Gillard Plays The Unedifying ‘Small Australia’ Card

It’s obvious what Julia Gillard was doing when she claimed Enterprise Migration Agreements for mining projects would not favour foreign workers.

Talking to the press on Saturday, the Prime Minister said, “I can assure everyone that we will be putting the interests of Australians at the front of the queue and we will be putting Australians looking for work at the front of the queue.”

Ah, yes. Our old friend The Queue.

There’s not much more evocative in Australian politics than The Queue. For more than a decade it’s neatly divided asylum seekers into moral categories. The virtuous wait in refugee camps; cheaters hop on boats.

Even more than most politicians, Gillard thinks carefully about what she says. Her advisors are smart. When she brings up The Queue in the context of immigration, it’s not likely to be a slip of the tongue. Language matters. This language is about those who are deserving and those who aren’t.

Especially considering that just like the Refugee Queue, the Mining Jobs Queue is fictional. It doesn’t exist. As Peter Martin pointed out in Fairfax papers on Monday, Enterprise Migration Agreements are used for work Australians simply don’t want. There can be no queue if nobody is standing in it.

Most press about this furious little debate has focused on how it makes Julia Gillard look weak, and her hold on the Lodge look weaker. But the debate reveals something more important than the leadership soap opera.

Think back to the 2010 federal election. Few things in that campaign were more dispiriting than the “small Australia” doctrine.

Both the Coalition and the ALP tried to link resentment about asylum seekers to resentment about traffic congestion. The whole thing was farcical. Gillard took Western Sydney MP David Bradbury to Darwin to hunt for refugee boats. And the opposition, trying to demonstrate just how serious they were about slowing immigration, proposed to rename the Productivity Commission the “Productivity and Sustainability Commission”.

The last few days have made it clear the small Australia doctrine was not a temporary anomaly, confined to a weird election held under weird circumstances. It’s no longer just asylum seekers that are controversial. Bipartisan immigration scepticism now looks like it could be an enduring feature of the Australian political landscape.

The Enterprise Migration Agreement is going ahead. But the announcement sent the Government into a tailspin. In Parliament on Monday, Gillard didn’t want to say whether she supported the agreement. How extraordinary: it’s her own Government’s policy.

The unions are opposed to the migration agreements, and Gillard owes her position to them. But unions make all sorts of ambit claims which the Labor government pay no attention to. This one was apparently too big a deal to dismiss.

So the worst part is that instead of ignoring the unions’ shrill protest, the Prime Minister has all but apologised for thinking about foreign workers.

From Gillard’s press conference on Saturday:

My concern here, and the concern of the Labor Government, is always to put Australian jobs first … we put Australian jobs first and now we are putting Aussie jobs first too … we’re working to make sure Aussies get jobs first … we are skilling Australians first and getting them the jobs first … Australians will always come first in getting these job opportunities.

And with the hastily announced Jobs Board (a mining jobs website with the purpose of favouring domestic workers over foreign ones) the Government is ratifying the union movement’s claim that immigration crowds Australians out of work. This is a staple argument made by opponents of immigration, and it is completely wrong. No Australian Prime Minister should indulge it.
Yet this time last year it seemed we’d gotten over small Australia.

The May 2011 budget was a repudiation of the previous year’s excesses. It was then that the Government introduced the Enterprise Migration Agreements policy in the first place. Wayne Swan also announced another 16,000 immigration positions, the majority of which were skilled migrants sent to rural areas.

Australia’s great project has always been to attract more workers and a bigger population. The 2011 budget resumed that course.

But at that stage the next election was far in the distance. Now one is closer – with or without the Thomson and Slipper scandals – and the Labor government is much more frail. Gillard knows if she doesn’t play the Aussie-jobs-for-Aussie-workers card in the future campaign, then the Coalition certainly will. If the past is any guide, they probably will anyway.

The good money says the next election will be played out on the depressing terms of the election of 2010 – a populist, unedifying backlash against population growth and immigration. Australia will not be better off for it.