Immigration Election: We’ve Been Here Before

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will “put Aussie workers first”. Opposition spokesman for immigration Scott Morrison has called for “behaviour protocols” for asylum seekers in the community.

The 2013 election doesn’t just resemble the election of 2010. No, it looks like it will be an exact replica.

Both major parties made immigration central to their campaigns in 2010. Julia Gillard explicitly told the electorate that she did not believe in a “big Australia”. The Coalition went further.

The “stop the boats” chant has always been in part a proxy for more general concerns about population and infrastructure. The Opposition proposed to rename the Productivity Commission to the Productivity and Sustainability Commission, with a specific brief “to address population sustainability issues”.

(It’s hard to say what has become of this ludicrous proposal. The renaming appears in the Coalition policy notes leaked to Crikey mid last year, but not in the official, less detailed policy document in January this year. Perhaps we can expect it to be relaunched.)

So here we are back in Western Sydney talking about immigration. It’s as if no time has lapsed between the last election and today. We’re watching another game of rhetorical one-upmanship about foreigners.

Labor’s target is the 457 visa scheme. This class of visa allows businesses to bring in skilled workers temporarily where no local workers can be found. Launching her Rooty Hill week on Sunday night, the Prime Minister said she would stop “foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back”.

What nonsense. The Treasurer – who appeared with Gillard at Rooty Hill – is fond of reminding us that Australia is at nearly full employment.

Anyway, the idea that it is easier for a company to import workers on a 457 visa than hire readily available local ones is absurd. The 457 program is a complex regulatory process.

You can only hire a 457 worker for certain occupations. You have to satisfy the Immigration Department that you have spent a certain percentage of your payroll on approved training programs for Australian citizens. You have to demonstrate a strong commitment to hiring locals.

And, most importantly, if you hire someone on a 457 visa you have to offer them “no less than favourable” wages and conditions of employment as an Australian could expect. The program is specifically designed to stop businesses undercutting local wages with migrants.

With such complexity, 457 visas tend to be used only for higher-end jobs. Sixty-five per cent of all people who received a 457 visa in the last six months are either managers or professionals -the data is available here.

Their average 457 salary is $90,000 a year. In Western Australia, the 457 average is $104,000. (The average salary in Australia is around $72,000.)

On New Matilda yesterday, CFMEU boss Dave Noonan said his union is worried about workers being exploited on 457 visas. Employers sometimes try to skirt their legal obligations. This is a fair concern. Laws should be obeyed. Contracts should be honoured.

But that’s not the message Gillard was selling in Western Sydney. No, she was trying to stoke resentment. How else to describe a claim that foreigners have it better – are given better places in the queue – than locals?

The Coalition’s target is asylum seekers. They’re selling pretty much the same message. Scott Morrison’s claim that asylum seekers need “behaviour protocols… with clear negative sanctions for breaches” in light of an alleged sexual assault by a Sri Lankan asylum seeker. This is low and opportunistic.

Obviously, the only behaviour protocol in a liberal democracy is the law. Sexual assault is against the law. The clear negative sanction for breaching Australian laws against sexual assault is prosecution.

For the Coalition, Morrison’s comments are counterproductive in two ways. First, they undermine the argument that stopping the boats is solely about protecting the lives of refugees. Those who legitimately hold that view should be very annoyed by the Morrison proposals.

Second, they illustrate the Opposition doesn’t understand why it is in a winning lead. Julia Gillard’s Government is not terminal because it is too nice to asylum seekers. It’s terminal because of the fallout from the leadership spill, and the confusion and compromise which have crippled both policy and message. Gillard has a crisis of legitimacy she can’t shake. If a new Coalition government confuses what they campaigned on with why they won, Tony Abbott won’t last long in the Lodge.

On the Drum in February I argued the Government’s protectionist manufacturing policy isalmost entirely symbolic. The 2010 election was fought on these sorts of symbolic grounds. Julia Gillard may have declared her antipathy to big Australia but did nothing about it. Hers was a message for punters. It wasn’t instructions for legislators.

Both Gillard and Morrison’s comments are symbolic too. The only policy foundation behind Gillard’s claim that she plans to push Aussie workers to the front of the queue is a few tepid compliance adjustments to the 457 visa program. The Immigration Department thinks the scheme is working pretty well. The Rudd and Gillard governments have broken immigration records.

And the asylum seeker debate has been so fudged that it isn’t clear how much harder a Coalition could crack down on refugees. It certainly isn’t clear what policy goal that crackdown would achieve. What would be the purpose of imposing behaviour protocols, except as a political marketing tool?

You can almost forgive the 2010 election for its eccentricities – a new prime minister went to a quick election and everyone had to improvise. But the parties have had nearly three years to offer something more substantial than anti-immigration resentment.