting week—it just happened to be a day that the ACTU was in town meeting with the Prime Minister. There was faux outrage everywhere. Faux outrage was on the menu in the Prime Minister's office that day. There was a series of meetings and much hand-wringing. How could the ministers sign up to such a terrible agreement to develop this resource body and create all this opportunity and wealth for our country? It was a terrible thing for them to bring all these workers in who were not available in Australia after all the testing had been done, after all the negotiations with the minister. It was not even to bring foreign workers in but to give them the ability to bring foreign workers in if they needed to.
I could be wrong, and I am happy to be corrected by members of the other side, but I think that is when this issue started to become the political issue that has now landed some 86 days prior to an election. The member for McMahon, when he was the minister, was extremely positive about the impact of the skilled migration program; he was, it is fair to say, a proponent of it. It is very interesting that these changes have been ushered in since the member for McMahon left the immigration portfolio, and not long after that he was not sacked but I think it is fair to say that if he had not handed in his resignation he would have had his commission withdrawn, given the events around the leadership issue in March. The member for McMahon's record in the immigration portfolio I would not argue has been a strong one. I did not agree with the member for McMahon breaking the promise not to have onshore detention facilities, including one in my electorate, as you well know, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was, and still am, quite disappointed that the member for McMahon broke that election commitment and that a facility was established at Inverbrackie after the last election.
But I think the member for McMahon is bigger than the campaign that is now being waged on these workers. And it is interesting that a former immigration minister who had carriage of this issue for a large part of this Labor government, certainly for the Gillard government, is silent when this bill is presented. Again you have to ask: why would that be? When the member for McMahon was the immigration minister at a time when the vast bulk, presumably, of the 10,000 'problems' with this system have developed, why would he not feel compelled to make a contribution in this debate? He may have made a contribution elsewhere but I have not seen it. I suspect it is because he thinks it is exactly what the member for Canning said in his contribution yesterday: it is about trying to divide Australians. It is trying to target a group for political purposes. Since many of those on the other side have for many years claimed that such activities happened under the coalition, this sits high on the hypocrisy scale.
From a South Australian perspective, the 457 program is very important, including for businesses in my electorate. For instance, there are meatworks in my electorate at Lobethal who use 457 workers and they are an extremely important part of that business. For that industry, which has struggled to attract skilled people within the country to operate abattoirs, it is a very important program indeed. I know those employers are very concerned about this attack on the 457 program. I have seen them in recent days and they are extremely concerned about what the government is doing.
But it is not just private sector employers who are big users of this program. It might shock you to know, Mr Deputy Speaker, who is the biggest user of 457 visas in South Australia. According to a story on the front page of The Australian on 5 April this year by Sarah Martin, a diligent reporter in Adelaide, the biggest user of 457s in South Australia is the South Australian Labor government. It is a bit odd, you would have thought, given this program is such a bad program and has been rorted so excessively, that a state government is the biggest user in South Australia and, for that matter, in Tasmania too. Interestingly, Tasmania also has a Labor government—in fact, a Labor-Green government. So the 457 program has obviously been rorted so badly the South Australian government thinks it is a good idea to get in on the act. Obviously that is what it is; maybe they are part of the rorting. The hypocrisy has been pointed out by numerous members in this debate and in question time in recent days. It is not enough for the Prime Minister herself to have a 457 visa worker as her so-called political adviser, if that is what you could call him; it is also state Labor governments who think using this program is a good idea.
It is a good idea in certain circumstances, because the protections around the system which have been in place for some time now—for many years, in fact—do work. They mean that if a worker cannot be found for a certain job after a company has gone through the required amount of diligence to find an available Australian worker then they can seek a relevant skilled person from elsewhere. If it is such an easy thing for companies to do, then why, after all the effort and the requirements and the costs associated with bringing people from overseas and having to pay them the same wages, the market rates, would it be in the employers' interests to rort the system? There is no justifiable or simple explanation for why all of a sudden, in the last few months leading up to an election, this has become a major challenge in the Australian employment market—except for one thing.
There is one group in the Australian economy who has consistently disliked the use of 457 visa workers. When I had some involvement with this in the former government, as an employed staff member in a Prime Minister's office, I found there was one group who was always opposed to the use of 457 workers. It has been mentioned in this place and it is the trade union movement. The trade union movement has been opposed to the use of 457 visas for a very long time. The CFMEU, the most militant of the unions, has been leading the campaign to demonise these workers for a very long time. They have been opposed to 457s for a very long time because the unions do not argue for economic growth anymore. There was a time in the past, when people like the member for Batman and the member for Hotham were involved in the trade union movement, when they did. But they do not argue for economic growth anymore; they argue for their internal interests. They argue for their members' interests, not for the broader economic interests of our country. They are for the insiders. They are not for growing our economy. They are for protecting what is there. That is their modus operandi. That is what this is all about.
Paul Howes, the not-so-faceless man, has just been on national television reassuring the world that he still has support for the Prime Minister. He has just put his head up—as if the Prime Minister's day could not get any worse; Paul Howes has found a way—and been on television telling the world that he still supports the Prime Minister. This is what it is all about. The minister for immigration was put in the portfolio because he has a very close relationship with the CFMEU, who the Prime Minister is extraordinarily reliant on for the continuation of her prime ministership.
That is exactly what this bill is about. This bill is not about economic reform. It is not about reducing the costs of doing business in our country. This bill is about the politics of the Labor leadership. This bill is about ensuring that the Prime Minister continues to have the support of the big union bosses who can influence those who have a vote in the Labor caucus. It will be very interesting to see whether that influence lasts for seven days because it might be one thing to have your preselection threatened when you are going to win your seat but it is another thing to have your preselection threatened when you might not have a seat at all.
That is exactly what I am doing. I am debating: what is the intention of this bill? What is the reason for this bill and all? With all the 40-odd pieces of legislation still to pass this House of Representatives, why is this the No. 1 priority? It is not because of good economic reform. It is not because there is some startling problem in the employment market relating to 457 visa workers. The only problem in the employment market is the security that the Prime Minister has for her own job. She needs every protection that is in Bill Shorten's fair dismissal code in the next seven days, because this is a crude attempt to hold onto the prime ministership of Australia, which will do damage to our country, damage to our economy, is unnecessary and should be withdrawn before it passes the parliament. We do not support this. It is a bad piece of legislation.
I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. This is a protectionist bill. This bill is about protectionism in the labour markets at the behest of the unions, pursuing an agenda which they have been following for many years. It is also about another form of protectionism: trying to protect a vulnerable Prime Minister attempting to shore up the support of the union movement and the caucus members in this parliament, whose votes are determined in accordance with directions from the union movement. In an attempt to secure the support of the union movement, the Prime Minister and her government are introducing a poor piece of policy which is fundamentally protectionist in the way that it operates.
This is a bill which has been introduced in response to pressure from the union movement. It is not a bill which seeks to address a question of economic policy which is in the interest of Australia as a whole. It is a bill which contains a series of flawed and ill-judged measures. In particular, it will require employers who wish to sponsor 457 visa holders—that is, those who wish to bring into Australia workers with skills which they are unable to find in the Australian market—to go through what is called labour-market testing, which in reality is a series of onerous, detailed, expensive and time-consuming barriers to the use of this visa class. Another objectionable measure in this bill is to create yet another class of inspectors who are able to knock on the door of employers all around the country and come in and check what is going on.
In the time available to me today I want to make three points about this bill. Firstly, it is driven by one objective and one objective only, which is to respond to the demands and the sectional agenda of the union movement. Secondly, I want to argue that it is a piece of poor policy which in turn reflects very poor process, because this bill has been rushed through with little detailed investigation of the issues, little consultation with stakeholders apart from the union movement and little analysis justifying the purported benefits. Thirdly, as a consequence of these factors, this is a bill which is likely to do serious economic damage.
Let us start with the proposition that the motivation for this bill being before the House today is to respond to the protectionist agenda of the union movement. Of course, if you are a union boss, you quite like the idea that you are able to block certain classes of people coming into the country. You quite like the idea that you are able to run simplistic arguments about restricting people coming in from overseas who, in the rhetoric, will 'take Aussie jobs'. Of course that appeals to the narrow and sectional interests of union leaders. The point that I seek to demonstrate is that it is that agenda which is being reflected in the bill that the government has put before the chamber today.
I look, for example, at policy item No. 8 in the policy statement issued as part of the ACTU 2012 congress:
Congress believes that rigorous labour market testing requirements must be implemented for all elements of the skilled migration program to ensure that overseas workers are not brought to Australia where there is labour available locally …
I look to a statement by the national construction secretary of the CFMEU, one of Australia's largest, most militant and most influential unions:
Mr Noonan said that everyone should be concerned that the proportion of 457 visas granted onshore to overseas workers already in Australia had grown from 43% to 51% in the last 12 months …
I quote from the submission by the Australian Workers' Union in December 2011 to the Migration Program consultations being conducted for 2012-13. The Australian Workers' Union had this to say in their submission:
It is clear that the increased projected use of 457 may lead to a lack of opportunity for local applicants to participate in the labour market. The AWU has long supported measures that adequately test whether there is a true need for particular skills to be imported at a point in time.
There is ample evidence that imposing greater restrictions on 457 visas and imposing a labour market-testing requirement is something that the union movement has been seeking to achieve for a long time, and I have cited several statements from union leaders and union organisations supporting that proposition.
That is the reason why this parliament is considering the bill today. The parliament is considering this bill today because this particular restriction on the tightening of section 457 visas has long been at the top of the agenda of the union movement. It has nothing to do with good economic policy, it has nothing to do with whether it serves the interests of the Australian nation and the Australian workforce as a whole and it has everything to do with whether it is part of the agenda of the union movement and whether, in turn, a Prime Minister who is desperately in need of protection has chosen to leap on this particular issue to give effect to the protectionist agenda of the union movement.
Secondly, I want to turn to the proposition that in substance the measures before the House contained in this bill represent poor policy and, in turn, that that reflects a very poor process, with inadequate consultation and inadequate investigation of the substantive issues. I note first of all that this bill has been granted an exemption from the normal requirement to have a regulatory impact statement. Yet again we see this government running through normal process requirements and disregarding them, and it generally does that when it has something to hide. We can, I think, infer quite confidently from the fact that the Prime Minister has chosen to waive the requirement for a regulatory impact statement the expectation that if such a statement were to be prepared what it would have to say would not be terribly favourable to the cause.
This parliament, this House, ought properly to be suspicious of any piece of legislation which is put forward and which is not supported by a regulatory impact statement. The suspicion that if such a statement existed it would not aid the cause is reinforced when you look at the clear gap in evidence underlying the stated reason for the bill which is before the House this afternoon. This, of course, is an area where we have seen the inglorious episode of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship publicly claiming that there have been up to 10,000 cases of abuse in the section 457 visa program and yet he subsequently had to admit that he had made those numbers up. He could produce no evidence—no substantiation—for that particular claim. Indeed, the government's own advisers say that there is no evidence of this claim that there is in some way widespread rorting of the section 457 visa skilled migration program.
Demographer, Professor Peter McDonald, who is a member of the government's Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, has described the Prime Minister's rhetoric on this particular issue as 'nasty'. When you think about the problem, which we are told by the union movement and by Labor politicians is widespread, and when you compare it to the remedy contained in this bill, you see that there is an obvious disconnect. We are told that the problem is that there is a large number of people who are employed under substandard working conditions because they have been brought in through the 457 visa program. And yet the key measure in the bill is to do with tests that have to occur in advance of bringing people in, and those tests relate to the availability of Australian employees—Australian workers—with the relevant skills.
The measure that the bill is introducing will add more red tape, more process and more steps to demonstrate that when an employer wishes to bring somebody in under a section 457 visa there are no Australian workers adequately skilled to do the job. That is the key measure in this bill, and it takes only a moment's reflection to see that that has very little to do with the claimed problem which this bill supposedly addresses—the claimed problem about which we have heard so much from the minister and about which we have heard so much from union officials—that there is allegedly widespread rorting and a large number of people brought in under section 457 visas who then work under substandard conditions, and there are various other allegations made in relation to those.
When you have a bill with core measures which do not address the problem which the bill supposedly seeks to address, it makes you very suspicious. It ought to put this House on inquiry and.it ought to put this House on notice that there is something dodgy going on. And, of course, there is something dodgy going on, because what we have is this Rudd-Gillard Labor government—this government of the unions, by the unions and for the unions—responding to the agenda of the union movement. That has been their only consideration, and they have disregarded the likely economic damage which is going to be done as a consequence of these measures.
Let me turn to that point: the likely economic policy consequences of these measures. We should remember how important skilled migration has been to this country's economic growth and prosperity. We should remember that at every stage of our nation's growth we have had a substantial immigration program and that our prosperity, particularly since World War II, has drawn very heavily on bringing in people with skills, talents and capabilities from all around the world. That is a process that continues today, and Australia is very much better as a nation for it.
Every one of us in this place has had the privilege of attending citizenship ceremonies and seeing the great diversity of countries from around the world from which our new citizens come, and every one of us also has had the opportunity to observe how many of those citizens have started their journey to citizenship in other visa categories, including the 457 skilled migration visa category. Certainly it is true that more than half of all permanent skilled visas sponsored by employers are granted to 457 skilled migration visa holders already in Australia. I quoted earlier a union official who said that this was in some way evidence of a problem. On our side of the House, we think it is evidence of a program working well.
We also observe that the core measure in this bill of labour market testing has already been tried and it was found to do more harm than good. It applied when section 457 visas were first introduced in 1996. It proved to be too cumbersome to implement and too difficult to monitor. It was dropped by the Howard government in 2001. Yet, regardless of that precedent and regardless of that historical experience, this government is now proposing in the bill before the House to introduce onerous new labour market testing requirements which will require employers to produce substantial additional documentation. The economic logic here is very difficult to understand when one considers that employers already have a very strong economic incentive to hire Australians rather than to go overseas. It is always going to be cheaper, easier and more efficient to do that. So the stated rationale for adding these additional requirements is comprehensively ill judged.
This is a bad bill introducing bad measures in response to the sectional agenda of the union movement. On this side of the House we reject it. We say it should not be supported.