Paul Bongiorno
Political games over refugees and 457 visas

This weekend, on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Lima, Peru, Malcolm Turnbull is seeking some urgent counsel from Barack Obama. He is anxious to get the outgoing US president’s assessment of the incoming one’s likely response to their refugee deal. The anxiety is fed by the completely unexpected “change point” in American politics.

The prospect of Donald Trump being the next resident of the White House was an improbable nightmare when Turnbull first broached the subject of the United States taking off our conscience some or all of the refugees stuck interminably on Manus Island and Nauru. Obama was sympathetic at their Oval Office meeting in January. But it took until September for the deal to be sealed. It wasn’t announced then because the presidential election campaign was still in its final months. No one wanted to risk the prospect of this humanitarian solution becoming mired in the ugliness of a campaign that demonised Muslims and illegal immigrants.

And make no mistake, it was a real risk. If your imagination doesn’t stretch to Trump finding it bizarre that Washington would agree to take Muslim refugees that were unacceptable to Australia, then you are in a minority. The head of the influential Centre for Immigration Studies in America, Mark Krikorian, told Fairfax: “This is the kind of thing the Trump administration will nix on day one.” He even predicted a “firestorm” of opposition from anti-immigration activists.

Privately, our immigration officials are worried that the window of opportunity could be shut before the extensive US vetting of the refugees is anywhere near complete. Sadly and ironically, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has assessed this wretched cohort as among the most vulnerable and in need of urgent resettlement. The trauma suffered in the two remote island camps has left many very damaged. How they will then pass stringent American health checks is in itself a worry.

The Trump change point, as Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong calls it, could stymie what is in fact a significant changing of tune for the better. One of the first things Turnbull did when he became prime minister was ditch Abbott’s punitive view that Australia should not seek resettlement for these boat people in countries such as New Zealand, the US or Canada. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop were told the ban on First World countries was off.

But even if Hillary Clinton had run a better campaign and had overcome the baggage of being seen not as a change agent but as a flawed establishment figure, the US solution was not without risk. And Turnbull is well aware of the charge that it puts “sugar back on the table” for people smugglers. To overcome this, he has gone to inordinate lengths to stop even one boat-borne refugee breaching Australian borders. He put in place a “ring of steel” to rival Trump’s proposed Mexican wall. Last Sunday, surrounded by our top military brass as he toured Border Force operations HQ in Canberra, he said: “We have put in place the largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet Australia has ever deployed.”

Turnbull’s rhetoric inflates the threat of desperate, ragged men, women and children on leaky boats to that of an invading army. It certainly goes nowhere towards giving a saner perspective to what is a worldwide humanitarian crisis. Fuelling Turnbull’s anxiety is the prospect that even if he manages to empty our two Pacific gulags, others just as distressed will make the perilous attempt for better lives.

The prime minister seized on the delivery of the first of 12 state-of-the-art Poseidon surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft to take out some political insurance. If the billions being spent on Operation Sovereign Borders fail to keep the boats stopped, he argues, it will because of Bill Shorten’s refusal to support legislation going to the senate next week. It proposes to permanently ban visitor visas for any of these boat people even if they become American citizens down the track.

While Labor is prepared to give legislative force to a permanent ban on settlement, it is still unconvinced the visitor visa ban is anything other than an attempted political wedge. The fact the government won’t even consider an amendment – ditching the visa ban but keeping the settlement one in place – gives strength to this view. It is also a sure sign that Labor believes its political stocks are high enough to withstand the assault.

In fact, the opposition believes the government’s political responses to the Trump triumph and to some of the lessons to come out of it have been inept. The release of the official picture of Turnbull standing as he made the prized phone call to the president-elect was symptomatic, in this view, of a grovelling response to a politician a majority of Australians despise.

Rather than being cowed by the Trump victory and Turnbull’s attack on him for earlier calling the Republican “barking mad”, Shorten has doubled down. In three major speeches since the fateful Tuesday election, he has reaffirmed the alliance as more significant and bigger than any individual. To Labor’s Victorian state conference, he said that does not mean changing who we are, or trading away what we believe. He then repudiated Trump’s notorious campaign lowlights: “It is never acceptable to mock people with disability. I will never support disrespecting women, nor will we ever support disrespecting the unemployed, migrants, veterans or Muslims.”

When Penny Wong published an opinion piece in the Fairfax papers citing an assessment in The Economist that Trump was one of the top 10 global risks, Turnbull attacked her. As a member of Labor’s Left, he said, she was giving expression to that faction’s “always being uncomfortable with the alliance”. Wong is certainly uncomfortable with Trump, whom she warned of in light of his record: “We should now know better than to simply discount that he might do what he promised.”

Wong called for a careful and dispassionate consideration of Australia’s foreign policy. She wrote that “defining an independent foreign policy within an alliance framework is now a more complex task”. That, of course, forces one to ask whether the Turnbull government wants to have an independent foreign policy. Former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser had been advocating for a more robust assertion of our national interest in his later years. Paul Keating, never a screaming lefty, told the ABC’s 7.30 it was time to “cut the tag”.

Perhaps learning from Trump, Turnbull ignored the nuances and accused Wong of moving away from our most trusted and most enduring ally to put our country at risk. But his real target was Bill Shorten. The prime minister said Labor was hopelessly divided on national security and border protection and in the same breath accused Shorten of the “most extraordinary hypocrisy” on wanting restrictions on 457 visas for foreign workers. His hypocrisy charge was based on the fact that, as employment minister, Shorten had issued more of the visas than anyone before him. Turnbull dismissed the Shorten campaign on these temporary work visas as a distraction from Labor’s internal divisions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. On the very day Turnbull lashed out, the government announced its own restrictions on the visa. The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said they were “about reducing competition from overseas workers for those Australians who are actively looking for work”. Labor says there are one million 457 visa holders, including carpenters, cooks and nurses, accounting for 5.7 per cent of the workforce. Shorten says when he increased them there was a mining boom; the new reality demands a different response. Despite the denigration of Shorten for transparently and opportunistically taking a leaf out of Trump’s book, Labor ran a fierce line on the exploitation of the visa at the expense of Australians in the federal election campaign, especially in Queensland.

Shorten didn’t need Trump to prompt him to personally take his message to the very communities with high unemployment that are resentful. Just as Trump did at the outset of his campaign to win his party’s nomination and then the presidency, Shorten is holding town hall meetings in affected areas. This week, the Labor leader made his 20th visit to regional Queensland for the year.

These visits considerably lift his profile; he gives regional radio and TV interviews, has opinion pieces in the local papers, and presses flesh with the locals. At the election, Labor won a regional Queensland seat and came close in others. The LNP’s George Christensen needed no convincing. As Shorten arrived in Mackay, a key city in the Queensland MP’s electorate, Christensen called for an end to the visas in his bailiwick. Pauline Hanson chipped in, wrongly accusing Labor of stealing her policy.

Leaving aside his coarse misogyny, bigotry and racism, Trump connected with an angry, struggling poor and middle America. Surely the lesson for our politicians is to do it without brazenly exploiting people’s fears and prejudices. It is one thing to megaphone the plight of voters; it is quite another to address it. Change point or not, how Trump does that without destroying the world order as we know it in trade and security is the worrying question.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 19, 2016 as "The scheming power of visa".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.