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How low can they go?

By Melissa Phillips - posted Thursday, 14 March 2013


Immigration has long been a convenient piece of machinery in any politician's toolbox. Mandatory detention was introduced in 1992 by Paul Keating's Labour government in response to the arrival of Indochinese asylum-seekers. In 2001, John Howard used the rescue of hundreds of asylum-seekers on board the MV Tampa to create the Pacific Solution that led in part to his election victory that same year. Kevin Rudd campaigned during the 2007 election to bring an end to the Pacific Solution and abolish temporary protection visas that had brought undue hardship to many asylum-seekers and refugees, and made good on those promises within a year of coming to office. With these lessons of history, it is no wonder that recently both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have inflamed debate on certain aspects of Australia's migration program. What has been surprising is the extreme direction that both parties have taken in their race-to-the-bottom to attack Australia's temporary residents and vulnerable, voiceless asylum-seekers.

The Opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison, has followed the path of many other politicians in demonising asylum-seekers. He has suggested that due to one asylum-seeker being charged with sexual assault in Sydney, all of the several thousands of asylum-seekers in the community should be deprived of the right to privacy with local police and neighbours notified of their addresses. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has backed this plan and reaffirmed his commitment to offshore processing of asylum-seekers and the re-introduction of temporary protection visas.

As the Scanlon Foundation Mapping Social Cohesion Survey has found, attitudes towards asylum-seekers are unlikely to change in the short-term with the asylum issue "exacerbat[ing] existing attitudinal divisions in Australia". Taking a tip from the Howard government political manual circa 2001, the Opposition seems set to continue to exploit the asylum-seeker issue, as it did in the previous election campaign, to garner votes from people who wrongly believe that deterrents work in matters of asylum seeker policy.

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Last year's Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers was the Prime Minister's attempt to respond to public concerns about border protection policies and reduce the rising number of deaths at sea. Part of her drawing the proverbial line in the sand on this issue included a strong commitment to community detention and the re-introduction of offshore processing. Yet as we're now seeing on her recent visit to western Sydney, Julia Gillard has been seeking new ways to attract the blue collar vote. In addition to suggesting mildly protectionist policies, Prime Minister Gillard has set her sights on temporary migrant workers and demanded a crack-down on potential abuse within the subclass 457 Temporary Worker (Skilled) Program.

The 457 visa scheme was introduced in 1996 by the Coalition government to provide a quick response to skilled labour shortages identified on the basis of employer needs. As an uncapped program (the permanent skilled and humanitarian (refugee) programs operate with quotas) the temporary skilled migration program has been growing steadily in recent years. Most 457 visa holders are professionals or technicians/trade workers taking up jobs in sectors like construction, health care and other services around the country. Visas are granted by the Department of Immigration with the 457 program, which was independently reviewed in 2008, monitored by DIAC's Compliance Team. With a few exceptions, the 457 program has been operating 'under the radar' and has been of little public interest up to now.

A work site blockade in January this year over the use of workers on 457 visas in the western Melbourne suburb of Werribee renewed interest in the temporary migration program. Following reports of a few 457 workers being flown into the worksite on helicopter while locals complained about lack of employment opportunities, the Victorian Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews called for a re-consideration of the use of the 457 visa scheme in urban areas. Since then Julia Gillard has claimed that foreign workers go the front of the jobs queue, business groups continue to argue the merits for the 457 visa program and the Migration Institute of Australia has called for less rhetoric and more balance in the debate over this program.

Certainly comments about unfair job competition and the 457 scheme undermining local conditions goes against advice made available on DIAC's own public migration blog. And her decision to deride the contribution made by foreign workers is potentially short-sighted. As analysis of temporary migration and its implication for Australia by Peter Mares of the Grattan Institute shows, a large proportion of temporary migrants actually do go on to become permanent residents. There should be no winners in this current race to the bottom as to who can be tougher on immigration matters.

Only a few weeks ago following the visit of controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders, we heard many politicians cite Australia's strong multiculturalism as a reason for the lack of any real interest in his extremist views. It is a shame to now see politicians using asylum-seekers who are denied a voice and access to Australia's Human Rights Commissioner, and temporary migrants who are taxpayers without the right to vote, as the subjects of false and misleading debate on immigration. Let's hope this year's election won't be determined on the basis of who can set back the most far the causes of multiculturalism and social cohesion.

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About the Author

Melissa Phillips is a doctoral candidate in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne and Assistant Editor, Journal of Intercultural Studies.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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