Monday, 24 June 2013
Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013; Second Reading
I am pleased to be able to continue my remarks on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. Before the debate was adjourned on Thursday, I was speaking about the general context of this legislation, in particular, suspicion in the community and in this parliament that the legislation is being constructed by the minister and the government for two reasons only: the first as an attempt to seek to divide Australians on the basis of place of birth for some sort of perceived political advantage; and, second, as an attempt to distract from their real policy failure—the decision to weaken Australia's border protection laws.
Over the past weeks the evidence that these suspicions are correct has proved compelling, so much so that the Australian Financial Review has concluded in its editorial this morning under the heading 'Populist policies an embarrassment' that:
The federal government has yet again been caught out using hyperbole to position the 457 visa scheme as a core issue in the populist politics that dominate its agenda. Freedom of Information documents obtained by The Australian Financial Review have revealed that Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor had no evidence from his department to back his claim in late April that there had been "10,000 rorts" of 457 visas as he sought to justify a government crackdown on the scheme. Mr O'Connor's error is an embarrassment to a government that will today attempt to force changes to the scheme through Parliament in a last ditch attempt to find issues it thinks will appeal to voters who are likely to desert it at the September 14 election. Its continued pitch to protectionist elements within the labour movement runs contrary to all objective evidence suggesting the 457 scheme is as a modest and controlled system for allowing guest workers to supplement the workforce.
If the government can provide no justification for changes to this visa then there is not a basis for this legislation.
The 457 is a temporary visa designed to fill temporary skills shortages in the short term. It can be held for a maximum of four years by the visa holder. The role of the government should be to analyse the figures, find out where the skills shortages are and provide Australians with the opportunity to gain the skills to fill these in-demand occupations. That is where the focus of this government needs to be. The government's cuts to higher education in the budget certainly do not assist with this goal.
A point that needs to be remembered is that it is a temporary visa only and the statistics show that it is working as intended. In 2012-13, Western Australia recorded 21.1 per cent of lodgement applications by location. This 6.4 per cent decrease on the number from the previous year demonstrates the flexibility of the current system and perhaps indicates a slowdown in the boom that many commentators, including the former resources minister, have been discussing. For members interested, the top nominated industry for application in Western Australia in the last year was mechanical engineering technician. There was a notable 51 per cent decrease in geologist 457 applications in Western Australia, however. The point to make here is that the 457 visa seems to be flexibly responding to the market conditions and doing exactly what it is supposed to do, and there would seem to be no need or justification to change that status quo.
I note that on 21 March 2012 the then immigration minister, Chris Bowen, stated: 'The statistics clearly show that the 457 visa program is working extremely well for Western Australia.' Referring to a young kid sitting at home in Kwinana, the Prime Minister said:
I believe we’ve got the visa settings right particularly with short term 457 visas.
On this basis, it was a surprise to many when straight after the third Rudd-Gillard leadership crisis in March, which precipitated the resignation of Minister Bowen, the new immigration minister, Brendan O'Connor, backed by the Prime Minister, starting putting about some divisive rhetoric on 457 visas—and I will speak about that divisive rhetoric. I was in my electorate on the weekend and met Mick from Atlanta, Georgia. He was originally from India but came through the USA and he is over in Western Australia doing a job for a company. No-one in Australia was available to do that work, so he was brought in from the USA on a 457 visa. He says that he now feels like he is the pariah in the system because of this legislation. He said that, because of this legislation, he feels as though he cannot tell anyone that he is on a 457 visa as he feels as though he is stealing other people's jobs. He asked me to please pass on a message to the government: 'I'm not here stealing anyone's jobs; I'm here because no-one else can do this job.' He said, 'I've been trained in the US to do it and that's why I'm here.'
The government started talking about rorts in the system and, under pressure to provide some sort of justification, the immigration announced 10,000 cases of abuse in the system. In trying to justify these comments on the program in March, Minister O'Connor referred in the House to a Department of Immigration and Citizenship document on strengthening the integrity of the 457 program, provided to his Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration earlier this year. However, when the coalition managed to obtain a copy of the document under freedom of information, we found that the document did not suggest any widespread rorting or concerns with the program, but rather put forward a number of sensible housekeeping measures to improve program integrity. Subsequently, it was revealed in the Financial Review that the minister's personal office admitted within two hours that it had no evidence to back up Minister O'Connor's claim of 10,000 rorts; however, the pretence has been kept up ever since—culminating in this legislation today.
The bill intends to amend the Migration Act to reinforce the obligations of employer sponsors of 457 visas; require prescribed classes of sponsors to undertake labour market testing for Australian workers prior to recruiting from overseas using the 457 program; require evidence of that labour market testing and provide for exemptions from labour market testing in some circumstances; enshrine the kinds of sponsorship obligations that the minister must ensure are prescribed in regulations; empower Fair Work inspectors under the Migration Act, including their access to employer premises, for the purposes of the act; provide for inspectors to determine whether an employer has contravened a civil penalty provision or other employer sanction provision; and extend the period that an employee can seek new sponsored employment from 28 days to 90 days. I understand feedback from the Migration Council of Australia and a number of industry groups to these changes has been universally negative towards the new labour market testing requirements in particular. It does seem that this is a major area of concern associated with this bill.
The people I employed from overseas never came on a 457 visa. They were from New Zealand, but we were required to employ them initially back in the eighties because there was a shortage of skilled refrigeration mechanics. I am sure the intent of most companies in Australia is to provide jobs to Australians before having to employ overseas people on 457 visas. So I do not support this bill.
The Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 is about a very serious matter, and that is the capacity of the country to bring in skilled workers when we cannot find those people in Australia, where we do not have the particular skills or skilled Australians are not prepared to move to parts of the country where the jobs are going begging. This is particularly the case in rural and regional Australia. I have to say that, without access to temporary sponsored visas—which we colloquially call 457 visas—the food manufacturing and processing industry in northern Victoria would have suffered very significantly from lack of human capacity.
Northern Victoria is an ideal place for conducting the business of raising pigs. Huge piggeries which are very scientifically advanced are to be found in places like Yarrawalla and on the Patho Plains. These are very sparsely populated areas. They are flat and they have access to good quality water, but they are a long way from any capital city. In fact they are a long way from major country towns. So when try to employ qualified piggery managers or operatives, ideally with some veterinary background and experience, the owners and managers of these piggeries have drawn a blank. They have not been able to attract skilled workers to come and work in these piggeries.
One enterprise I would like to refer to is at Yarrawalla, which is about three or four hours from Melbourne and about another hour or so from a major centre. They now have a skilled workforce who have been attracted by the use of the 457 visas—these people have come from the Philippines, where many of them had in fact been trained as veterinarians. I had the great pleasure of conferring citizenship upon the three families of these skilled workers in this local piggery this Australia Day. These younger family members now attend local schools. The schools were in decline in terms of their population numbers. As a result of these families now filling up the desks in small schools in places like Pyramid Hill, we have revitalised the communities themselves.
So, as a consequence of being able to access the skilled workforce, in this case from the Philippines, to work in these enormous piggeries, some of the biggest in Australia, and benchmarked as world's best practice, we have also revitalised our communities and managed to have new citizens who can be given all the opportunities that our country has—with their young children now attending our local schools. We also have had numbers of 457 skilled workers taking up the important and significant work in our abattoirs in places like Tongala.
Again, the local managers and owners of these abattoirs would be more than happy to engage local people, to employ local people, without going through the hassle of the application process for a person via a 457 visa. But unfortunately when they put out applications for workers in the abattoirs—these are skilled workers, people who can also take up a management position—they draw a blank. They do not get applicants for these positions.
At the Tongala abattoir, run by Greenhams, a very successful, 100 per cent export abattoir that sends ground beef to the USA, they are now dependent on international backpackers for their workforce, given it has been made that much harder for them to attract skilled 457 visa holders. That abattoir is a major employer in its own right and it is of critical importance to the dairy industry, since it processes cattle that are no longer required to produce milk.
We have dairy operations in Kyabram in my area—again, some of these dairies are among the biggest milk producers in Australia. They employ 457 visa holders—again many of them from the Philippines—who are prepared to work long hours, the back-to-back shifts, in a dairy operation where there are thousands of cows milked over a 24-hour period, seven days a week.
The suggestion guiding this legislation or what has prompted this legislation, we are told, is major rorting of the whole business of temporary sponsored visas in Australia. As the previous speaker said, when we asked for the evidence of this 'massive rorting'—apparently 10,000 rorts Minister O'Connor proclaimed in this place—none was forthcoming. An FOI inquiry could not give us any documentation or information that backed up the allegation that the 457 visa system was corruptly used and, to use the old-fashioned term, was simply being rorted. There is no evidence of systematic or widespread rorting of the system. In fact it is a brilliant scheme.
I was particularly pleased when I was the shadow minister for immigration to track a lot of the sponsored visa holders, including Chinese workers who were making sure that abattoirs could still be operated along the Murray River. I tracked all of the state government employed 457 visa holders, who backfill the long-term vacancies in allied health positions through much of regional Australia and also in metropolitan Australia. It is ironic that some of the biggest employers of 457 visa holders in the country are state governments.
I was shocked, I have to say, and I suspect my colleagues were equally amazed, to hear that the Prime Minister herself has even had to find a temporary sponsored visa holder to fill a media position in her office. I am not suggesting she rorted the system in finding that person. I am not suggesting that person is replacing somebody else. He undoubtedly has a unique set of employment characteristics that brought him to that position. This is not evidence of rorting the program. What I worry about is that again it is the dead hand of the unions getting engaged in a program where people who come do not typically end up joining a union; they simply go to work with the sponsor and they simply fill a position which has not been able to be filled by an Australian worker.
We are told that this new legislation will require evidence of labour market testing to accompany an application for nomination. Does this government seriously think that employers do not first look around in an informal way and see if there is an applicant who is nearby or who can be lured after fairly careful efforts in recruitment? Does this government seriously think that employers turn first to a 457 visa holder, given the paperwork involved and given the costs involved in establishing a new temporary skilled visa holder in the workplace? Of course it is nonsense to suggest that the local market is not now tested by someone contemplating as a last resort having to go offshore to find themselves a temporary sponsored visa holder. That is not the case.
And then we are told that there will be exemptions from the labour market testing regime in circumstances where there has been a 'major disaster' or where the skill level of the nominated occupation is equivalent to skill level 1 or skill level 2 as provided for in the Australian And New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations or ANZSCO. So we already have exemptions to all of this. Again there was an implication, I have to say, from the minister when he talked about the rorting, that a lot of these 457 visa holders were somehow being paid less than the equivalent locally employed person in the same industry in a similar job. Again, the evidence is to the contrary. When you are desperate to have someone give you the skilled work that you need to keep your enterprise going, when you perhaps look forward to a transfer of their skills or technology to further enhance your own domestically recruited workforce, you certainly do not lure them paying them less. You typically find that the 457 visa holder in my part of Australian is paid equivalent to or more than a locally engaged staff member.
I have to say that in the case of my 457 visa sponsors they typically also find accommodation for the person, they ensure that families are properly accommodated and are quickly integrated into the community, because they are very concerned that their efforts in attracting the 457 visa holder do not lead to a very short-term relationship. They want that new skilled worker to stay. When the coalition was in government, the Australian expectation was that a lot of these skilled workers would in fact become Australian citizens and there was a rate of about 30 or 40 per cent conversions when we were in government to people taking up permanent residency and citizenship. I would hope that number has grown since that time.
So this Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill is based on a fallacy. The fallacy is that there is widespread rorting and abuse of a system which has skilled workers coming in to fill positions that cannot be filled in Australia. I now have in my area of northern Victoria numbers of employers who are in despair because they were able to access these sponsored visas in the past and now the red tape, the go-slows, the innuendos about their motives are such that they are finding that they cannot access the temporary sponsored visa regime at all. So what do they do? They cannot get local workers to step up and do the tasks. We are an area of declining population and we have a brain drain in our part of the world where people who are more technically qualified tend to leave the area and go to metropolitan alternative places to live and work. We have had an experience of the most superb workers coming and becoming enmeshed in our communities under this 457 visa scheme.
I have to restate that in meddling with this scheme it appears to me to be nothing more than the dead hand of the unions trying to take control of a workforce with no regard to the needs of the employer, with no regard to the needs of the actual industry itself. There seems to be no perception or conception of the difficulties in rural Australia in attracting a skilled and qualified workforce. I think that is a huge shame. The fact that half of these amendments to the bill are to do with inspectors, enforceable undertakings with the minister, looking at special civil penalty provisions for those who have committed an offence against the relevant provisions—the whole thing sounds like the earlier era of some fascist regime. I think it is a shame. I with the coalition oppose this business. I hope that common sense will prevail or it will be just another piece of legislation we have to make sure does work when, if the Australian public sees fit, we return to office after 14 September.
Finally, let me stress that this is an excellent government run skilled migration program which uses temporary sponsored visas. We have provisions in the regulations to ensure that people who come have an adequate English-language facility. We have within this set of migration regulations already adequate safeguards should there be a rare moment of someone trying to exploit the system. There are rules about wages that have to be paid. This was a well-managed system but, sadly, it has been destroyed under this government. If there is an abuse of the system now, let me say that it is by this government trying to insert into the workforce of Australia a whole lot of additional regulations which will simply make it harder for our manufacturing sector and our service sector, our health services sector, and will make them even more despairing of how they going to sustain and retain an adequate workforce. I have to hope for the sake of my piggeries, my abattoirs, my dairy operations, my hospitals, all the allied health professionals who come out here on a 457 visa; I have to say to them, 'Just hang on and we will do our best to make sure that the system is not destroyed as we wait for the next election.'
I am quite staggered at the previous speaker. What an extraordinary contribution. I have heard her in this place on a number of occasions say she has 200 empty shops in Shepparton. If we allocate two jobs per shop, which is pretty moderate, that is 400 jobs gone in Shepparton. SPC said there would be a 500 jobs gone as a result of the cutbacks there. So that is 900 people in your town who have lost their jobs, yet you say we should be bringing people in from overseas to man the jobs in your electorate. That is what you said. You also made reference to a brain drain from your areas. Everyone left behind is brainless, are they? What an extraordinary contribution. We are desperately short of jobs in country Australia and this member is advocating that we bring people in from overseas to take what jobs we have got left there. Extraordinary. It never ceases to amaze me.
Dr Stone interjecting—
The member in her Murray electorate has 7.1 per cent unemployment. I would think that means thousands of people without any employment in the electorate, and she is advocating that we bring people in from overseas to take what few jobs are there. What an extraordinary contribution. People come in here and they do not think at all or have absolutely no communion with ordinary people. Another extraordinary part of the member for Murray's contribution was that she was condemning the ALP. They brought in 125,000 people, whereas her mob brought in only 38,000 people. She should have been congratulating them. I am condemning the ALP for bringing in 125,000 people; she should be praising them.
The implication of the Liberal speakers in this debate is that Australians are lazy and useless. The member for Murray also added that we had a brain drain, so we need these people to come in. So we are also stupid. That was a most extraordinary contribution.
Why in the year of our Lord2013 do we suddenly need to bring in 100,000 migrant workers—section 457 workers—a year? About 200,000 migrants are actually coming in as well. So there are 300,000 people coming into Australia each year. I do not know how many jobs we have in Australia, but I know that we have lost 1,500 in my hometown of Charters Towers. When we were desperately waiting for the jobs to come down from the opening up of the giant coalfields called the Galilee Basin, which will double Australia's coal reserves, we suddenly found out that all of the big developers involved in it were announcing that they were going to bring their workers in from overseas. Who was facilitating it? Not the Liberals, but the Labor Party. Then the Labor Party wonders why they are on 29 per cent of the vote. Do you think all the people out there are stupid, do you? You bring 125,000 workers in here for one reason: to undermine our pay and conditions.
When I walk out that door there I look with great pride at the picture of Charlie McDonald, the first member for Kennedy. I have copies of six of his first seven speeches to this place. Men literally died. Three were shot dead at the picket line at Dagworth Station and Waltzing Matilda was written two weeks later. The entire executive of the AWU was thrown in jail for three years with hard labour because they went on strike. When we fought and won our pay and conditions, one in 31 were going down the mine and dying. What did they do? They brought people from supercheap countries overseas to come in and take our jobs in the mines. Then they brought people in from supercheap countries to cut the cane in our canefields. We fought and died for the pay and conditions and then we got nothing out of it. Is it any surprise that about 100 years ago, the member for Kennedy—God bless him, his picture is out there—in six of his first seven speeches tried to protect the pay and conditions which they had fought and died for? But they have been sold out by the Labor Party. God help this country if the Liberals get in. They will bring in 400,000 workers a year. If they are praising the Labor Party for bringing in 125,000 workers, clearly they will bring in a hell of a lot more than that.
They say these workers are going to go back overseas. I have not noticed any in my electorate going back overseas. They are put in pretty permanent digs here. I think we are all human in this place and we do not like to throw people out of the country—
An honourable member interjecting—
I would have to go along with the interjection—it is probably a bit of an exaggeration with respect to some people in this place. I do not notice these workers going home, but I do notice them bringing in their families. Even if you are bringing in only 300,000 a year, 200,000 migrants are now coming into the country every year. If you add those figures up over 10 years and the fact they are bringing in their families, what will be left for existing Australians? Where are we going to get jobs?
When a 457 worker is brought in, the employer holds the deportation order. He can send them back any time he likes. So he has much more than a master-servant relationship. If anyone says, 'They're not being brought in on account of pay and conditions; they are all paying award wages,' why are they bringing them in? Out of 1.3 million people seeking full-time employment in Australia we cannot find anyone to man the mines in the electorate of a member for Western Australia, who allowed 1,700 workers in because poor Gina could not find any workers for her mine in Western Australia. It is funny: Andrew Forrest could find them. I am told that he found almost 2,000. He trained up our First Australians. A lot of them do not speak English really well and a lot of them cannot read or write but, over a long period, he trained them and made them into very worthwhile employees. He still has 400 or 500 working in his mines today over in Western Australia. He can find them. But the member representing Fremantle and Rockingham has 25 per cent unemployment in his electorate, yet he is saying that we have to fly 1,700 people in from overseas to man the mines in his area.
I am a person who believes in the power of the streets, the power of the ordinary people whom you run into when you walk down the street in your town. In my first speech in this place I said, with some anger and rage, 'Ask yourself the question: how many times have you walked down the street in your town and just listened to people—not talked to them but listened?' That day, after this big mining magnate in Western Australia made the statement: 'We have 1,700 workers to be flown in,' so they could work for, I would suspect, a lot less than she would get Australians working for—and my parliamentary Chief of Staff was with me—I said, 'We're going to record everyone we run into today who can't get a job.' That afternoon, in a little country town, we ran into nine people and the next morning we ran into nine people who had been seeking work for over a year. One of them came over to me and was almost in tears. He was selling his motorbike. He had been trying for over a year to get a start in the mines. He was a qualified tradesman and, as far as I was concerned, a decent bloke.
A week later, I was in the RSL in Townsville and nine young blokes—very decent style young blokes—all soldiers, all of them qualified tradesmen, had been applying for over six months to get a start in the mines, and they could not get a start in the mines.
The last speaker was crying about her farmers—probably a quarter of the farms in Queensland would be foreclosed on now if it was not for the jobs that we got in the mines. There would hardly be a family that did not have someone working in the mines in Queensland. Those properties are only allowed to survive because we have our sons and daughters working in the mines and, in many cases, the farmers themselves working in the mines. One of my very good friends, one of the Fish family, had to go away from his property for two years, working in very courageous circumstances in the mines to try and keep body and soul together. He came out and survived the crash at the time in the market and a drought that he was having. It was only those jobs in the mines that enabled us to survive.
As the last speaker said, some of her farmers have people working for them. I do not condemn them. Heaven only knows how they are making ends meet, but it would be worthwhile if the people in the opposition and the people in the government spent their time trying to give the farmers a fair go instead of forcing them to get people from overseas to work on their farms.
I am not going to go over today. We are not talking about the value of the dollar, which the Liberal Party doubled from 52c to over 90c. That drove all of our farmers in Australia into penury and closed stacks of mines in Australia, including mines in my own electorate.
The other thing that intrigues me is why we came to this conclusion in the year 2010. We never had to bring any section 457 workers in before that date. Why did we suddenly have to bring in 100,000 year? What went on? I suspect it is a very interesting story. I suspect that some people got in the ears of the government and I can tell you they were not trade union leaders as the last member of parliament asserted. I can assure you they are not. But some people got in the ears of the ALP government. They already control the mob on this side—they are all puppets on a string.
This mob over here who profess to look after the workers of Australia—shame upon them! That great party was founded on the principle that we do not fly in workers from overseas to take our jobs off us as Australians. There are a few people who need a bit of a kick in the backside and a bit of a cattle prod to go and do some work. That might be true and that was the fault of the free marketeers in this place who separated the function of writing the dole cheques from the function of allocating the jobs. They were separated under the free market policies—I cannot remember whether it was Keating or Costello, but one of them. Once those jobs were separated, there was no way you could compel anyone to work because they could continue on the dole indefinitely. The mechanisms for stopping the dole were completely destroyed.
The people involved in the job allocations have made an awful lot of money. I do not begrudge it to them. Good luck to them if they see the opportunity to make money. I do not begrudge it to the people who are getting 457 workers, particularly people like farmers. Who can begrudge it to them? What else are they expected to do?
We have a parliament that sits aside, and we are on a policy now of bringing in 20 million people over the next 10 or 15 years. Twenty million people are being brought into this country. Have we got enough expansion in jobs? Have we got enough money to pay our welfare? Have we got all these things so that we can afford to bring people in from overseas? Can we do that as a nation? Have you spoken to a person on the pension in the last few weeks? I have, and they are doing it damn tough. Yet you are bringing these 457 workers in to take those jobs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Remember that all of our mining companies were flogged off to foreigners. The six mining companies that account for 85 per cent of our production were all Australian owned 16 years ago. Thanks to the Liberal Party, the National Party and the ALP, all of the six of them are gone. They all foreign owned. If we are not getting the wages—they go into the pockets of fly-in foreign workers—and if the profits are going into the pockets of foreign owners of the mines, what the hell do we Australians get out of the mining industry? A big hole in the ground: that is what we get! (Time expired)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. This is another piece of legislation which must be condemned by this parliament. This bill has all the hallmarks of policy failings that this government is renowned for. It is a bill which is essentially seeking a headline rather than delivering good public policy for our nation. It is a bill which has been drafted without any facts to support its intent. It is a bill that seeks to distract Australians from the government's failed border protection policies.
Before I address some of the specifics of the bill, I think we need to reflect for a moment on the context in which this immigration bill is being presented to the parliament. When federal Labor was elected to government in 2007, there were just four people in detention. Under John Howard's leadership, the federal coalition government had successfully implemented a border protection policy which had essentially stopped the boats—a policy based on temporary protection visas, the Pacific solution and turning boats around, where safe to do so.
It was so successful that federal Labor endorsed the coalition's border protection policy in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election. But, as we now know, this election commitment would become just another broken promise.
It started in 2008 when the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, changed the rules and relaxed the processing procedures for those who arrived illegally by boat. The abolition of the Howard government's border protection policy sent a very clear message to people smugglers, and the message was that Australia was once again open for business to people smuggling or, at the very least, to those who could afford to pay the people smugglers for their passage to Australia.
Just over five years later, all Australians are paying a very big price for a policy which Mr Rudd created and Prime Minister Gillard has exacerbated. Since 2008 we have seen more than 700 boats arrive illegally on our shores. They have transported more than 44,200 illegal arrivals and the cost to the taxpayer has now topped $10 billion. These facts are very relevant to the bill we are debating today because all members would be very well aware how angry hardworking ordinary Australians are about this policy failing. It is this anger which the government is attempting to appease. It is the attention to this issue which the government hopes to distract with this legislation.
But the reality is the government cannot hide behind the facts. They failed with the East Timor solution, when Prime Minister Gillard did not even consult the East Timorese government. No-one was therefore surprised when it fell over. The Prime Minister then proposed the Malaysia solution, but Malaysia was not a signatory to the UNHCR refugee convention. Hence, another ill-conceived thought bubble never saw the light of day and was never brought before this parliament for a vote. And as the government struggled through a botched policy process the boats kept coming, the number of illegal arrivals exploded—
It is very relevant to the bill before the House, Deputy Speaker. I am putting the bill in context; it is very relevant. We had the number of arrivals exploding, which brings us to where we are today: a desperate attempt to create a distraction. The government has confected an issue alleging systematic abuse of 457 visas. That is despite the government's own advisers saying there is no evidence of the widespread rorting of the 457 migration program.
While it is true that under this Labor government the number of 457 skilled migration visas issued has grown to their highest level, the government has failed to demonstrate that this has occurred because Australian employers are employing skilled workers from overseas in preference to Australian workers. Indeed, it is clear that the majority of Australian businesses prefer employing Australians who have the skills rather than employing skilled people from overseas, but the reality is that many businesses cannot find someone with the skills and experience they are seeking. Given such a circumstance, one would have thought the government would have welcomed a situation where businesses which cannot find Australians with the skills to fill a vacant position would employ an overseas worker through the 457 visa program. The 457 visa recipient would earn wages, pay their bills, pay taxes, cover the cost of things such as health care—they would be contributing to our nation's productivity and delivering a skill which would otherwise not be available. In most other progressive democracies this would be viewed as a good thing, but not in Australia under this government. This government would prefer to support illegal boat arrivals.
It is ludicrous that this situation would exist in Australia, but we should not be surprised by this government's approach to those who wish to contribute to our nation's wealth and we should not be surprised by this government's attempt to demonise Australian businesses. What is happening here is that uncertainty for business is being created, business confidence is being undermined and we are putting a brake on growth. It is of great concern. The 457 migration program plays an important role in securing short- and long-term skilled migrants that Australia has always needed and will need into the future, and we need certainty.
In my electorate there is a dependence on 457 visas. Over the past decade we have seen an explosion in the blueberry industry on the Coffs Coast. We have seen double-digit growth in blueberry production and this has been delivered through two major business models. Costa Berries, or Blueberry Farms of Australia, as many know them, is a massive operation which employs more than 2,000 people over a 12-month period. They produce premium blueberry product which generates tens of millions of dollars in wages and the cost of production, but their work is very labour intensive. Peter McPherson of Blueberry Farms has advised me of the difficulties of recruiting highly skilled labour in the field of horticulture. The business is reliant on the use of 457 visas and it brings workers in from countries such as Mexico and Chile. Why does the government want to impose more red tape on this business? Why is the government so keen to drive up the cost for this important industry?
Also on the Coffs Coast is a group of around 70 farmers who independently grow blueberries. Many of these farmers are members of the Indian community, which is heavily involved in the local community, particularly in the area of Woolgoolga. These farmers have got together and built a processing facility and they call their venture Oz Berries. The ongoing expansion of Oz Berries is one of the true industry success stories on the Coffs Coast. The processing facility was established in 2006 with the support of a $233,000 grant from the Howard government. From day one it has been a challenge to cope with the growth within this industry. Stage 1 was complete, then they leased a neighbouring building, and only last year installed a new packing machine to improve the service provided to local farmers. The exponential growth of the blueberry industry has been great for farmers and a real boost to the local economy. Today Oz Berries employs more than 60 people and turns over more than $27 million each year. The 70 farmers employ hundreds of additional people on their properties. Both Oz Berries and Costa Berries are vital to our local economy and they both need to use 457 visas in order to get the skills and the labour that they need.
I would like to address some of the specifics of the legislation in the time I have left. The bill will do a number of things. It will be amending the Migration Act to reinforce the obligations of sponsors of 457 visas. It will require prescribed classes of sponsors to undertake labour market testing for Australian workers prior to recruiting from overseas using the 457 visa program. It will require evidence of that labour market testing and provide for exemptions from labour market testing in some circumstances. It will enshrine the kinds of sponsorship obligations that the minister must ensure are prescribed in regulations. It will empower Fair Work inspectors under the Migration Act, including their access to employer premises for the purpose of the act. It will provide for inspectors to determine whether an employer has contravened a civil penalty provision or other employment sanctioned provision. And it will extend the period that an employee can seek new sponsored employment from 28 days to 90 days. So here we go again: the heavy hand of a federal government is effectively going to make the 457 application process not worth the effort of applying. The whole intention of the 457 visa system is to provide a quick solution—and I stress 'quick solution'—to the fluctuations in demand for skilled and semiskilled workers where such demand cannot be met by the Australian workforce. But this government wants to make it so difficult that business will throw its arms up in the air and say it is all just too hard.
Not only is this legislation wrong; it also represents another broken promise from this government. I remind members opposite of some of the comments made by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and other members of the Labor government. I will start with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister said in a doorstop interview in Beijing on 27 April 2011:
So I’ve got a very clear focus on lifting labour force participation by Australians and lifting skills—so a young kid sitting at home in Kwinana without a job and without any hope can get the skills he or she needs to get that opportunity in the northwest of our country. Now even with increased labour force participation and increased skills we will need skilled migration. I believe we’ve got the visa settings right particularly with short term 457 visas.
'I believe we've got the visa settings right' were the Prime Minister's words. It cannot get any clearer than that. The Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, Wayne Swan, had an interview with Chris Uhlmann on 7.30 on 20 April 2007. Uhlmann asked:
You've been talking a lot about workforce participation recently, but do you still need to lift the skilled migration intake?
The Treasurer said:
Well certainly what we do need to do is to respond to the needs of our economy, and we have done a lot domestically in terms of training skilled labour. We will have to do more and we'll also have to do as much as we possibly can to lift domestic labour force participation. And the Prime Minister has made that very clear.
I think you would be aware that in terms of temporary skilled labour, the 457 program is not capped, so business does have the opportunity to bring in more skilled migrants, should they require them, for particular projects.
So both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have been spruiking their support for the 457 visa program, but now, because of the asylum seeker debacle, they have decided to target skilled migration.
The coalition believe there should be a crackdown on any rorting of the 457 visa system but it is incumbent on the government in the first instance to produce the evidence that demonstrates that there is a problem. As we debate this legislation today this government has been unable—and I stress 'unable'—to table any evidence. As a result, the coalition will not support this bill and we will seek to refer it to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. We will oppose this legislation and call on members opposite not to let this government further undermine the productive capacity of our nation.
This is government by the unions for the unions. You would imagine that the government would have learnt by now that bad policy is bad politics. This is another example of bad government policy foisted upon this country because the government needs a political distraction. We will oppose this legislation. It is bad legislation: it is bad for business and it is bad for our nation.
I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. On what is now possibly the fourth last day of this 43rd Parliament the government is attempting to ram through this migration legislation, a contrived solution from this Labor government to a nonexistent problem. The coalition has serious concerns with this bill because it adds to the burden of regulation, obligations, compliance and enforcement on employer sponsors using the 457 visa program. This bill is the culmination of a union and government campaign to discredit the program and demonise foreign workers for political gain.
The 457 visa was introduced in 1996 and is the dominant component of Australia's temporary skilled migration program. In general, this visa allows a business to sponsor and employ someone from outside Australia in a skilled job. People holding this visa can work in Australia for up to four years, bring their family with them and travel in and out of Australia as often as they want. They pay their own way, including health care, and they do not access welfare.
People holding this visa can work in Australia for up to four years, bring their family with them, and travel in and out of Australia as often as they want. They pay their own way, including healthcare, and they do not access welfare. Fundamentally, the program is designed to provide a quick response to fluctuations in demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers where such demand cannot be met by the Australian workforce. Therefore, temporary skilled migration is vital to the efficient operation of the labour market, delivering significant benefits to the Australian economy.
Since its introduction the 457 visa program has grown in use and proven to be highly effective in meeting skill gaps in a number of industries for large resource or infrastructure projects. Approximately 70 per cent of 457 visa holders are in professional or managerial occupations, while 30 per cent are in trade, technical and clerical positions. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship's Subclass 457: summary reportfor 2012-13, as at 13 April 2013 there were 108,810 primary 457 visa holders in Australia. This figure is up by 20 on April 2012. This represents less than one per cent of Australia's workforce.
I strongly welcome the contribution of migrants to this country. On this point I note that the 457 program is not about what country people happen to come from but rather about what skills they can offer and what they can contribute to Australia. In 2012-13 some 21.1 per cent of applications granted were for citizens of India, 19.6 per cent from the United Kingdom and 8.3 per cent from the Republic of Ireland, while many countries from Asia, including the Philippines, China, South Korea, Japan, Nepal and Malaysia make up a significant component of 457 workers. These figures reflect the fact that Australia is a very attractive place to come to work and that people from all across the world want to contribute to the Australian economy and to Australian society.
The bill amends conditions in four areas: first, it introduces new labour-market testing; second, it amends rules relating to sponsor obligations and undertakings; third, it establishes powers of authorised inspectors; and, last, it extends the period during which a 457 worker can find new sponsored employment.
The most concerning aspect of this bill relates to the reintroduction of labour-market testing. At present, skills shortages are based on inclusion of an occupation on the Consolidated Skilled Occupation List, CSOL, which is updated annually by DIAC, drawing on advice from Skills Australia. These changes will require employers to provide evidence of labour-market testing, including information about their efforts to recruit Australian workers, relevant labour-market research trends, expressions of support from relevant Commonwealth or state authorities and any other evidence determined to be relevant. The actual period of labour-market testing required is not clear in this bill but will likely be variable, depending on the occupation.
These changes represent a significant regulatory impost on employer-sponsors. However, the Labor government has neglected to provide a regulatory impact statement, because the Prime Minister's office granted an exemption based on unspecified exceptional circumstances. This is despite the fact that labour-market testing requirements will undermine the very purpose of the 457 program to rapidly fill temporary skills shortages. Adding draconian measures such as labour-market testing to visa approval processes will add significantly to 457 recruitment lead-times and costs. At the very least, a full analysis of such potential impacts of this bill must be clarified in a regulatory impact statement, let alone in a full Senate inquiry as proposed by the coalition.
The Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the Migration Council of Australia have together called this, 'unwarranted legislation which risks penalising all employers, their employees and skilled migrants, as well as undermining investment, skills transfer and development, and broader job creation. In fact, in the DIAC document on the 457 program produced earlier this year, obtained by the shadow minister for immigration under freedom of information, labour-market testing is not suggested not even mentioned. Clearly, the department does not believe that this is a worthy proposal—and neither does the coalition.
The strongest disincentive against abusing this program is that the costs involved in recruiting an overseas worker are significantly higher then when recruiting an Australian worker. It simply does not make rational economic sense for an employer to spend considerably more money to bring in someone from overseas, when the Labor supply already exists in Australia to do that same job at the same level.
That does not mean that the system is perfect. I have heard from constituents who are concerned that their employer might be discriminating against Australians in favour of workers on 457 visas. It is absolutely critical that those concerns are reported and that DIAC identifies if an employer is abusing the 457 program. However, while individual cases have been identified, the Labor government has not in any way demonstrated why they cannot be handled within current safeguards. For months this Labor government has claimed that there has been widespread rorting of 457 visas, yet it has failed to produce any real evidence that it exists. This bill is therefore based on a false premise. In May this year, the minister publicly claimed that there were in excess of 10,000 cases of illegitimate use of 457 visas. He later admitted that he was merely 'making a forecast' and admitted that he did not have an exact or precise figure.
In fact, we need only look at what the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and previous ministers for immigration have been saying on 457 visas. In 2011, the Prime Minister claimed
I believe we've got the visa settings right particularly with short-term 457 visas.
The then minister, the member for McMahon, publicly declared:
… demand-driven migration is delivering migrants effectively to the regions where they are needed—exactly how the 457 visa program is supposed to work. And anyone who tries to tell you the 457 visa program is not working, needs to take another look at the facts.
As recently as 20 January 2013, only five months ago, the then 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
What we see with the measures in today's bill, however, is this government inventing a problem. This Labor government has concocted a cynical, political ploy to demonise 457 workers to the detriment of the Australian labour market and the Australian economy. Those who know what is actually happening on the ground have pointed out to this government that there is absolutely no evidence of problems or rorting. The minister cannot produce an inquiry from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, because such an inquiry does not exist and there has been no reason to hold one.
Business groups, including representatives from the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and Migration Council Australia, have all disputed Labor's claims and have condemned the Prime Minister for demonising 457 skilled migration visa holders. They have called on parliament to reject this bill unless, as they said, 'the government provides hard evidence to back up its claims of widespread problems with the 457 program'. In fact, this government's own advisers have said that such evidence does not exist. This includes Michael Easson, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, who said:
I do not believe that there is any credible evidence that the management of the 457 visa program is out of control …
Demographer Professor Peter McDonald, a member of the government's advisory council, has labelled the rhetoric coming from this government as 'nasty'.
Since 2007-08, as a result of Labor's mismanagement of the budget—now approaching $300 billion of gross debt—the government has cut resources for compliance work in DIAC, including 457 monitoring, by over $20 million, or 30 per cent. This government has reduced monitoring visits to employers by two-thirds, and the number of employer-sponsored formal warnings has also dropped by two-thirds. The track record of this Labor government demonstrates that it has not been serious about supporting the safeguards already in place, and we must treat the measures in today's bill in that context.
The shadow minister for immigration has therefore proposed an amendment which proposes that consideration of this bill not be concluded until we know all the facts about why we should consider this bill in the first place and what ramifications it will have should it be passed. This means that three processes must take place: firstly, that DIAC completes a full research report 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; secondly, that consultation by DIAC take place with industry and other stakeholders on the impacts of the measures contained in the bill; and, thirdly, that the government produce a regulatory impact statement related to the proposed labour market testing regime, as required by the Office of Best Practice Regulation. Only when these actions take place can this parliament truly assess the merit of this bill.
The coalition's position on 457 skilled migration visas is simple, clear and consistent. We recognise the critical importance of skilled temporary migration to the Australian economy and the well-being and living standards of all Australians. The 457 skilled migration visa program must be well-managed, providing rapid access to skilled workers not available in the Australian labour market and with strong compliance action to ensure high standards of program integrity. The coalition would never support the use of 457 skilled migration visas at the expense of Australian workers, and would not tolerate any employers who try to abuse the system. We must recognise, however, that skilled migrants have made a vital contribution to the building of our nation.
The coalition will not support this bill and is seeking referral to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. The coalition has always been consistent on 457 visas and will be strong on policing our immigration laws on our borders, in the community and in the workplace.
The Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 must rank as one of the most disgraceful bills ever to come before this parliament. The bill adds to the burden of regulation obligations and compliance enforcement on employer sponsors using the 457 visa program. If one is to subscribe to the view that bills should only be presented in this place if they address a real and known mischief or for a bona fide purpose, then this bill fails on all accounts.
Ostensibly, the government claims that this bill is necessary to stop the rorts of the 457 visa scheme, but, when asked to produce evidence of these great rorts, Minister O'Connor first claimed that there were 10,000 cases of abuse. Only later, he incredulously said that the figure had been made up and he tried to back out of it. There is no evidence in the department, there are no reports, showing this alleged 10,000 cases of abuse in the program. Make no mistake, this bill has nothing to do with what is good for Australia—absolutely nothing to do with what is good for our country.
This bill is about a desperate and dysfunctional government doing anything, saying anything, and attacking anybody in a last-ditch attempt to stay in power. It is all about the Prime Minister pitching to divide immigrants, seeking to create a stir in Western Sydney and scaremongering about foreigners taking the jobs of Australians. This bill declares a false war on skilled migrants to this country, and it is doing that because it is trying to support the unions and it is trying to stir up some perverse attempt to pit the political welfare of the unions against the good of this nation.
There is no crisis in the 457 visa program. There is no evidence of systematic rorting. What there is, though, is an overwhelming evidence of systemic policy failure by this government, and, in case anyone has any doubt about that, let us consider these not-so-impressive facts. After six years of the Rudd-Gillard government, Labor has delivered runaway cost of living increases. Labor has broken its promise on the carbon tax, and there is its administration of private health insurance, along with Grocery Watch and FuelWatch. We have seen a complete loss of control of the federal budget, with five consecutive budget deficits—with even more deficits forecast for the coming years. There is record government debt now approaching $300 billion and a yearly interest bill of $8 billion, and we have had a complete failure of border protection policies with almost 45,000 arrivals on 733 illegal boats resulting in a $10 billion budget blow-out. There was the gross incompetence and mismanagement of major projects like the overpriced school halls. There were the dangerous roof batts and now there are the blow-outs and delays with the National Broadband Network. And, of course, who can forget the ongoing saga that we are subjected to day and night of disunity, chaos and dysfunction with the Julia and Kevin soap opera of 'Who wants to be Prime Minister?' What is evident is that these proposed changes are being driven by not only an increasingly irrelevant union movement to improve union coverage and control of workplaces with 457 visas but also a desperate government and a desperate Prime Minister who are prepared to trash Australia's history of a migrant success story as part of their deeply flawed political strategy of class, gender and now ethnic warfare.
Immigration has made Australia the nation we are today. Many of Australia's most significant nation-building infrastructure projects are built on the back of migrant labour. The most famous of these is the Snowy Mountains Scheme. In my own electorate of Brisbane, migrants helped to build the iconic Story Bridge. This theme of contribution and achievement throughout the nation is one that existed in the past and continues today. Another example from my electorate of Brisbane can be seen with the researchers employed under the 457 scheme at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, where world-leading research is being undertaken at the moment into AIDS and HIV, as well as dengue fever and malaria. Doctors on 457 visas provide health care to the people of Brisbane at the Royal Brisbane Hospital and at other hospitals in my electorate, but under this bill those doctors are 457 visa holders; they are second-class citizens.
Immigration has made us a stronger Australia. Community confidence in the immigration program provides a foundation for social harmony and the continued success of our immigration program. As Judge Rauf Soulio said in his welcoming address at the inaugural Australian Multicultural Council lecture last year, 'multicultural Australia transcends the usual division of politics' and 'diversity is a defining strength of Australia'. Well, not any more. If this desperate and divisive government has its way with this bill, what we will have here is a divided country—a country made up of first- and second-class citizens; a country of those who are Australian and who were born here and those who are second class who were not born here.
As a daughter of Italian migrant parents, I find this bill deeply offensive. My parents, like so many migrants from all over the world, came to this country seeking a better life. They were not born here, but they made Australia home for themselves and their children. They worked hard. They went to where the jobs were. They cut cane in North Queensland, and later they owned and operated the local corner store. I see the member for Indi is sitting at the table. Her parents, who are of Greek origin, also operated a local corner store. They worked hard, as did my parents. My parents then went on to run supermarkets. They were successful in developing a seafood export and wholesale business, which expanded to include one of Brisbane's finest dining restaurants. Since World War II, immigrants like my parents transformed Australia from a nation of some seven million to more than 22 million people from 260 different cultural backgrounds. In that time, immigration has seen more than seven million people settle here, including 750,000 refugees. Australia is arguably and without question one of the most successful immigration nations in the world, but the bill before us in the chamber today puts all of that at risk.
In the event that there is any ambiguity, it is worth looking at exactly what the 457 visa actually does as opposed to what the government falsely claims it does. The 457 visa class was introduced in 1996 and has been highly effective in meeting skills gaps. That is why it was brought in: to meet skills gaps in a number of industries and for large resourcing and infrastructure projects. The majority of 457 visa holders are professional and managerial occupations and, as at 30 April 2012, there were 108,810 primary 457 visa holders in Australia. That is less than one per cent of Australia's workforce. So much for Labor's and the unions' scaremongering about stealing the jobs of other Australians!
The 457 skilled migration visa program plays an important role in securing the short-term and long-term skilled migrants whom Australia has always needed and will always need into the future. More than half of all permanent skilled visas sponsored by employers are granted to skilled migration visa holders who are already legally in Australia, and 457 skilled migration visas account for more than 30 per cent of all permanent migration to Australia.
The 457 visa is the dominant component of Australia's temporary skilled migration program. It is designed to provide a quick response to fluctuations in demand for skilled and semiskilled workers where such demand cannot be met by the Australian workforce. Temporary skilled migration is vital to the efficient operation of the Australian labour market. It delivers significant economic benefits; 457 visa holders pay their own way. They pay for their own health and they do not access welfare. Once again, I point out that they are totally legal. They have come to this country in a totally legal way.
But it is not just the coalition that is saying that this is a bad bill—and it is; it is a bad, bad bill. On 17 June this year, the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and Migration Council Australia released an open letter that raised concerns at a lack of evidence and proper process associated with proposed changes to the 457 visa scheme in the bill, along with the considerable risks posed for investment, job creation and economic growth. The AIG, BCA and MCA all identify the proposed return of labour market testing as one of the most damaging initiatives in the bill. That was abandoned after a major departmental review in 2001, because it was not found to be effective. It was costly, ineffective and inferior to the system that we have in place today. The AIG, BCA and MCA specifically state:
Unwarranted regulation risks penalising all employers, their employees and skilled migrants, as well as undermining investment, skills transfer and development, and broader job creation to address a relatively small number of instances that may be dealt with through other means.
But all these groups do not just stop there in their criticism of the bill. They call on all parliamentarians to reject this bill unless:
Why can't they be managed within the scheme's existing frameworks? It has only been a few cases and they need to be examined under the existing structures. The groups continue:
As we have seen, the government has no hard evidence to back up its claims of widespread rorting of the 457 program, nor is it able to show how the few individual cases that have been identified cannot be managed within this particular program.
What we do know, though, is that this government, in conjunction with the unions, have started their scaremongering campaign and their false war—and it is a false war—on 457 visa holders. We know that employer confidence in the program has been significantly undermined. Most disturbingly, in the government's own report—theSubclass457 state/territory summary report: 2012-13 to 30 April 2013, from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship—there have been disturbing results. In my own home state of Queensland, there have been huge decreases in the number of primary applications granted in key areas that will have dramatic impacts on the economy and the community: in construction, we have them down by 10.2 per cent; in health care and social assistance, they are down by 11.8 per cent; in education and training, they are down by 6.4 per cent; in information, media and telecommunications, they are down by 14.6 per cent; in manufacturing, they are down by 12.8 per cent; in mining, they are down by a massive 32.3 per cent; and in professional, scientific and technical occupations, they are down by 12.8 per cent. What these figures show is the extent to which the government and unions have undermined the confidence of employers working in the engine room of the economy, an impact that will be felt by many constituents in my electorate and by the people of Queensland and Australia.
It is appropriate that I am speaking on this bill today, because this is an enormously significant bill for immigration in our country—and the government has lost its way. Not much has changed in the three years since the government lost its way, on this third anniversary, except for the fact that it is more lost than ever. Labor has definitely lost its way on this bill. The demonising of 457 visa holders who come to this country and contribute to our nation's wellbeing is a new low in divisive politics, even for this government and even for this Prime Minister. The role of government is to bring people together, not to set them against each other. Any government that seeks to pit Australians against other Australians for its own political gain is not fit for this office. The coalition remain consistent on our policy with 457 visas, a policy that all employers and all Australians can have faith in.
I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 today. Skilled migrants play a very valuable role in my electorate of Leichhardt. Whether it is as the chef at the local restaurant, a sugarcane worker, bed-and-breakfast operators or an engineer at one of our mines, these new migrants are employed, paying taxes and making a positive contribution to our society.
Unfortunately, the changes with this bill simply add to the burden of regulation and compliance on sponsors who use the 457 visa program. It represents a culmination of union and government campaigns to discredit the program and demonise foreign workers. It also highlights the absolute hypocrisy of the Gillard government, which clearly would prefer to see illegal boat arrivals put into the community on welfare rather than skilled migrants paying their own way and helping our economy to grow.
To state facts plainly, the measures contained in the bill require a thorough parliamentary inquiry. Skilled migration has been a key driver of Australia's economic performance, and the 457 program plays a very important role in securing the short- and long-term skilled migrants that Australia has always needed and will certainly go on needing in the future. More than half of all our permanent skilled visas sponsored by employers are granted to 457 skilled migration visa holders already in Australia, and 457 skilled migration visas account for more than 30 per cent of all permanent skilled migration in Australia.
What confuses me is that the Prime Minister and the previous minister for immigration spent years telling Australians and the international audience that they had the balance right on 457 skilled migration visas. Yet now, according to Labor scaremongering, there are 10,000 people rorting the system and it is out of control, so—guess what—let's have another knee-jerk reaction and again push something through the parliament and leave it for somebody else to mop up in the future. We now find that these proposed changes to the 457 scheme have not been based on any real rorting or widespread abuse, as the government claims. Labor has failed to produce any credible information from the department or anywhere else to suggest that widespread abuse exists.
Unlike Labor, we recognise the critical importance of skilled temporary migration to the Australian economy and to the wellbeing and living standards of all Australians. The coalition would never support the use of 457 skilled migration visas at the expense of Australian workers and would not tolerate any employer who tries to abuse the system.
As I have mentioned, in Leichhardt there are a wide range of businesses and organisations that benefit very much from this program. Among the hundreds of roles on the skilled occupation list, those relevant to my region include livestock and aquaculture roles, artists, professionals, tradespeople, park rangers, school teachers, university lecturers, childcare centre managers and fishery officers. However, it is hospitality and accommodation that are the keystones in our regional economy, and there are a number of roles that would not be filled if it were not for this program. From cafe and restaurant managers to chefs and cooks, to caravan, hotel and motel managers: these skilled migrants are vital and appreciated.
The Cairns Chamber of Commerce is a strong supporter of the 457 system, and it sees these visas as playing an important role in filling skill shortages, providing that the position cannot be filled locally. It recognises that our region has a small market in certain fields due to our location, particularly in higher skill positions. People holding these visas can work in Australia for up to four years, bring their families with them, and travel in and out of Australia as often as they want. This visa program exists to fill the temporary gaps and fluctuations in the market, and is very important in the tourism industry. These visas allow businesses to respond to any sudden need to fill positions. The chamber also works hard to ensure that the system has integrity and that our employers are actually doing the right thing.
I am not saying that the system is perfect by any means, but unfortunately the changes proposed by this bill fail to address any of the current flaws that I see in the system. I would like to highlight two case studies from Cairns. The first is a local Indian restaurant, Marinades, owned by Dev Rao. Dev is incredibly hard working and produces amazing food, but he has been driven to the wall because of the 457 visa situation for three reasons.
Firstly, as a result of new rules brought in, his chefs are not able to renew their 457s unless they pass an International English Language Testing System. While Dev appreciates that people living in a new country should learn the local language, the extent to which these chefs are exposed to English gives them a workable standard, but not enough to pass this very rigorous test. And understand this: these are not people coming here on full-time migration visas; they are coming here on 457 visas for up to four years. The skills that they have, particularly in the case of Dev, are skills that are picked up on the streets of places like Calcutta; they are not necessarily skills that come out of your normal trade schools and what have you.
Unfortunately, if a chef fails the test, Dev has two options: the chef can pack their bags and head back to India, or—this is really blew me away when I learnt about this—Dev must pay the chef an annual salary of $92,000, plus nine per cent super before the IELTS requirement is waived. This essentially says to the department of immigration that the chef is so important to the business that you cannot live without him. Dev did take the second option, and pays his chef what must be one of the best wages in the region. But again he is penalised because, as he says: 'I'm suffering financially. Restaurants don't make huge profit margins generally, but if I do find a candidate who has acceptable English, the department says that I'm not making enough profit, so how can I afford to be able to employ him?' They must realise that chefs in India who do speak good English are able to work in the Sheratons and other international chains. If they are that good, they do not need to leave their families and come to Australia to make the same money. Dev said that this must be addressed as the English language requirements are killing multicultural employers.
Secondly, Dev is required to ensure that his Australian employees receive industry training. Unfortunately, there is no accredited facility in Australia that teaches Indian cooking. Therefore, Dev has to create his own training modules, teach them, gain signatures from the staff to show that they have undergone the training, document all of this and then submit it to immigration. What a waste of time for a small business owner already battling staffing costs and compliance costs.
Thirdly, Dev tells me that the government-sponsored employment agencies will provide $6,000 to an employer if they give a new migrant on Centrelink benefits a job for 25 hours a week for 13 weeks. It does not matter if they do not speak a word of English; if they speak Hindi they can work in the kitchen. This is despite the fact that the chef on a 457 visa has worked for four years, understands all the health and safety laws, and yet is considered to be a risk to the community. It just does not make sense.
The second case I would like to highlight is that of the JCU dental school. This is a fantastic facility and one that I helped to establish. It trains young dentists and provides low-cost dental treatment to local residents. The dental school has five Irish dentists who, because they are not receiving enough hours at the dental clinic that brought them in on 457 visas, are volunteering their time to train students JCU students in Cairns. JCU wrote to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, to see if they could legally employ them part time and pay them to continue training their students. As they said, 'We would of course prefer to pay these dentists, as it is unreasonable to expect them to volunteer their time continually.' Unfortunately, they were refused. Why, you ask, Madam Deputy Speaker? Because, even though medical doctors are able to work for other practices in addition to the one that sponsored them on their 457, dentists are not allowed to do so. JCU wanted the guidelines changed to allow the dentists to do likewise, which surely would have been a win-win situation on all fronts. The fact that this could not happen demonstrates yet another key flaw in the 457 process.
The bill that we are debating here today seeks to amend the Migration Act with a range of new requirements. It is important to note, from the feedback from Migration Council Australia, that a number of industry groups have been universally negative towards the new labour market testing regulatory requirements. I was in this place in 1996 when the 457 visas were first introduced and labour market testing applied. We remember that it proved to be cumbersome to implement and difficult to monitor, and it was dropped by the Howard government in 2001. Now Labor wants to reintroduce it by requiring certain classes of sponsors to undertake labour market testing for Australian workers, and show evidence of it, prior to recruiting from overseas using the 457 program. Employers are concerned that it will add to costs and delay for recruiting, for no effective purpose, if reintroduced. They also note that the costs to them for recruiting 457 workers from overseas are much higher than for recruiting a local worker, and overseas recruitment therefore only occurs when there are no local workers available. This is common sense to me. No employer is going to go to the effort and expense of recruiting and assisting a worker from overseas if somebody local down the road is suitable to fill that position.
Another key element of the bill is that it establishes the powers of authorised inspectors. There are two types of inspectors: compliance staff in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the workplace inspectors from Fair Work Australia. I recognise that feedback from industry groups has been less concerned with this aspect of the bill, in that they believe that the vast majority of employers will not be impacted and that any employer abusing the program should be identified. However, it should be noted that the bill also gives inspectors coverage of workers on student and working holiday visas in low-skill occupations with employers who do not have a sponsor obligation or role as such. In my electorate, many, many young people arrive on working holiday visas and seek to earn a bit of extra cash on their travels by picking fruit or working in one of the local bars or restaurants. Of course I do not condone any employer taking advantage of young people in this situation, but we need to be very, very careful that increased compliance costs are not seen to outweigh the benefits of employing these young people.
Lastly, the bill looks to extend the period that people can seek new sponsored employment. At the moment, if a 457 worker stops working for their sponsor, they have 28 days to find new sponsored employment or they must leave Australia. The bill proposes the extension of this time period to 90 days. This is consistent with one of the recommendations of the recent Migration Council Australia survey report and it has the support of industry groups. It provides some sensible flexibility to provide workers with a more realistic opportunity to find new sponsored employment. This particular element of the bill will certainly be supported.
As a whole, it is plain to see that this attack by Labor on skilled migration is a desperate distraction from their failed border protection policies. These policies have seen almost 700 boats arrive with more than 44,200 people on board, resulting in chaos and tragedy on our borders and more than $10 billion in budget blow-outs, not to mention the opening in my electorate near Weipa of the facility at the Scherger base, which has been converted from an Air Force base to a prison colony, which I think is absolutely appalling and certainly not the purpose for which it was built.
The hypocrisy is quite blatant. The Gillard government would rather focus on discouraging skilled migrants who make a contribution from day one in favour of supporting illegal boat arrivals, who are put into the community on welfare. It just does not add up and that is why the coalition will not support this bill. We stand consistent in our policies on 457 visas and will be strong in policing our migration laws on our borders, in the community and in the workplace.
I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 and to support the outstanding contribution of the shadow minister, the member for Cook, and the subsequent statements by my coalition colleagues. What is abundantly clear to all on this side of the chamber is that the measures contained in this bill require parliamentary inquiry. As a result, I do not support the government's bill and I strongly support the amendment moved by the member for Cook.
Our nation has largely been built on skilled migration. We often hark back to the great engineering projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme that have defined our nation's character. Skilled migration has been absolutely vital to these projects. Yet the Labor government are now attempting to ram through legislation that is nothing less than an attack on skilled migrants purely for short-term political purposes. This is also a hypocritical gesture as this government are determined to belittle and demonise overseas workers at the same time that they have 457 visa holders on their own staff in the highest office in the land. If the government's rhetoric is to be believed, their own staff members are stealing Australian jobs. As they well know, this is nonsense.
The government's bill has some serious problems, not least the fact that it has no regulatory impact statement and there has not been proper consultation. Just like in so many policy areas, this government seems determined to ignore the long-term consequences of its actions in the interests of its own short-term survival. This bill contains a bizarre back-to-the-future attempt to reintroduce labour market testing, which operated from 1996 to 2001 and was found at the time to be ineffective and costly, and produced a significant delay to employer recruitment action. The whole point of 457 visas was to enable the rapid assignment of skilled workers into vacant temporary positions, not to increase red tape and stifle the economy. As stated in a press release last year, the member for McMahon, the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, said:
Skilled migrants deliver major benefits to the Australian economy in terms of contributing to economic growth and offsetting the impacts of an ageing population.
Yet here is the Prime Minister attacking 457 visas to hide the inadequacies and incompetence of their failed border protection policies, which have enabled the arrival of 44,200 people on boats and contributed more than $10 billion to the current budget deficit. We must see Labor's attack on skilled migration for what it is: a desperate distraction designed to divert attention away from the chaos and tragedy that have occurred on our borders and their failed border protection policies.
The 457 visas are a well-established class of visa in Australia. They were introduced in 1996 and since then have grown in use and proven to be highly effective in meeting skill gaps in a number of industries for large resourcing or infrastructure projects. They are the dominant component of Australia's temporary skilled migration program and were hailed by this government as international best practice in facilitating access to skilled labour in 2011. The 457 visas are designed to provide a quick response to fluctuations in demand for skilled and semiskilled workers where such demand cannot be met by the Australian workforce. They allow a business to sponsor and employ someone from outside Australia in a skilled job. People holding this visa can work in Australia for up to four years, bringing their family with them, and travel in and out of Australia as often as they want.
The 457 visa program plays an important role in securing the short- and long-term skilled migrants that Australia always needed and will need well into the future. Around 70 per cent of 457 visa holders are in professional and managerial occupations, and the remainder contribute to trade, technical and clerical positions as part of the program. As at 30 April 2013, there were 810 primary 457 visa holders in Australia, up by 20 per cent on April 2012.
Perhaps most concerning about this bill is that it is based on a false premise. The government have completely made up numbers to suggest the widespread abuse of the 457 visa scheme. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has publicly stated that there have been 10,000 cases of abuse in the program. However, he has subsequently admitted that he made this number up. He had no evidence to support it. The government have provided this House with no evidence of rorting, no inquiry from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship or from anywhere else to suggest that widespread abuse exists.
The government's own advisers say that there is no evidence of widespread rorting of the 457 skilled migration program. Demographer, Professor Peter McDonald, a member of the government's Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, has called the Prime Minister's rhetoric 'nasty'. Business, including representatives from the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, as well as the Migration Council of Australia, have further disputed Labor's claims and condemned the Prime Minister for demonising 457 skilled migration visa holders.
Temporary skilled migration is vital to the efficient operation of the labour market. It delivers significant benefits to the Australian economy. The 457 visa holders pay their own way. They pay for health care; they do not access welfare. Yet this Labor government is effectively saying they prefer illegal boat arrivals who are put into the community on welfare, but skilled migrants who make a contribution from day one pay their own way and help foster growth in our economy and in our community.
The Prime Minister and the previous minister for immigration spent years telling Australians and international audiences that they have the balance right on 457 skilled migration visas, yet now the Prime Minister campaigns in Western Sydney, telling people that the system is out of control. Interestingly, the previous minister for immigration said in 2011 that anyone who tried to tell you the 457 visa program was not working needed to take another look at the facts. The Labor Party has failed to produce any evidence that the 457 visa program is failing or is being widely abused or rorted as it currently stands. I invite the Prime Minister and all members supporting this bill to take another look at the facts.
Under Labor, 457 skilled migration visa grants have grown to their highest level ever, with 125,070 visa applications granted between 2011 and 2012. If any rorts occurred, they happened on Labor's watch. Despite the Prime Minister's numerical fabrication, 457 visa holders represent less than one per cent of the Australian workforce. Yet despite this, skilled migration has been a key driver of Australia's economic performance. Labor's eagerness to trash-talk our skilled migration program by demonising skilled migration visas has two effects: it damages our international reputation and makes a mockery of the Asian century white paper, which barely lasted the Australian summer. It demonstrates that the Prime Minister has truly lost her way and has lost touch with the community she is elected to represent and to lead.
Since 2007-08 Labor has cut resourcing for compliance work in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, including 457 monitoring, by over $20 million or 30 per cent. Monitoring visits to employers are down by 67 per cent. The number of employer sponsors formally warned has also dropped by two-thirds. Just as Labor cannot protect our borders, they cannot police the immigration system here in Australia. Unlike Labor, the coalition's position on 457 skilled migration visas is simple, clear and consistent. We recognise the critical importance of skilled temporary migration to the Australian economy and the wellbeing and living standards of all Australians.
The 457 skilled migration visa program must be well managed. It must provide rapid access to skilled workers not available in the Australian labour market. It must have strong compliance action to assure high standards of program integrity. Skilled migrants have been vital to the building of our nation. Talking down skilled migration for political gain is a desperate distraction from the disastrous border protection policies and is a Labor tactic that just will not work with the Australian public. The coalition will be strong in policing our immigration laws and our borders—in the community and in the workplace. The coalition would never support the use of 457 skilled migration visas at the expense of Australian workers and would not tolerate any employer who tried to abuse the system.
Another effect of this bill is the immense burden of regulation, obligations, compliance and enforcement that it proposes to place on employer sponsors using 457 visa programs. It represents the culmination of a union and government campaign to discredit the program and demonise foreign workers. Early this year, Minister O'Connor's Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration put forward a number of sensible housekeeping measures to improve program integrity. Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that these sensible departmental suggestions are being advanced by the government through this bill. Rather, the minister is plainly doing the bidding of the unions through labour market testing and Fair Work inspectors which position unions to play a more active role in workplaces with 457 visa holders and constrain the use of the program.
The coalition supports robust integrity in the 457 program and would support measures such as these to strengthen the program. Feedback on this program from the Migration Council of Australia and the responses of a number of industry groups to these changes have been universally negative towards the new labour market testing regulation requirements. Overall, the general view is that these changes are being driven by the union movement to improve union coverage and control of workplaces with 457 visa holders rather than being supported by any genuine evidence of widespread abuse in the program.
As mentioned, this bill re-introduces labour market testing requirements across all skilled level occupations. Under the bill, nominations from sponsors must demonstrate that they satisfy these new labour market testing requirements before a 457 visa is approved. These same labour market testing requirements applied when 457 visas were first introduced in 1996, however, they were dropped by the Howard government in 2001 after it became clear to us then that they were overly cumbersome to implement and difficult to monitor.
Employers are concerned that the proposed re-introduction of this cumbersome obligation will add to costs and delay recruitment for no effective purpose. Employers note that the costs to them of recruiting 457 workers from overseas are much higher than a local worker. Overseas recruitment therefore only occurs when there is no local worker available. The bill does not make clear the actual period of labour market testing required but it is to be set based on the nominated occupation. Clearly, the requirements for labour market testing represent a significant regulatory impost on employer sponsors, yet the bill has been granted an exemption from a regulatory impact statement by the Prime Minister on the basis of unspecified exceptional circumstances. The bill therefore excludes any assessment of the real significant employer regulatory impacts.
The new labour market testing requirement undermines the very purpose of the 457 visa program which requires rapid filling of temporary skill shortages. The ability to quickly fill the vacancy by a skilled overseas worker is a paramount feature of the program.
Indeed, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities was quoted in the Australian Financial Review as saying that when there are genuine skills shortages employers are able to quickly recruit temporary overseas workers through the 457 visa to fill skill gaps and keep the economy growing. However, the cumbersome process requirements proposed in this bill will add significantly to 457 recruitment lead times and costs. The extent of additional time and cost burdens for employers will be subject to decisions taken outside the legislation at ministerial and departmental levels on detailed aspects of the testing regime. Ultimately the time and cost burdens on employers as a result of these changes undermine the integrity of the 457 visa program and represent a desperate, ill-conceived move by a government focused too much on its short-term survival than the long-term wellbeing of the Australian economy supported by skilled migrants.
The coalition will not support this bill and is seeking referral to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislative Committee. The amendments moved by the coalition prove our consistent position on this policy issue. (Time expired)