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Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013

24 June 2013


Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (18:15): 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)

Debate adjourned.

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