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Gillard playing chicken with skilled migrants

  • 20 March 2013

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a crackdown on the 457 visa scheme, not a few people were left aghast.

Stakeholder organisations such as the Migration Institute, Business Council of Australia, Australian Industry Group, and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry called for the language to be toned down.

Analysts including Michael Pascoe and Bernard Keane excoriated the politicisation of the scheme. On cue, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott described the move as an 'assault on foreigners'.

There is dismay within the Labor caucus itself over the rhetoric, if not the policy. Two of the Government's own advisers on skilled immigration point out that the numbers of skilled migrants, the nature and location of their work, and the areas of skills shortage do not match the heightened rhetoric around 'queues'.

On the other hand, former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson says she 'totally agrees' with the Prime Minister.

At a glance, the Federal Government seems to have shot itself in the foot. Again.

To understand why Gillard is prosecuting the tightening of 457 visa rules so aggressively and exposing herself to claims of xenophobia, we only need look to her speech last month at the AWU national conference. She is not, she said, leader of a party called the 'Progressive', 'Moderate', or even 'Social Democratic Party', but of 'the party called the Labor Party deliberately'; 'that is where we come from, that is what we believe in, that is who we are'.

In other words, the Prime Minister is on a campaign to impress her party's blue-collar base. This campaign wasn't launched last month in Western Sydney; it was kick-started as far back as 2011 when she stated that the 'Australian Greens do not share Australian values'.

Under Gillard, Labor is shedding its angst over 'narrative' and identity by appealing to — or rather, appeasing — its 'traditional' members, many of whom have never been comfortable with the idea of foreign workers, whether outsourced or inbound. Whether it is going back to the future or merely going backwards, time will tell. It is certainly ceding whatever remains of its white-collar, progressive supporters to other parties and independents.

This much can be confirmed by Gillard's extraordinary attack on the IT industry as culprits in the overuse of the 457 visa. This attack doesn't bear scrutiny. Against the backdrop of inadequate software development training in high schools, underfunded universities, and an immature environment for venture capitalism, the number of domestic IT students